The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, August 31, 2004


The BBC Proms season has almost completely passed me by this year. When I was a teenager, and used to come with a friend of mine and get drunk listening to Messiaen, sitting in the balcony for 3 quid, it seemed like the world's greatest music festival, and that it was a pleasure to live within easy travelling distance of it. But since I moved back to London 5 years ago, I've steadily gone to fewer and fewer Proms each year, until this year I'm barely going to one - and that's tonight. I've loved Monteverdi's Vespers for years. One of the most moving holidays I've had with milady was to Venice - for me this was a pilgrimage to San Marco to see where, as far as I'm concerned, modern music history was born. There can't be a single building on earth responsible for so much. The architecture of San Marco, full of balconies, side chapels and alcoves encouraged several generations of composers to introduce antiphonal effects into their music, setting groups against one another, creating tension and drama through the opposition of ensembles. A few decades down the line and the concerto, one of the central forms of Western art music was born. Without San Marco, you might say, we wouldn't have many of the best works of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bartók or Stravinsky.

OK, that's drastically over-simplifying the point, but there are still very few occasions when you can (even naively) trace the origin of an art form to a single place, and that makes it special.

Monteverdi's Vespers, while not composed in Venice, were written largely with San Marco in mind. Monteverdi was after the job of capellmeister at San Marco - possibly the most prestigious musical post in Italy - and Vespers was his job application. Unsurprisingly it did the trick.

Tonight's concert is going to be a little odd for me - I can't remember the last time I went to a concert of non-contemporary music; still less a concert of early 17th-century music. Still, the Vespers are audacious in places (the opening chorus is simply chanted on a monochord, almost like Xenakis, or Glass), and Monteverdi's film-cut structures can sound Stravinsky-like, so I won't feel too lost.

Ross on Shostakovich 

Alex Ross has covered Shostakovich once more in the new New Yorker, following up on a previous blog post. The choice line for me is, "Russian composers seem especially vulnerable to urban legends, as if facts mattered even less behind the old Iron Curtain." So true. It's that occasional chestnut of West-East European politics once more. There's a tendency among Western European critics to approach Soviet-era art as though the adjective was all that mattered: Soviet-era = X, where X is a fairly consistently defined narrative of oppression, subterfuge, underground triumph, etc. The designation is enough to deny the work the free air breathed by every piece of Western art. The problem is compounded by the fact that casting an East European artist as a struggling, samizdat hero often seems the noblest thing to do; many people follow this line unconsciously assuming that this is desirable. Not everyone takes up this position - to claim this would be to commit the same mistake in the opposite direction: Euro-occidentalism, anyone? - but sufficiently great a number to encourage great wariness when approaching any criticism of Eastern European art from a Western perspective. Make troubled heros out of Havel, Milosz and Shostakovich if you must, but never lose sight of the works they made, as works in themselves.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Apologies to Rob @ musicircus, who I have accidentally snubbed in my sidebar links overhaul. I though you'd stopped writing Rob - but I'll see that you're back on there soon. Sorry about that! Glad to hear the dissertation is finally put to rest. There really is nothing like that post-submission feeling!

Thursday, August 26, 2004

The best moment of my Olympics 

... was just a little while ago when BBC's Clare Balding admitted that during Paul Green's Taekwondo bout, she had been shouting "Just kick him in the face!" at the studio monitors. Lovely.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

New music to look out for 

Since my monthly SPNM newsletter came through today, along with the usual sheaf of flyers, here are my tips for what to listen to live in the coming months (if you, er, live in London that is).

The BMIC's Cutting Edge series is always worth paying attention to. Probably the most important new music series in the city, and regularly an occasion for new Brit experimentalism. All concerts are at the Warehouse, Theed Street, Waterloo. Highlights for me include:

23 September: Three Strange Angels - including works by Reich, Fitkin, Montague and Cage. Three Strange Angels are led by Richard Benjafield (the hardest working percussionist in London?) and Ensemble Bash co-founder Chris Brannick.

