The Rambler :: blog

Friday, January 28, 2005

Friday link dump 

First up, can I just second Aaron Wherry's vote for Jay Smooth as blogger of the year. He has been tireless in his campaign against NY radio station Hot97 and their Tsumani Song, a deeply racist 'joke' at the expense of victims of the Tsunami. If you haven't been following catch up here. Top work Jay.

Another person to rise above the mess with dignity is the Chinese-American rapper Jin, who has recorded a track dissing Hot97 (you can find a link to the audio via Jay). Maxmius @ voltage has posted some of Jin's backstory. It's 8 Mile stuff.


Elsewhere, Jon @ Worlds of Possibility posts on Feldman and Folke Rabe;

It's a good month for underground metal. The Wire's primer this month has created a fair amount of buzz. There are a few tracks to download at the Wire site; Swen has some more.


You know how it is when you get a bee in your bonnet about something? Well, I got all worked up to do this redesign, and here you go. No more complicated three column party tricks that don't work - back to the old school two-column thang. More red, more black, loosely inspired by the cover to Norman Davies' Microcosm.

Hope it works for you - let me know in the comments boxes about any display issues, and I shall throw my hands in the air and curse 'web standards' on your behalf.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

This blog looks like cack. Too cluttered, doesn't display correctly most of the time. I haven't decided how to go about fixing this, but I will. Expect more red and black at some point in the future.

Raiding the 20th Century redux 

One of the big hits on the net this week was the release, at the weekend, of Raiding the 20th - Words and Music Expansion. Strictly Kev, progenitor of the original Raiding the 20th Century [fat MP3 here] has reworked his original 45 minute mashup epic (I told you it was a fat MP3!) in collaboration with Paul Morley. The result is now less mashup symphony, more concept radio show with Morley introducing each section by reading passges from Words and Music.

One unfortunate side effect of this is to do with the words Morley himself is reading. I've moaned about Words and Music before now, and unfortunately for Morley several of its primary faults are shown up by Strictly Kev's mix. A few minutes in, Morley makes the point (quoting directly from his book) that Varèse's Déserts is to all intents and purposes the original sample-based music, avant garde experimentalism predating techno before even rock and roll was invented. It's a pretty weak and uninspired point in any case - most electronic musicians acknowledged their debt to 50s tape music at least a decade ago - but it's made weaker for the fact that Déserts is hardly the first of its kind (and does anyone pronounce Varèse 'Vareese'?). Stockhausen produced his Konkrete Etüde for one-track tape in 1952; Pierre Schaefer invented tape composition using prerecorded source sounds (musique concrète) in 1948. Amusingly, just before Morley speaks these words, Schaeffer's Etude aux chemins de fers, predating Morley's nonfact by six years, plays in the background. Unsubstantiated facts are used, at length, to support weak ideas.

On the other hand, once you think past Morley's super-redundant prose style, it is nice to hear him talking about the Strokes/Christina Aguilera mashup, and Kylie/New Order at the Brits as these are playing. You get a feel for the genuine love he is writing about. I do believe there is something interesting and provocative at the heart of Morley's book - the problem is that it's shrouded in swathes of 6th-form literary gimmicks, an almost total replacement of content by style.

Funnily, this is a problem with which mashups flirt from time to time. In amongst the condensed encyclopedia of the mashup that Strictly Kev has compiled are some moments of real wit - the aforementioned Strokes/Xtina track A Stroke of Genius by the Freelance Hellraiser is one, and the Freelance Hellraiser's Marshall's Been Snookered is a funny added layer to Eminem's music hall/hip-shock persona. Musical intertextuality is not quite as radically new as Morley suggests it is. Composers and musicians have known for centuries that music is the most powerful memory-trigger of all the arts, making it ideal for intertextual quotation and the sedimentation of meaning and reference (to his credit, Strictly Kev's work shows that he knows this). You'd need a pretty big canvas to paint an equivalent to one minute of DJ Danger Mouse's 'Justify my Thug' for example. Mashups play on this intertextuality in the most complete fashion we might have seen to date - the Grey Album is entirely made from two pre-existing records - but in itself this doesn't make them a good thing. Most mashups appear to be made simply for the sake of a punning title. Of course, the whole business is about extended musical puns, but too often these seem to be done for the sake of it. The superficial joke is deemed enough - style over content once again. Moulin Rouge, a film that I adore, showed that it is possible to work with extended musical puns to great effect and purpose. Rap battles, and dancehall and grime riddims work on the same basis - Crazy Titch's 'Just an Arsehole', say - where there's space for wit and invention - quotation can generate some sort of emotional momentum. But so many mashups just sound like clever-clever (and sometimes less than clever) jigsaws.

