The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Disheartening to realise that it’s been over half a year since i last posted. What happened? It’s hard to say really. I have been busy. I also found myself intimidated by my own expectations – blogging had gone from being fun to an obligation.

It was also winter and a bleak one at that. I hate winter, dread its arrival, count the days till it’s over and every year try to come up with some new strategy to make it more bearable. This winter I promised myself i’d go out regularly to hear live music. I go through phases of going out to gigs and concerts. I get into the habit and then i get out of it.

My problem is the rest of the audience. It’s one of life’s great ironies for me: i love live music above all art forms but loathe crowds – and bear in mind my definition of a ‘crowd’ is six people. It reminds me of the old saying about being caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

In the end I did keep my promise. In fact, I lost count of how many things I went to. Some were truly outstanding, including the tenth anniversary celebration of Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble up at the Arts Depot in Finchley. Three sets, including a Charlie Parker tribute with acerbic strings, it was a beautiful marathon of a gig. I had to leave part way through the third set or else I’d have been marooned in North London all night.

Another one to remember was hearing THE free jazz rhythm section, William Parker and Hamid Drake  at the Vortex in early December, along 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.

Other highlights included Charles Gayle, blowing his horn like a hurricane at Cafe Oto , Thomas Adès conducting the London Sinfonietta, Indian diva Asha Bhosle and jazz bassist Avishai Cohen. Then there was the Steve Reich festival i attended last weekend. A fantastic experience, it felt like the Steve Reich Proms.

Sadly, the problem with writing about concerts is that, unless the event was recorded, you were either there or you weren’t. It’s a different thing from exhibitions where you can often post a photo or two of some of the works on show. Not only that but it seems harder to evoke sound in words. Atmosphere too, that most intangible of substances, is so much more important at a concert which – even when you’re in a room full of strangers – is 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.

But until you hear music live you can’t fully grasp its capacity for coming to life. A recording is one manifestation of a piece. Each time the music is played it takes on a new life, comes into being afresh.

Take this Sunday morning: Theatre of Voices performed Steve Reich’s Proverb and David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion. I have both of these as recordings and have been listening to them (obsessively). They are magnificent. Yet on Sunday Theatre of Voices took Proverb to another level. Radiant was the word the festival director used to describe their performance. It would have been bliss if I hadn’t been conscious of being surrounded by people.

I know that at some point I’ll gradually stop attending concerts again. The thought of all those other people will become too much. However, I also know that eventually I’ll start up again. If not next winter, then another winter. Because, much as I dread it, there must always be winter.

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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.

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?)