21 October: I've never actual seen any of Holliger's music performed live. I've got a CD with him playing one of his oboe studies in overtones, and speaking as an ex-oboist I have absolutely no idea how he makes the sounds he does. Chris Redgate is the kind of player who can approach Holliger's virtuosity, so he's worth seeing anyway. The Holliger piece here is Cardiophony, which uses the live, amplified heartbeat of the performer to form part of the work's rhythm track - so the performance tempo is wholly contingent upon the nerves of the player. Another work here, Ferneyhough's awesome Time and Motion Study II, also uses an amplified performer, this time a cellist. This is not a concert for the meek, or those who don't fancy a bit of musical body fetishism.

If this doesn't floor you, there's a similarly gritty show on the 9 December when Ensemble Exposé (directed by Chris Redgate's brother, composer Roger) roll up to play Dillon, Holliger, Finnissy, Ross Lorraine, Joanna Bailie and Ferneyhough (the fab Etudes transcendentales included in my Music Since 1960 run down).

28 October: Two works here by composers I have academic interests in - Ian Wilson and Krzysztof Penderecki, so I'm compelled to go to this in more than one way... Wilson's Phosphorous is a relatively new work, and one I don't know all that well. Penderecki's Trio (1990-91) belongs to his most recent phase of development which has come since the fall of the Berlin wall, and represents a less sprawling, more capricious phase after the vast neo-Romantic marathons of the 1970s and 80s. It's a neat little piece.

2 December: Juice Vocal Trio. This is a concert including 6 (count 'em!) world premieres, and aside from Meredith Monk and Paul Robinson (neither among those being premiered) I don't recognise a single name on the bill. This counts as a good thing. Writing for vocal trio must be pretty tricky too, so there should be some interesting work here.

And finally, it's a looong way off yet, but Rambler favourite Kaija Saariaho has two works in a free concert (part of the Philharmonia's Music of Today series) on 7th June next year at the Festival Hall - the classic Lichtbogen, and the UK premiere of her flute concerto Terrestre. Top. A little nearer to the present day, the BBC Symphony are performing the orchestral version of her Quatre instants at the Barbican on 1st October, paired with Mahler's 2nd Symphony.

That's enough pluggery for one day ...

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Concert Diary 

Now if this was available in RSS, that would be the greatest thing...

New linx 

I've had a dink around with the link bar on the left there and added a bunch of names to it, so do have a look.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Bach Chorales 

Now, this site, curated by Margaret Greentree, seems well worthy of a mention. Like the Well-Tempered Clavier site I linked to a couple of months ago, this one also came from my professional overhaul of a rather bloated database of music links. And once again this one stood out a mile from most of the others. Bach's 371 chorales hold for me a curious place in music history. For a start, 'the Bach chorale' is almost unique in that it is something that almost any music student will learn how to write at some point in their studies. Whilst there are other large, coherent compendiums of musical style - Vivaldi's concerti, Schubert's songs, Scarlatti's sonatas, Chopin's piano pieces - because of their simplicity, and brevity, the Bach chorales are the only ones that are consistently taught, and at a relatively early stage (I started writing them at 16). What this did for me, as someone who had youthful aspirations at composition, was cement them in my mind as both a guidance (not stylistically, but in terms of voicing, and vertical balance they can't be bettered) and a resource. There is something so abstracted about them that they can serve as springboards towards another composition. I wrote a few pieces - all rightly languishing behind my desk - that bore some relationship to a chorale. What they meant for me compositionally, I think - and were I to begin composing again, I'm sure this is from where I would start - was that the chorale sketched out an extremely durable form which could have many things poured into and onto it, and that would aid (to a point of course) a certain amount of musical coherence.

