The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Amazing (disheartening) to realise that it’s been over half a year since i last posted. What happened? It’s hard to say really. It was winter and a bleak one at that. I have been busy – seeming to get ever busier – at work and also at play. I also found myself intimidated by my own expectations – blogging had gone from being fun to an obligation.

Anyway…

I decided i’d get through the winter via live music and i certainly kept my promise. I’ve lost count of how many gigs and concerts i’ve been to over the past months but they include some that were truly outstanding, beginning only a few days after my last post with the tenth anniversary celebration of Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble up at the Arts Depot in Finchley. Three sets ranging from their early Arabic and Latin influenced stuff through to a Charlie Parker tribute with acerbic strings and then a full throttle hard bop set that i had to leave part way through or else i’d have been marooned in North London all night.

THE free jazz rhythm section, William Parker and Hamid Drake followed at the Vortex in early December, playing with with Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad. Had to leave that one early because of the snow. Remember the snow? The memory seems almost unreal after this bright, beautiful spring.

Charles Gayle, blowing his horn like a hurricane at Cafe Oto back in January was another great gig as were: Thomas Adès conducting the London Sinfonietta in February, Indian diva Asha Bhosle and Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen (both in March) and the Steve Reich festival i attended this last weekend. This last event was fantastic both in the quality (not to mention quantity) of the music and the atmosphere. It felt like the Steve Reich Proms.

The problem with writing about concerts though is that ultimately, unless the event was recorded, you were either there or you weren’t. It’s a different thing from exhibitions where you can at least post a photo or two of some of the works on show. Not only that but it always seems harder to evoke sound in words. And finally, atmosphere, that most intangible of substances, is so much more important at a concert which is – even when you’re in a room full of strangers – a collective experience in a way that an exhibition isn’t.

Music listened to alone is such a different experience. What you lose in immediacy you gain in privacy – in the chance to open up fully and individually. Listening to a recording over and over again you unpeel the layers of details that make up what seemed initially to be an indissoluble whole. You understand more.

Still, there is something you don’t understand until you hear music live and that’s is its capacity for coming to life. A recording is one manifestation of a piece, one life. Each time the music is played it takes on another life. It comes into being afresh for the performers and the audience present.

On Sunday morning Theatre of Voices performed Steve Reich’s Proverb and David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, both of which i’ve (now) got as recordings to and have been listening to (obsessively). The recordings are magnificent; yet on Sunday Theatre of Voices took Proverb to another level again. Radiant was the word the festival director used to describe their performance. It was. And then some.

This is one of the great ironies for me: that i love live music above all art forms and yet i loathe crowds – and my definition of a ‘crowd’ is six people. As the old saying goes, i’m caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea!

And who knows which is which…?

What makes things memorable?

What makes things memorable? Why is it that when you cast your mind back you can recover a memory of a walk down a dark street but not the day that preceded it? Obviously, some things are inherently memorable – most people are going to remember getting married, giving birth, surviving a plane crash – but what about all those other memories that seem to settle for no reason at all? The sign for the public library (in English and Welsh) at the top of the street in which my Nan lived for instance. Or the smell of the school changing rooms at middle school – but not the ones at high school.

What for that matter makes things special? Again, for experiences such as the first time you find yourself in love there’s no mystery. But why do we – or I at any rate – sometimes get the same feeling on a walk i’ve done a dozen or more times before through a landscape which, while interesting, is hardly breathtaking?

Sometimes i suppose there’s no real answer. The feeling of specialness is as much about where you are mentally as physically. Other times though i can at least guess part of the reason and that’s the thrill of being surprised. It happened to me last week when i went to Cafe Oto to a gig dubbed ‘dj sniff meets Evan Parker, John Edwards & Mark Sanders’, the latter three being free jazz/improv musicians. I had no idea what i was letting myself in for; i’d bought the ticket on a whim. Evan Parker, the saxophonist, was someone i’d heard before but felt i hadn’t heard the best of and the dj (in lower case) sounded vaguely interesting.