Where am I going with this? I'm not sure. I guess my point is that this sounds like a step backwards. OK, the extended version includes a new chunk at the beginning to take account of the Grey Album and the Beastles, but the whole enterprise was always an exercise in historical cross reference - as mashups are themselves. There's something deeply nostalgic about putting contemporary pop over a David Bowie groove, and while it can be funny, even exciting, it isn't pushing things forward. Morley himself senses this I think in his evocation of Ian Curtis reincarnated in Kylie. I hope bootlegs and remixes and mashups do go somewhere; but for the moment, with Raiding the 20th Century 2 they sound like they're stuck in a rut.

If you want a really great hit of mashup/bootleg/remix/mentalist beats, you could do much worse than pointing your bandwidth at the two mixes at Kid Kameleon's site, produced as promos for the new Tigerbeat6 sublabel Shockout. Not the same thing as what Strictly Kev's doing, I know, but these really feel like they're going somewhere.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Thanks to posts from Alex Ross, and Milton Parker on this ILM thread my hits have gone through the roof recently. I feel a bit embarrassed because I've not added anything new today to great all you good people with, but sadly neither time nor the muse are with me today. More next week, I promise.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Music since 1960: Górecki: Symphony no.2  

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.

Index here.

No, that's not a typo in the title. Everyone knows the 3rd Symphony. By some distance it's the most popular piece of classical composition of the last 50 years. It's a magnificent work, from the first movement, a gigantic canonic pyramid ascending into prayer, to the last, a prolonged study on the opening chords of Chopin's Mazurka, op.17 no.4. But it's not the one I want to talk about.

There are at least two important aspects to Górecki's music that may be appreciated on first hearing any of his works. The first, and the one for which he has become internationally popular, is a lush, meditative melancholy, the sort of thing that permeates throughout the 3rd Symphony and many of his later works such as Amen, Totus tuus and so on. The second is a radical cut-and-paste approach to form. There are elements of this in the 3rd Symphony, in which huge homogeneous blocks of material are simply pressed up against one another, but in that work the edges have mostly been smoothed out so that one section seems to flow more or less naturally into the next. In the 2nd Symphony there are no smooth edges; it's built like Stonehenge.

The 3rd Symphony is a 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs', and is thematically unified by three sung laments, from a mother to her son (a Silesian folksong), from a daughter to her mother (from graffiti scratched on the wall of Gestapo torture chamber in Podhale), and from Mary to Jesus (from the Holy Cross Lament). Thus the Second World War, Polish folksong and Catholicism are brought together in a long maternal lament that references elements of Polish folk and art music. The 2nd Symphony, 'Copernican', takes up a different set of themes, but still with a distinct Polish edge to them. This time, in writing a work to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Poland's greatest astronomer, Górecki composed an apocalyptic, fatalistic, contemplative solar system, in which giant slabs of sound orbit one another like planets.

The opening is massive. If these are the planets (and I'm not suggesting that there's any such simplistic programme to the piece) this is Mars. The melody is essentially a chant, based on just four notes. However, it is harmonised in whole-tone cluster chords spanning a full six octaves. These are played at shocking volume and ricochet between three layers of crashing drums. Hardcore, Mars is going to war.

A few minutes in and we're in Neptune's neighbourhood. The thunder of the opening is replaced by softer chords in strings and wind. These orbit slowly around one another, some are tightly dissonant, others luminously tonal. Górecki shows here his mastery of harmony as texture rather than function; the chords are not heard as an accompaniment to any melody, but are a palette of rotating colours.