The whys and wherefors of how I went about this in different pieces is for a future post perhaps, but the discovery for me of the complete chorales online is exciting, and something that I'm sure many composers as well as musicologists would find tremendous value in, so much applause to Greentree for maintaining her site over the years.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Fly in the ointment 

It's like some kind of music-news rollercoaster round here. As a probably inadvertent follow-up to two posts I connected below, Greg Sandow takes Gavin Bouchert to task over his recent joy-saying with regard to the classical music industry. Sandow has a lot of figures to back up his case, and of course I can't speak for the state of things in the States, but I don't think the picture he paints (with regard to new music/young audiences, eg) mirrors my experience in the UK. But the Tower Records case (and I brought them up as well, in a slightly different context) is rather more complicated - yes, they are going (gone?) bankrupt, and yes they did as a rule have the largest selection of classical recordings of the major high street chains, but the reason for their collapse is most probably due to the bizarre machinations of the global record industry at the moment, so their stance on classical music is I think coincidental. This is not to say, however, that the disappearance of Tower will not be keenly felt. The double Piccadilly whammy of Tower then Waterstones (then a cheeky G + T at a great bar near Green Park if one was still feeling flush) is always an excellent way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and a small fortune.

More good news 

Kyle Gann is joyously pointing readers to his latest discovery, Iridian Radio, which he describes as the radio station of his dreams. From what he says, it sounds magnificent, and I will be tuning in before long. However, as Test Match Special* has just come on air, I have the next 8 hours of perfect radio sorted, thank you.

*Primary souce P.G. Wodehouse for the unitiated; includes live radio cake reviewing.

Grokster ruling 

This news, doing good rounds all over the place at the moment, seems to me good news - although, as milady on the inside reminds me, this almost certainly not the end of things. [The full pdf (128k) of the Supreme Court's decision is here.]

In other apparently good news, if you follow the Boing Boing link above, then download the MP3 audio of the Attorney Fred Lohmann's argument, it would appear that the great Marlon Brando is alive and well and sitting in judgment at the Supreme Court. Were it true.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Well, thanks to a diligent IT support worker, I can now use my laptop once more, which means I can read Blogger's helppages once more, which means I've been able to fix the display problems generated by their new toolbar. Phew. And I've just heard that we've won our first Gold medal in the sailing, so good news all round.

Sailing as pop - how about Stereolab? Sleek, cool, but genuine success depends on prevailing conditions.

Erm... If we're talking classical, I'd say Sailing = Xenakis.

are as Much / is not ' finitE / Trouble ' / and Heavy 

Several years ago I saw John Cage's I-VI for sale in a Waterstone's in London, and in a fit of passion bought it. It is a truly beautiful book documenting the six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures Cage gave at Harvard in 1988-9: included are full transcripts of the lectures, transcripts of the question and answer sessions, and recordings of one lecture and one Q + A session. The lectures were written according to Cage's mesostic practice, and have been presented fully and correctly formatted in the book. The words themselves all derive from a set of 15 source texts (reproduced at the end of the book); using a computer program called Mesolist, written by Jim Rosenberg, Cage oriented chunks of text (no more than 45 characters left or right) around a central string of words to create a 'mesostic' - like an acrostic, but with the vertical words in the middle, not to the left. The vertical string of words remained the same - Method Structure Intention Discipline Notation Indeterminacy Interpenetration Imitation Devotion Circumstances Variable Structure Nonunderstanding Contingency Inconsistency Performance - and each word would repeat until Cage had enough text for a 1-hour lecture. There are a whole other bunch of chance procedures which Cage overlaid this work with, as well as indications for stress and pause, and the end result is quite extraordinary. It's a bit tricky to format one of these things to display correctly online, but here's an example of a different Cage mesostic. And here is a really cool tool for creating your own mesostics, written by Matthew McCabe. (Here's one of my own.)