Thank God for whims: the musicians were wonderful and the dj (a young Japanese man wearing a deerstalker-like hat) was a revelation. The gig was superb – more than that, it was special. This was one of those nights when you practically float home and the next morning wake up feeling overjoyed just to be alive. All the odder, you might think, given that the music was challenging to put it mildly: jagged and intense, raging and opaque.

The first set had each of the acoustic musicians taking it turns to improvise with dj sniff, a turntable musician (as he calls himself), who showed that it really is possible to make new music* from other people’s music – and from all sorts of sounds. At one point he seemed to be playing a dog bark and part of a scream, at others he took drum fills and created new drum fills out of them! The second set brought all four musicians together and was even wilder than the first. Saxophone, drums, double bass (plucked, bowed, slapped, scraped) and that impassive whirlwind at the turntable.

Still, what i remember isn’t necessarily what i want to remember. I’d like to be able to recall in detail the contours of the improvisations that i heard; instead my most vivid memory is trying to find the train station afterwards**. Oh, well…

* And i do mean ‘new music’. This was as far from a simple remix or even a mash up, as a symphony is from a medley of songs.
** Actually, it’s more specific than that: what I remember is the zig-zagging dark street I walked along when I left the cafe.

Uncertainty and uncertainty

Well, here we are – another month has come and gone. It feels at the moment as though i’m in limbo, waiting to see whether i’ll be one of those who loses their job in the Great Purge of 2010/11 and, even if i’m not, waiting to see what other nastiness may come knocking at my door. And yet in other ways i’m having the time of my life: i seem to be doing more and going to more places than in any year i can remember. Uncertainty can be motivating as well as paralysing – in different areas of the same person’s life.

After a summer spent touring art museums and the like my spirit appears to have turned to music – live music that is, something i love, ironically enough, because of the uncertainty inherent in a live performance. Even with the greatest of musicians something can go wrong or just go right without going anywhere special. But when things do go somewhere special… what a feeling to be there and hear it happen!

In the past couple of months i’ve heard Central Asian devotional music, attended a day devoted to contemporary Classical composer Helmut Lachenmann and danced in the aisles at a Ruby Turner gig. And much much more. Probably the highlights, apart from the events i’ve already mentioned, were a recital by Classical trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger at the Wigmore Hall and a performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass by the London Symphony Orchestra. Hardenberger is the ultimate trumpet virtuoso and, although that doesn’t mean he’s the ultimate trumpet player, in recital he is thrilling – almost luminescent in his skill. As for the LSO’s performance of the Glagolitic Mass, i was sat behind more double bass players than i could count (need i say more?) and the choir were fantastic. The mass itself felt more like a Slavic pagan orgy than anything Christian. As many commentators have pointed out it’s a mad, throwling blur of anguish and passion.

Now Christmas is approaching (courtesy of the retail sector, it seems to advance on us earlier each year). Although i can feel a wariness about the future dampening down my normal joy at the thought of carols and Christmas trees, it can’t put the fire out altogether. There’s a part of me that is eternally about seven or eight years old, that jumps with joy at the sight of crepe paper decorations, a steel tray of satsumas and brazil nuts, a wrapped present.

Yet of course i’m most certainly not seven or eight years old any more.  Nothing brings that home to me more than the fact that my brother – my little brother – will be forty next week. He of the angelic voice (which i heard once again just recently on a tape of us my dad made of as children), sticky out ears and solemn smile.

Time moves on – i’m reminded of a poem by Shelley, The Daemon of the World, with its recurring line:

The magic car moved on

I remember reading the poem for the first time aged about sixteen and being amused at the image of the ‘car’ which i couldn’t help picturing as a ghostly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, even though i knew Shelley was using the word to mean ‘chariot’. I thought the poem was beautiful and it certainly spoke to my inner goth – and most teenagers have an inner goth, whatever subgroup they may belong to – but the heart of the poem, its message about the transience of life, passed me by. That car has well and truly ‘moved on’ for me.

My dad’s eldest brother, Uncle P, who has always been the ‘alpha male’ of the family and who terrified me when i was small, is seriously ill with Pancreatic Cancer. My mum says he has lost so much weight he’s shrunk to almost nothing. After much procrastination i finally phoned him last month – but then couldn’t think of anything to say. What do you talk about to someone staring death in the face? How can you talk about future plans to someone who may not have a future? And how can you ask someone what they’ve been up to when you know what they’ve been up to is coping with chemo and  lying exhausted on the sofa?