The first movement continues in a similar vein; the thunderclaps return, then there is a third slab of new material, for brass instruments and wind and employing a great deal of the structured aleatory pioneered by Lutoslawski. The thunder-chant returns a last time, with the addition of a choir singing extracts from the Psalms – 'God, who made the heaven and the earth', etc. There is no doubt that if the opening movement represents the mechanism of God and the planets, this mechanism is violent, awesome in its power.

The second of the two movements contemplates the effects of Copernicus' discovery that man, revolving around the sun, was no longer the centre of the universe. For late Medieval thought this was a devastating idea that required complete revisions to the prevailing concepts of humanity. Two soloists, baritone and soprano, illuminate the musical space in a manner that anticipates the 3rd Symphony. In that piece, the mother's song of the first movement 'Where has he gone, my dear young son' encapsulates the act of prayer as sorrow, mourning, hope, faith, peace and meditation. A similarly complex mixture of emotions are to be found in Górecki's settings in the 2nd Symphony as the two soloists struggle to comprehend God's work as so awesomely revealed in the first movement. Even though the harmonic background to the baritone's solo is richly tonal in comparison to the crashing dissonance of the first movement, it is unrelenting in its stasis, always threatening to overwhelm. It is a particular trick of Górecki's to turn chords that elsewhere would shine radiantly into forces of real menace. The effect is even more marked for those who are familiar with the arias of the 3rd Symphony, in which the harmony provides close emotional support to the voice - as the melody rises to points of climax, so does the harmony. Here, melody and harmony resist one another. A lamenting mother does not inspire conflicting emotions; but a revolution in man's relationship to God and the universe such as Copernicus instigated surely does.

In the end, Górecki uses Copernicus' own words to resolve the conflicts that his work has embodied. The words "What indeed is more beautiful than heaven, which of course contains all things of beauty" gloriously sidesteps the issue of who or what is at the centre of that universe, bidding us instead to contemplate the universe as it is, in all its majesty. For these words, Górecki introduces a slow chorale based on an anonymous 15th-century vocal fragment. I cannot say why, but his setting sounds as though it should be used in every film about space and the planets ever made (although to my knowledge it never has). In order to reinforce this urge to contemplate the beauty of the heavens above us, Górecki once more writes music to invoke the universe. This time the dissonant, violent forces of the opening movement have resolved themselves into immense chords, themselves a giant, resolving cadence. At around five minutes this is probably the longest cadence in musical history; each chord grows from the bass upwards, the only changes being the introduction of new instrumental layers - strings, then wind, then brass add a glittering sheen. Plato's music of the spheres spreads before us in a wave of harmonic resonance. What indeed is more beautiful than heaven?

Crack organist/organist on crack 

This was e-mailed to me today - apologies if you've already seen it, but it's too good not to post. Apparently, this is from a recording of an amateur choral society's performance of the Messiah; but the organist was a professional hired for the occasion. I hope they got their money back. To their immense credit the choir don't flinch for a second in the face of some of the most extraordinary chords this side of Messiaen. (For full impact, this is best heard with a bit of volume.)

Messiahorganistoncrack.mp3 (667K mp3)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Looking forward to reading the rest of Alex Ross'spresentation to the annual conference of Chamber Music America when it gets posted.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Music since 1960: Feldman: Rothko Chapel 

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

A timpani roll. Another, higher. This is a whole sequence of timp rolls – almost a motif. Now a viola. Timpani and viola; a crazy combination, but it might just work. That was almost the motif again – the viola has played three notes in similar pattern, up, down. The melody grows broader, I'm reminded of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending.

A chord on the celeste.

Some rolls on temple blocks. The viola keeps exploring a territory of wide intervals, like birdsong in canyons.

That celeste chord again. At least, I think it's the same.

Now a choir, and those timp rolls return in the background. Extracts from a chant or chorale that's in no hymn book from this planet.

More viola, and another celeste chord; and three deep celeste notes. Seven chords from the choir, each covering a wider harmonic range; then two chord changes – these ones are new.

To my ears Morton Feldman is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. More than most recent composers, but similarly to Bach, his artistic vision was complete and unified, but infinitely varied. The opening minutes (that's the first five I've described there) are extremely fragmentary – musical events occur, in unpredictable sequence. Everything sounds surprising, everything sounds almost like something we’ve had before.