Lecture IV recorded on the tapes that come with the book. As I say, I've had this for quite some time now, but I've only just got round to listening to the full lecture, as part of my ongoing project to transfer all my tapes to more convenient media. Listening to Cage is like taking a cold shower. For a start he reads with a very flat, non-expressive voice - as you would expect. And yet, within that voice, and within the the words he is reading, is that child-like joy in the unexpected that infuses all his work. Yes, he reads the texts very seriously - this is a performance, and it took him weeks to prepare his material - but you can sense that he is thrilled with every minute of it. The source texts and the methods applied to them are designed to repeat, and create surprising conjunctions (this is still composition), but when you get a sequence of lines like this (and I'm ignoring the formatting for the time being here):

In what sense
and Boston and
Angola and
Violence one has to do
Iran-contra case said
stake in
atmosphere and
is this
the meaning of
creating a sense of
acids however we
and moon produced

then you can't help but share in Cage's pleasure. Sadly, one thing that is missing from the tape of Cage's reading is the audience reaction - the recording stops right after his last word and some shuffling of papers, so it's very hard to tell from this what his listener's made of it, although there is a second tape of questions and answers which I have yet listen to. However, the cerebral post mortem dissection of Cage never does justice to the intricacy and immediacy of his works as they happen, and the best judgement of his works' success is in the electricity in people's eyes at the end. OK, you're not going to get this from a tape either, but some sort of audible expression might have been nice.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Credo (again) 

You know, Greg Sandow should really run the classical music industry.

In the wake of Arts Journal's , and the subsequent round table discussion, Sandow has put up what looks to me like the bare skeleton of a manifesto (or at least, the gaps where a manifesto might go). Since he asks for comments, I'll add my own here. Regular readers of this blog might not find all that follows completely unfamiliar ...

Now, there are certainly problems surrounding classical/nonpop music at the moment, but I have to agree with Gavin Bouchert to a great extent here - many of those cited are products of classical music's own imagination. Speaking personally, when I face the contemporary music racks at even a major chain like Tower and come to the realisation, at only 27, that I will never come to terms with even one tenth of the composers represented there, decline does not seem to be the problem. If there is a problem - and in spite of what Bouchert says, there is, although it is not what he argues against - it is disengagement. For who knows what reasons, but they are many, classical music - or rather, those institutions that speak on its behalf - show precious little interest today in even pretending that classical music is something that one might wish to engage in, intellectually, emotionally, bodily. Sandow illustrates a number of angles from which this might be seen, but is at his most cutting when he observes:

Rock criticism has always done what the classical music world can’t seem to do, which is to say what music means. They say what they think life is about, and what view of life each kind of music might represent. They describe, in other words, a world their readers can recognize, in which music takes an recognizable place.
Classical critics, by contrast, tell us that the tempo of the Brahms was too slow. Is that really what the concert was about?

Now, I'm not advocating that classical music criticism becomes a frenzy of subjective, emotionally-driven writing. Whisper it, but I found Words and Music the most irritating, infuriating book of my life, for the very reason that Morley sits on the opposite extreme to the tempo-quibbling Brahms critic. Successful writing about music, for me - and this goes for any level - has to strike an appropriate balance between the passionate engagement that Sandow longs for, and a technical vocabulary that Morley lacks (or refuses to use). The most striking thing about Words and Music - and, I suspect depressingly one of its raisons d'etre - was that Morley realised the difficulty of writing about music and in the end rejected the idea of even trying, giving in to dull, dull list writing. The classical critic who can't talk about how the music makes him feel, and the rock critic who can't talk about the technique of a work: I find both patronising, and both are cowering - one from looking prissy, the other from looking a swot. It should be possible to avoid both. I have plenty of books on the shelves above me that strike such a balance - thankfully there are a growing number of academics who aren't afraid to say "I love this piece of music, and here's why", but sadly few critics - or at least, few that are given license to do so in their columns. It's usually one or the other. Most of us haven't had any sort of training at art college, but we can all understand the use of allegory in Holbein, or the interplay of light and perspective in Rembrandt, or the relationship between brushwork and expression in Pollock when they're shown to us in an exhibition guide. Why are we scared to grant similar intelligence to the audience for music?