The cliché at times like these is to reflect on how we should all be grateful for our health and not get sidetracked by the little things – like money for example. Which is true on one level but it’s also true that as long as we have our health we’ve got no alternative than to concern ourselves with money. The living must eat and they also need somewhere to eat – not to mention sleep.

Beyond that there are also bigger issues of money. The changes on the far horizon to the Higher Education system augur fewer places and higher fees which in turn raises the spectre that my son may never be able to go to university despite his passion for learning and hard work in self-studying. I’m determined that he give getting a place his best shot because i know he’ll do brilliantly if he can just get in somewhere decent but i really don’t know what his chances are – any more than i know what my chances are of still having a job this time next year. And yet at the same time i’m excited at seeing him at the beginning of adulthood, full of wonder at how clued up and capable he is.

So it goes on. Uncertainty and uncertainty. Worry and anticipation. Thrills and foreboding.

Paris… finally

Last month i realised a long time ambition to travel to Paris by Eurostar. What had took me so long? More than the cost it was the perception that Paris was far away. I couldn’t just nip over on the train for the day; yet that is exactly what i ended up doing. It was disorienting to find that this strange city, so different from London, wasn’t far away at all – at least not via high speed train: St Pancras International to the Gare du Nord took just over two hours. Not the most thrilling of journeys, mind: grass, concrete and barbed wire mostly.

I’m not sure what i expected Paris to be like but i know i approached it in a spirit of trepidation. Would it be too big, too busy to be enjoyable? Would the people be as unwelcoming as their reputation suggested? Would it be all Tourist Sights? Or would it feel just like anywhere – that is just like nowhere, just another city full of shops and streets?

In the event it was neither as overwhelming as i’d feared, nor as different as i’d expected… and yet in some ways more different. Walking down from the station i first passed a fifty-something man clad in slit-sided white pantaloons and a tight fitting gold lamé top and then found myself in a street full of Asian shops – that’s Asian in the British sense, i.e. South Asian. There were places with names like “Wembley Foods”. For a moment i felt as though i’d got on a train going the wrong way and ended up in Birmingham or Manchester instead!

But no, i truly was in Paris. Little Pakistan gave way to Middle Eastern shops and then i began to see signs to the Pompidou Centre. This houses the Museum of Modern Art and was on my list of probably-must-see sights. First though it was time to get coffee. When i’d visited France back in the 80s as a teenager cafe owners never seemed to speak English; but this time the proprietor switched to my language the instant he heard my accent. Nor did he seem particularly self-conscious or resentful about this (my other memory of communicating with the French in the 80s was that when they did speak English they gave the impression it was a great concession on their part).

On to the Museum which had some magnificent sculptures by Giacometti, Arp and Calder. The big discovery however was a sculptor i hadn’t heard of called Etienne-Martin: his work included strange sculpted ‘coats’ which reminded me of the armour that Samurai used to wear. In an immensely pretentious section celebrating porn as art i came across a poem i liked. I wrote down a fragment of it:

My image leaves the city… It crushes the fruit against its breasts / It spreads sand over its stomach / It slides fish in between its legs

Love the line about the fish. The artist (and poet?) was called Evelyn Axell.

After the museum i went to see the Seine. To my eyes it was a rather ordinary looking river for such a magnificent city but i did like the way the main road ran alongside it, much lower down than the city itself. The traffic seemed to flow by the city, rather than through it. And the bridges decorated with the heads of lions: wonderful. There were also pet shops – lots of them. I found that amazing, charming even. Think about it: can you imagine coming across streets of little neighbourhood style pet shops in a street right in the centre of London?

Notre Dame Cathedral is on one of the islands in the Seine. It was a disappointing place. From the salvation candles which were available at varying prices depending on the quality of the saint through to the priest waiting in a booth which resembled one of those cubicles you see at banks the whole thing felt like a money-making enterprise. There was nothing spiritual about the cathedral; it felt more like an IKEA store or garden centre, especially with the crowds snaking through the aisles.