Celeste chord, viola note. Together. Once without celeste. Together. And again, but the chord and note are different. Seven more times, seemingly the same, but never quite where you expect them in the bar. Were they the same? Can I trust what I'm hearing, what I'm remembering?

Of the whole piece, these three minutes are perhaps most typical. Feldman often talked of 'crippled symmetries' – one piece even has this title – in which repetitions, symmetries, are 'crippled' through subtle and continual change. This is not the phase-like changes of Reich's or Glass's patterns in which continual process evolves one musical idea into another. Feldman's changes are wilful, enforced one by one, to no discernible sequence, and certainly no predictable process. If Reich plays a God who creates beauty in system and order, Feldman's God creates it in weakness and deformity. His is the God of Kafka and Beckett: "Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life."

A great swell from choir and timpani. At its climax is an impassioned viola flourish, augmented by tubular bells. A sound of grief, of pain.

And again.

But not a third time. Such overt emotion is unusual in Feldman - for a moment he's almost Richard Strauss - but he turns from it very swiftly.

Was that really pain, then? Can I believe what I felt when I heard it? A few minutes later, there is another tremendous swell from the choir, but this time there is no strident outburst from the viola to dissipate its energy. It hangs heavy in the air. The workings of the music in time, and its interaction with memory create expectations about how it might develop, how repetitions might unfold themselves. But Feldman undercuts these expectations at every turn so that the music both invites us to anticipate its future development, and also to look back to revise our impressions of what we thought earlier moments implied. Time turns to amber.

Another surprise. The music which, up to now, has lilted or hobbled along at a fair pace, aided by the continual introduction of new material, has drawn to an almost complete stop. A single chord is sustained by the choir, with only tubular bell tones and the breaths of the singers as punctuation. This goes on for more three minutes.


Surely this is the gesture of a work reaching its close?

Four pizzicato viola notes. Unexpected.

A soprano, singing another wide-intervalled melody. This we have heard before, amidst the fallout from the choral climaxes. Now this solo voice seems to have taken up the role occupied by the viola in the first minutes of the work, occupying a great and empty musical space.

There are those timpani rolls again.

Almost - almost - this feels like a recapitulation, a return to the work's opening material after an extended development, characterised by the three climactic crescendi, and the long sustained choir chord. But by now we no longer trust any repetition. The sense is that we have reached some sort of resolution of the various ideas of the piece, as the singer's melody is more tonal, more familiar than the viola's opening. And whilst the music is still fragmentary, each fragment does begin to sound like the last word on the matter, a series of closing chords.

Vibraphone. An ostinato? A simple four note pattern, literally repeating over and over? Pure symmetry? This is not the first sustained chord-like resonance of the piece, but it is the first to feel so warm and comfortable.

A viola melody. For once this is not in wide intervals. The melody fits perfectly with the tonal, four-square ostinato. The music sounds pastoral once more, but also like a lullaby.

There are some of those hushed chords from the choir.

The ostinato continues. The viola continues its folky melody.

Some final choral chords. The ostinato stops.


There is no more stunning passage in postwar composition than this. Rothko Chapel, for all its internal, hidden consistencies, is fragmentary and sounds at least partly improvised (it's not); for it to suddenly introduce such a simple, almost childish idea as this vibraphone ostinato, and use it to underpin a melody of breathtaking beauty and naivety is extraordinary, and I don't know of any moment like it in Feldman's output. As I said, his was an artistic vision that seemed throughout his career remarkably consistent, even if his later works seem superficially far removed from his early graphical experiments. Feldman is reliably always different, but always the same. At this moment something different is happening.

The circumstances of the work's commission are typically Feldman-like. The Rothko Chapel of the title is in Houston, TX, an ecumenical religious space decorated with Rothko paintings specially created for the space. Rothko and Feldman were part of the artistic group that included Cage, Pollock, Guston and many others; Feldman himself formed long and fruitful acquaintances with many painters of the time, and knew Rothko well. The piece was thus a personal endeavour - not unusually for him - and it incorporates a number of very personal musical elements. The soprano melody, for example, that dominates the third quarter of the piece Feldman wrote on the day of Stravinsky's memorial service. The viola melody from the work’s ending he wrote as a teenager. Thus the tricks of musical memory and internal quotation are blown up; the final effect is so magical I hope never to understand it.