Of course, demonising rock criticism is not what I meant to do here: I simply wouldn't want to see the technical precision that most classical critics do have at their disposal jettisoned in some dash to recapture an audience. That won't work - you'll only lose a different segment of listeners. What is needed is a blend of the two, and a greater effort is needed from the academic community to look up from its navel and address this divide between the score and the emotional response. There is something revealing, I think, even in the fact that many of those academics who long to introduce the subjective into their scholarly work find themselves drawn away from the classical repertoire and into pop music and film scores, as though even they feel it inappopriate to reveal that Bach's B Minor Mass makes them feel something, or that Beethoven's Eroica Symphony might still have something to say to a contemporary audience.

Of course, there is a certain self-justification here in all of this. What could be more useless after all than the academic study of an irrelevant cultural force, but it seems to me that if classical music is to re-engage its audience in the ways that Sandow has identified, the responsibility for this must lie with its advocates - the very people, it is sad to say, who are all too eager to announce its demise.


Ahhh, nothing like a few old chestnuts to get me out of my shell ...

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

And apologies if I sound cross and irritated, but I am. But please help me anyway ;-)


Now, I was prepared to give some benefit of the doubt to Blogger here since I usually work off IE5 for Mac*, but I'm here on milady's IE6 and Windows XP machine, and it still looks screwy (although at least I can read the title of my blog now. Left and right padding are still doing strange things though, which is why the three columns are all overlapping each other). Surely that's not an unpopular choice of platform and browser? I actually worked pretty hard to get this design of mine to meet W3C standards, and - apart from the Blogger/Google code inserted at the top and the archive javascript, which I had no control over - it did. So why is it all knackered now? Seriously, if anyone has any ideas (more constructive than simply 'move to Movable Type' - I don't need more spam in my life thanks), I'd love to hear them. Nice, user-friendly comments box is linked below.

*Which I know is one step down from sending smoke signals in the rain, but y'know, I thought the word was interoperability, not exclusionism-for-those-who-can't-afford-to-buy-OS-X-to-run-any-of-the-new-browsers-off. And yes, I have heard of Opera, but I got fed up with trying to get it to work so ditched it.


What are you playing at?

First, the new version of Blogger comes with a homepage that doesn't open in my browser. Then comes a prohibitive and clunky comments system. And a bunch of template designs that regularly crash my browser, so I can't read half my favourite blogs in the flesh. And now this bizarre - and seemingly unannounced - header bar, which has screwed up my personal design. Sadly, because of said browser-unfriendly redesign, I can't read Blogger's help pages these days, so does anyone have a clue what's going on here, and how I might be able to get rid of the accursed thing - or at least prevent it obscuring my own header and screwing up the rest of my page design?

For those of you who may have stumbled here accidentally, via Google, a random-linked Blogger nav bar or some other such wayward nonsense, this blog is called The Rambler, and I am your cantakerous host Tim. Hi!

Sunday, August 15, 2004

A tremendous loss 

RIP Czeslaw Milosz. One of the great writers of his time. Dolina, his pastoral novel of 1955 (trans. 1978 as The Issa Valley) was one of my favourite reads of last year, and certainly one of the most beautiful books I've read in a while. What most impressed me about it was that unlike Milosz's more polemic, political essays it portrayed an idyllic, magical Polish countryside as seen through boyhood eyes. Unlike the standard portayal of Polish life as defined by Soviet tanks, heroic uprisings, flattened cities and samizdat literature, here was a Poland described through its trees, rivers, soil and harvests. A moving and still refreshing book.

Obituaries published so far (might require registration):

LA Times

New York Times


Chicago Tribune

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Twentieth Century Music Journal 

Many thanks to Scott Spiegelberg for the pointer to Cambridge University Press, who have put their new journal Twentieth Century Music online for the price of a free registration. I look forward to reading Charles Wilson's Ligeti article in full - a paper I heard in an earlier incarnation at the Second Biennial Conference on 20th-Century Music at Goldsmiths College a couple of years ago, and much enjoyed at the time. Another contemporary music journal published by CUP - Tempo - doesn't look to be wholly available for free yet. Only the Jan 2003 issue is free at the moment, which means that if you want to read my article on Irish composer Ian Wilson from April 2003, you need to punt down to your local library holding Tempo, or pay £12.00 to read it online (a princely sum, which I wouldn't advise in this case...). Still, excellent news about TCM, highlighting a trend that I expect to be followed by many journals in the future.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Post of the week from Geeta.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

I am one 

Happy birthday to me - the Rambler is one today! Thanks to Mark and Angus, who were kind enough to give me my first links, and the lovely chaps at It's all in your mind who were (I believe) the first to put me on their permanent sidebar. I'm probably very sad for remembering all this.