The Louvre wasn’t disappointing, but it was bl**dy frustrating! I spent most of my time there lost. Still, i did get to see the Mona Lisa which isn’t as small as i’d been told. The bright colours of the Renaissance paintings in that part of the museum are wonderful but it was far too packed with tourists. I preferred the serenity of the Ancient World – even if, as with the British Museum, the wealth of exhibits is really a testament to colonial looting. Best of all were the turquoise tinted friezes in the Assyrian section. I also visited the special exhibition which traced the history of Saudi Arabia: from prehistoric stone tools through to early Islamic gravestones and beyond.

Then it was back to the Gare du Nord to catch the train home. So much remained unseen! Yet Paris did have one last surprise in store for me: the Gare du Nord has the most extraordinary installation – part sculpture, part machine, part dance, part dream. Impossible to describe, impossible not to watch.

Two more hours or so and i was back in London which felt like a much bigger, fiercer city than Paris despite being much more familiar to me. In fact, what struck me about the latter was that it felt less like a big city and more like a blend of small towns, most of which i never got to see. Next time though…

Why don’t people like Classical Music?

A month or two ago i read a history of the London Symphony Orchestra. A revelation, not least finding out how “Rock’n’Roll” some of its musicians have been – off-stage, if not on. It certainly made me want to hear more of their music and more Classical Music generally. It seems i’m one of a dwindling band however: one of the themes that dominates the latter part of the book is the idea that Classical Music is in crisis: its audiences are growing older while its repertoire remains dominated by music that was mostly written in the 18th and 19th centuries. The author also suggests that audiences are becoming less educated about the music they’re listening to.

Assuming this is true – and it sounds broadly correct to me – why should it be so? Classical Music is supposed to be one of the great achievements of Western culture so why should it struggle in this way?

Yesterday i read a blog which suggested that one of the genre’s biggest problems is its failure to engage with the popular music of the 20th Century. Earlier composers may have been happy to invoke the feel of folk music but most of their modern descendants seem to try to avoid acknowledging that Rock, Reggae, Electronica and so on exist.  Even more remarkable is the blind spot many demonstrate in relation to Jazz and to non-Western Music. Indeed composers and musicians often talk of “music” as though Classical Music was the only form in existence*.

This is a conceit which is almost guaranteed to irritate fans of other kinds of music. It also has another effect: in separating Classical Music so decisively from any other musical genre its would-be guardians actually make it harder for newcomers to connect with it. They don’t just keep its enemies at bay, they do the same to possible allies. If you don’t speak the language, know the references, accept the absolute aesthetic superiority of this musical form then you’re liable to be made to feel like an interloper: as though your opinions aren’t valid and your concert hall etiquette leaves something to be desired.

The blogger mentioned above also points out that the refusal to engage with popular music means that Classical Music lacks the sounds which make up most younger people’s sound worlds. How important is this? I think it doesn’t help matters – especially the lack of a strong rhythmic pulse. This is more of a problem in later music rather than earlier, which means ironically enough that many younger listeners find Bach more accessible than Beethoven – and definitely more accessible than Boulez.

Equally important i think is the way that Classical Music has identified itself (or allowed itself to be identified) so strongly with the old white/European/upper class cultural elite of the western world. It has fallen victim to a  rejection of that elite’s claims to hegemony. This has wider implications: whereas the refusal of a folk musician to embrace electronic sounds may be perceived as a mark of authenticity, the same attitude in Classical Music is seen as evidence that it’s out of touch, anachronistic, etc.

And then there’s the fact that Classical Music is harmonically complex and often extremely abstract. Its works – concertos, sonatas, symphonies and so on – are structured in very distinct (and to an outsider very perplexing) ways. Worse still the titles of these works provide little sense of what they are about or what they might offer us: 5th Symphony, Opus 28. Any added musical information (“Andante”, “Allegro”) is usually  in Italian! Audiences are increasingly unwilling to make the effort to do the work needed to be able to penetrate this mystery. As many people have said we live in an age of instant gratification. Mind you, we also live in an age of information overload and ever-increasing work pressures: tired, stressed people aren’t in the best place for studying music. And the same pressure on the school system means that there are often fewer chances to learn an instrument or learn about music generally than there were in previous decades.