Go girl. 

Amidst all the muck being thrown at Germaine Greer now that she's out of the B1g Br0ther house (which, if her article in the Sunday Times is to be believed, is nothing compared to the all too real muck of the BB house itself), no one seems to have picked up on what, surely, must be her real reason for going in in the first place. For better or worse, BB, and the reality/cruelty TV genre it has spawned is the cultural phenomenon of the times. Cunningly, Greer - as a leading cultural commentator - has successfully ring-fenced the whole territory for herself, and is now the undisputed expert; she is after all the only thinking person of any calibre to have firsthand experience. Now, the BB house may not be anything like as interesting as the tribes of the Amazon rainforest, but Greer has become, in a much smaller sense, a pioneering anthropologist into uncharted territory - something that is increasingly difficult to find. There's almost certainly a book, many articles, and a couple of lectures to come out of this - the stuff that she actually does for a living, in fact. Far from professional death, as many are declaring, I think this was a pretty canny career move. In fact, irony of ironies, Greer prove to be the only celebrity whose career has benefitted from a spell in the house.

In other BB news, Helen Radice gives a unique perspective on Endemol's shabby stinginess, which chimes with Greer's own experiences - toilet doors without bolts, a kitchen that hadn't (and couldn't) be cleaned, and sloppiest of all not informing her in whose name her hotel room for the eve of the show had been booked, meaning she had to foot her own bill. I'm saddened, but not surprised to learn that Endemol/BB's guiding philosophy - that personal promotion is everything and you'll be grateful for it, you little people - extends beyond the house and into their professional engagements.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Elysian String Quartet, Purcell Room, 10 Jan 2005: thoughts on Classical Music Criticism 

uTopianTurtleTop points towards a great extract from the National Arts and Journalism Program's Reporting the Arts. Of the critics contributing, Robert Christgau, Sasha Frere-Jones and Joseh Horowitz are on the musical tip; together their three contributions make for a provocative read. Christgau reviews the history of rock criticism delineating its difference from film and TV criticism. He concludes that the sheer volume of music being produced these days – 27,000 albums a year by recent estimates – requires rock critics to be gatekeepers for consumers, "people whose lifework is seeking out good music of every sort and telling the world about it". He also laments the demise of the adventurous writer, constrained by editorial control at a newspaper, or lost in a chorus of inferiority on the net, and charges the daily newspapers to rethink their strategy towards pop crit to allow maverick voices the chance to talk about what is new and interesting in new and interesting ways. Sasha Frere-Jones builds on much of what Christgau outlines, asking the question whether musicians make better or poorer music critics, and establishing what is most important for readers of pop music criticism:
A minority may read pop criticism as prose or philosophy, but to the larger audience it is a betting broadsheet. Will I win, lose or show with my 10 bucks? When answering that question, what constitutes expertise for the relevant critic? Knowing how to play the guitar or, perhaps, knowing how to listen to records in the same way as other listeners?
This is a really great point, picking up from Christgau’s image of the cultural gatekeeper, but taking it somewhere more specifically useful than a plea for greater editorial adventure. "Most of the important figures in pop criticism – Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Ann Powers – are not musicians but rather experts in hearing and understanding lateral connections."

With these two complementary essays in mind, Horowitz's piece 'Classical Music Criticism at the Crossroads' makes for interesting reading indeed. Firstly, I'm delighted to read that there was a time, long ago, when critics – and therefore audiences and promoters – didn’t care about performers. W.J. Henderson wrote in 1934 "Can [the public] ever again be trained to love music for its own sake and not because of the marvels wrought upon it by supermen?" This view is one I've long held, but always known was a bit heretical. I don't honestly care who's performing a work; I've certainly never been to a concert or bought a classical CD purely on the strength of the performers. All I care about is that they programme something I want to hear, and play it well – and for the bucks most performers charge I'd say both of those are essential prerequisites for the job. (But sadly it ain't true – people will happily pay to hear one of Henderson’s 'supermen' play any old crap badly. Again and again.)