And a big thank you to everyone who reads and links to this little bit of fluff. I really appreciate it!

Thursday, August 05, 2004

This place has been a bit rubbish of late - for which I apologise. Post-wedding I've been somewhat snowed under with catching up on Work (plus a couple of extra little bitz on the side), and wrestling the thesis Hydra currently glowering at me from box files above my head. Sadly I can't promise that things will get much better in the next few days - the immediate future doesn't look any less busy. When things calm down however I have got a couple of things knocking around that might see the light of day. Promise.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Objet trouvé 

Something strange I found on the internet today.


Thanks Luka for the pointer to Freaky Trigger's new limb, Blog 7 - with an opening themed month on the wonderful immensity of London. Nice one.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Public service announcement 

I don't know if you've noticed, but Jonathan at Assistant Blog has been on marvellous form recently - whether it's the Daily Mail, Piranhas or Kingsley Amis, he's yr man at the moment. And that schizo-Socratic post on the Libertines was splendid. Top hole!


More behind-the-times linkage from me. Helen Radice is a harpist, whose blog twang twang twang is rather good, and has been going for about 7 months unnoticed by me. Whoops.

Which reminds me that back in October last year, when I decided to pour more nonpop* into this blog here, I was lamenting the dearth of decent writing on 'classical' music on the web. Well, thankfully that situation - despite my best efforts to bring down the average - is changing. When I've got a bit more time, I'll post a quick summary of those blogs I'm aware of. For the time being, have a nose around on the links bar - most of them are there (and if you're not, you will be soon ...).

*I've just seen Dennis Báthory-Kitsz - of the ace Kalvos and Damian's New Music Bazaar - use this word over on Critical Conversation and I like it, so I'm going to use it more often. It has a kind of Joycean obtuseness about it, deliberately awkward and oppositional, which seems to fit nicely, as well as being the closest thing to a genre definition (ugly things, I know, but we can't do withour 'em) of classical-ish music I know that actually has anything to with the actual qualities of the music. It's unpopular. It's awkward, it's difficult, it's not immediate. You have to re-read it. Nice one.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Perception reception 

Scott Spiegelberg over at Musical Perceptions has a great post on Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (which I've covered here). I have to admit that beyond the obvious similarity in title between 4'33" and 8'37", I'd never really given the Cage connection much thought - but I'll have to look into that further. There is, elsewhere in Penderecki's music, an interesting point of disjuncture with the American experimental scene, which serves I think as an illustration of how tricky it actually is when you get down to the nuts and bolts of the score to separate musical aesthetics from one another. There is - one would imagine - very little in common between Penderecki's timbral compositions of the 1960s and the work of Cage, Feldman, Wolff, et al in the preceding 10 years. Yet the closing pages of the score for Dimensions of Time and Silence (1960) - a regular grid of barlines and horizontal staves, with notes acting as points within this grid - could almost be mistaken for Feldman. Almost, but not quite, and Penderecki's score retains a strong connection with traditional notational convention that is almost completely absent in Feldman's graphic scores. The relationship is intriguing - more so perhaps if these two related notations had emerged independently - and I have idly thought about exploring the relationship between the Polish and American avant gardes. Not a relationship of direct influence of one upon the other - I suspect this would be very limited - but how the different approaches to similar problems intersect and diverge, and what that might show. Aleatory composition, for example, and a focus upon the performer's role in the work, are features of both streams, but it is rare to see either compared side by side.

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