Still… still… still… i listen to a Bach cantata or Beethoven piano concerto or even one of Rautavaara’s works and i can’t believe that people wouldn’t enjoy them if they gave them a go.

* Although this is changing slowly (too slowly?)

The us and them of comedy

Two books which i read within days of each other have got me thinking about comedy – or about British comedy anyway – and modern Britain in general. One of the books was a biography of the singer-comic-ukelele player George Formby who was once the country’s top box office draw. The other was a book about the work of the mysterious Banksy, graffiti artist cum social commentator of our times.

George Formby was your classic Northern comedian. His comedy was as broad as his Lancashire accent; there was nothing political or sophisticated about it. To me though the most important thing about Formby was that his humour was ‘us’ humour. By that i mean he located himself inside the group he was laughing at. Even when he joked about idiot superiors they were ‘our’ idiot superiors. And most of his fans probably thought he was as simple as his stage persona – certainly he never seems to have gone to any trouble to disabuse them of the notion.

Increasingly though comedy seems to be of the ‘them’ variety. The comedian removes himself from the people he’s mocking, observing them as though through a window rather than from in their midst, and tries to remove himself from the joke too. When he makes himself the joke – for example Ricky Gervais as David Brent – then he is careful to cultivate an off-stage persona which disavows the stupidity of the character he plays. No-one wants to be seen as a Fool anymore.

Why is that? A big part of the reason in my opinion is that no-one feels safe enough. The spirit of our time is cynical rather than sentimental. Some people would say more truthful or more honest but cynicism is  not more truthful: grey-tinted shades distort just as much as rose-tinted glasses. Where before people kept unpalatable truths about dysfunctional marriages and back-street abortions hidden from view and concealed their ‘dark side’, now people fear to be exposed as caring too much, trusting too simply or believing too sincerely.

Banksy’s work is often extremely funny. As i looked at one piece after another though i noticed how often the humour seemed to be used as a tool to protect the artist from being mocked for his convictions. He says something serious with one of his stencils and then immediately inserts something humorous as if to assert “But i’m not being earnest. I’m not one of them.” He makes his point and then exits before he can get caught.

It’s ironic because Banksy, like most modern comedians, considers himself a progressive – meaning he wants to move society forward. Yet few things hamper social action more than this withdrawal from ‘us’.  It’s all their fault and we can’t do anything because they have all the power. But – hey! – at least we can laugh at them.

Steve Jobs for Pope?

Last week i found myself wondering whether Apple aren’t the Catholic Church to Microsoft’s C of E. Think about it. Unloved and uninspiring as the Anglican Church may be, people have historically relied on it to do the necessary business of baptising, marrying and burying them. Ditto Microsoft for office work.

The Catholic Church does the same stuff as the C of E but somehow comes across as slicker and more opulent and also – in Britain at any rate – has a certain underdog glamour. The religion of oppressed Irish peasants and all that. Ditto Apple in comparison with Microsoft. Their stuff costs more but is stylish. And somehow – or so it’s implied – choosing Apple means you’re a bit of a maverick, rather than a company bod.

Like the Catholic Church (in the past if not now) and unlike the C of E, Apple succeed in inspiring fanatical loyalty in their believers. Indeed this is where these thoughts of mine originated. In a fit of optimism last week i decided to upgrade the operating system on my iPhone to the latest version, ios4. Not only did i lose my contacts, settings, passwords and data but i also discovered that my backup had been overwritten by another backup, apparently initiated spontaneously by iTunes.

Nightmare, but not especially amazing. I’ve had plenty of IT disasters before. What was amazing were the attitudes on display in answers to the desperate pleas for help that had been posted by people who’d gone down this road before me (and suffered similar data losses). Over and over again these sinners were admonished for having the temerity to suggest that Apple hadn’t tested the upgrade properly for the older 3G iPhone, for daring to suggest that an Apple backup is perhaps not all it should be and for in any way suggesting that Steve Jobs is not the Son of God. OK, i made that last one up.

The more i think about it the more it all makes sense. Linux users, of course, are the Protestants of IT, ranging from Methodists (Ubuntu) to crazy holy rollers (obscure distro of your choice).