This might be why something like the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year series, which should be essential listening, isn't for most of London's new music scene. New performers, programming new works – perfect. The series has been a regular fixture in the London calendar for almost 50 years, but is suffering from falling attendances and a shortage of money – Annette Moreau in today's Independent talks of a 'pitiful attendance' for the concert she is reviewing.

This year 10 concerts (two a night all this week) showcased a total of 28 players, as well 62 contemporary works. Although perhaps not as much as there once was, there is still quite some prestige attached to performing in this series, and for any British performer hoping to make a career in contemporary music it’s an essential early stopping point. So it was good to see the Elysian Quartet (candidates for Rambler house band) on the Purcell Room stage on Monday evening stepping onto this ladder and opening the series. It was also good to see a much better than 'pitiful' attendance for this one.

If you're sitting there with your betting slip, you can safely put the Elysian's name down. If you don't care for fat men belching Rossini in their sleep, or associate wet T-shirts with 1970s school fetes rather than Vivaldi, then groups like the Elysian are for you. If you give a toss about the notated music people are writing right now, that other people want to play right now, then an Elysian gig will suit you. Unless you actually live with one of the players, I can guarantee you will hear something good that you've not heard before.

I heard three pieces I'd not heard before, and liked at least two of them.Aurelio Tello's Dansaq II was a fragmentary thing, in six movements, that seemed to throw a bit of everything possible into the mix. Not like Kurtág – this was really chop and change stuff. Somehow it held itself together, as a Peruvian Inca motif (Tello is from Peru) was put through a series of variations that seemed to cover every aspect of quartet technique – except straight, vibrato-on lushness. Fidgety and surprising; good stuff. Phillip Neil Martin's An Outburst of Time, given its London première grabbed me less – it was simply less adventurousness than the Tello. But it was a canny bit of programming – more than 10 minutes into the concert Martin's piece gave the quartet the space to introduce some fuller lyricism into their playing.

In a completely different way, Dai Fujikura's Midnight All Day contained moments of genuine beauty. The shortest, most unified work of the concert, it was built mostly from heavy scrunches of bow on string that mellowed into cleaner tones and chords: the last, and most extended of these, the very last, was a breathtaking effect. It's the kind of soundworld that wouldn't be out of place on, I don’t know, some glitchy Scando electronica maybe, which only makes me wonder why bother giving it to string quartet in the first place. Fujikura certainly has the best publicity of any British composer since Thomas Adès (he's practically everywhere), but I've yet to be completely convinced by his work; Midnight is another example of this. It's a neat little idea that he's found to base his piece on, and it's executed crisply and to good effect – but like other works of his I've heard it didn’t quite lift off for me. There just wasn't that extra something in it that made me glad that someone at least had the good sense to put this idea on paper and hand to a string quartet. One day, Fujikura should blow me away – he hasn't yet.

One composer who does always satisfy however is Stephen Montague. Mentioned previously on these pages as grand ringmaster of John Cage's Musicircus, Montague composes quirky, theatrical minimalism that feels more lightweight than it actually is. His String Quartet no.1 is an in memoriam for two composer friends, Barry Anderson and Tomasz Sikorski, which uses thematic and harmonic material from their music. The quartet also requires both live electronics and a tape track of electronically altered string quartet sounds, all of which are layered to fill the auditorium at times to bursting point. At times this is an angry response to the premature deaths of two talented composers that has its audience flinching with great surges of volume, but the work comes into its own at the very end with a genuine Stephen Montague touch. The final, subsiding waves of the piece are a quotation from Sikorski's Holzwege (small orchestra, 1972), a pattern of alternating two-note motifs. One by one the three upper parts of the quartet (the cello, necessarily, remains seated) rise and turn their backs to the audience and each other. At first this looks like a cheap gesture, a gimmick for the end of the work. Each player only has two remember a couple of notes after all, and none of them need to see each other at this stage; if it's too easy, it's not theatre. But when the players stop, they start again – backs still to one another, they coordinate perfectly, stop, start, in the breaths of private contemplation. For a full minute, the quartet – threatening to explode itself in electronic rage – has shattered, quietly, like mourners leaving a funeral wake.

It's a magical effect that calls to mind angels and the smoke of memories rising into the sky, as well as nodding towards the Cage/New York/experimental scene in that is in Montague's blood. And, in the best possible way, the performers – as bodies, as symbols of a mysterious (dis)unity – became central after all. Performers are central to notated music – someone's got to play that notation after all – but what matters so much more than who they are is what those performers are doing, their role within the music that they are playing; like any good string quartet the Elysians understand this well.

Guardian Unlimited: The art of feud 

Via the Guardian this morning comes an article by James Gaines (drawn from his forthcoming book Evening in the Palace of Reason). I talk quite a lot here about the supplanting of dry academic analysis with something more subjective, more interesting, more appropriate to music, and this piece is a prime example. Gaines has built upon the dry analyses that have illustrated the complexity of Bach's Musical Offering, placed their findings into a full historical context, and presented a reading of the work that is exciting, readable, and might (heaven forefend!) make you want to go and listen to the music all again. This is great stuff, and I take great pleasure in seeing it in the pages of a daily newspaper. Can we have more of it, please?

Thursday, January 13, 2005


Meanwhile, Skidoo! have put up 7 tracks from their forthcoming Soothing Mad Apple CD, free to download under a Creative Commons license. There's some nice, mellow poppy stuff there too.

New iTunes deletes songs without DRM 

... and from the nononononononononoNO dept, I hear that the new version of iTunes (4.7.1) is deleting songs that have been run through Hymn. Hymn is the software that strips Apple's DRM off iTunes tracks and allows you to play the music you've bought through the player of your choice. The ins and outs of what is fair use with downloaded music are still a long way off being settled - even in my own mind - but when the de facto market leader in paid-for downloads and personal MP3 players makes an unpopular hash of things every single week you have to worry about the future.


On Tuesday I had to give a presentation and viva on my research so far so that I could be upgraded from MPhil to full PhD-candidate status. This felt like a pretty big deal. For one thing, it was the first assessment I've had since finishing my Masters more than 5 years ago - I had to remember to look up things like my candidate number and what have you. It also forced me to get 2 chapters-worth of material into a presentable state, along with a bibliography (currently running at 300+ items...!) and a literature review. And, if I failed, it was a pretty sorry indictment on 2 years and £4,800 investment.

So fortunately I passed, which means that now I am officially a PhD candidate. Woo-hoo! The nicest thing is the sense of validation that goes along with this. Halfway through my projected schedule, and two people other than my tutor think what I'm doing has some sort of merit. I'm still surprised by how good that feels. Two and half years more of the same, and I really could be Dr Rutherford-Johnson.

What all this means in a more general sense is that what with the work and the stress of getting all my stuff together for Tuesday, my New Year feels like it's only beginning now. Last year's resolutions were pretty successful actually, and (more or less) I think I kept to them all, sporadically. This year, I will be trying to do the following:

1. The usual more books, more music, more films thang. Must get out of the lazy, vaguely Hollywood film rut;
2. Really get somewhere with learning Polish. I've been taking classes for almost two years now, and very little of the vocabulary is sticking; must work harder at this;
3. Be kinder to the planet;
4. Sort out my finances;
5. Clear out all the junk I no longer need or want.

I'm thinking 1 + 2 = Kieslowski DVDs with the subtitles turned off; and 4 + 5 = Ebay!

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Radio 3 producer resigns over Jerry Springer 

This is a bit sad. All power to Anthony Pitts, the producer in question, for taking a principled stand (even if I don't agree with those principles), but it's a shame that he felt he should sacrifice his job over a musical.

It's rather more disturbing to read, though, that he had offered his resignation on Friday, before Jerry Springer: the Opera had even been broadcast. Apparently he had to be encouraged to at least watch the programme he was resigning over. This simply confirmed his feelings, but it seems insane that someone should wish to resign from a senior position over alleged offences that they have yet to see for themselves.

Things and stuff 

I was putting together a post on blogging composers, but I see that Scott Spiegelberg ahs caught several of them, while Alex Ross links to a number of other new classical bloggers. Still, I think there's room for mentions of the Living Composer, and Renewable Music, run by David Feldman, Daniel Stearns and Daniel Wolf. Will musician blogs - as opposed to blogs by music critics - be 2005's thing?


From our corporate downfall editor, we see that Sir John Eliot Gardiner, one of the world's great conductors, and a musician who has found a very large, identifiable and relatively cheap-to-produce niche for himself (since Bach cantatas require no copyright fees, and JEG's performances use small ensembles) has started up his own label after losing his contract with Deutsche Grammophon in 2000. Silly boys.

And from the 'Eh? WTF?' desk, this.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Concert promoters! 

It would be really great if you could bring this to London sometime.

Thank you!

Monday, January 10, 2005

This production contains appropriate use of strong language and religious mythology 

Seriously, you have been fairly warned.

So, I watched Jerry Springer on the telly the other night. There's been a lot of hoohah over this, which is ironic because its all-too-rare that the Beeb fulfils its remit to show high quality arts productions, and its even rarer to see contemporary music theatre on the box. So three cheers there for a start.

There's been so much fuss over this thing (and Michael Brooke has linked to a number of blog responses, as well as adding some of his own thoughtful comments) that I won't needlessly add words of support* that are already elsewhere. Of course it is a good thing that the BBC put this on, of course most people are protesting without having seen what they're protesting about, and of course most of them are missing the point entirely due to a campaign whipped up by the most fanatical and hypocritical corners of the media. But, there were a few things that occured to me as I watched that I don't think have been picked up anywhere else.

1) The charge of blasphemy. Well, given that a) the Jesus character wasn't wearing a nappy, as widely reported, but a loincloth (you know, like He wears on every Crucifix in the world) and b) this was a character in a stage production of a TV show metaphorically doubling as a Christ figure, which makes us many times removed from realistic representation, then it's strange (but not surprising) that the Christian right have picked up on this image to support their charges. What the church genuinely might have a problem with is the opera's central theme - articulated by Jerry near the end - that there are no absolutes of good and evil, that such things are in constant flux. This is much harder to square theologically with the Bible - and the Torah and Koran for that matter, but I don't see Jews and Muslims aren't making a fuss - than Christ admitting that he might be a little bit gay. But then sophisticated theological debate isn't the stuff of Dail Mail headlines.

2) The opportunity to watch something else. Haha! - surely the BBC had tongue gleefully in cheek on this one? About an hour before the opera started, a BBC spokesman (didn't catch a name) was talking on Radio 5, and suggested that if people were worried that JS:tO might offend (on either the bad language or religious fronts) then they might want to switch to another BBC channel: on BBC 1 he observed was Billy Connolly (the Billy Connolly well known for his clean mouth and uncontroversial material), and on BBC 4 was the Long Firm, a drama about an openly gay gangster. Tee hee!

3) The language. The charge that 8000+ swear words appear in the script has been widely debunked (and does arsehole count? Are we really that prudish?). A rough tally reckoned on more like 150-200. I'm not quite sure where the 297 cunts came from. I only spotted one passage using the word. And if you ask me, calling Satan a 'total cunting cunt' is the best possible use of the most powerful swear word in the English language.

So hurrah for the BBC. Maybe their charter should be up for renewal every year - it's certainly having a positive effect on their programming at the moment.

*However, I would suggest that if you want to register some support to the BBC for doing the right thing, click here to sign a petition of support.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Dissensus - how do you hear music? 

This Dissensus thread looks like it could shape up into an interesting one. I think listening habits - how, where, and when people listen - are fascinating, and I love listening to people's different reactions to the same thing. Listening is what makes music live after all. For what it's worth, my early contribution to the debate is as follows:
As someone who has, I suppose, a 'classically trained' ear, I find that it's something you have to learn to switch on and off. Halfway through my degree I suddenly realised that I was forgetting to listen to music sensually, and was just hearing it as technique. I could hear what the harmony was doing, but it was about as moving as a crossword puzzle. That freaked me out a bit - it's something that can happen when you analyse things too much - so I taught myself to listen emotionally again. It sounds very artificial, but it had to be done, and once you've gone down some roads you can't just pretend that you haven't. So now I usually listen halfway between the two. If I want to listen analytically and pick something apart to explain why something it is having a certain effect on me, I do; if I just want to feel it, I do. (obv different types of music work better one way or the other)

Thursday, January 06, 2005

On form so far I am wary of 2005. It fits like someone else's shoe.

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