The Rambler :: blog

Friday, February 25, 2005

The old chestnut, revisited 

Contra Alex Ross's protestations that "the death of classical music is dead" there's a worthwhile article by Richard Morrison in today's [London] Times. It's not a bad piece, and is useful for putting giving a balanced context to the figures presented by Howard Goodall which attempted (in a distinctly New Labour style) to present a rosy picture of music education in Britain today.

Unfortunately Morrison's opening remark - that a century after Elgar's 'A Future for English Music' lecture "English music has no creative giant in Elgar's league to deliver such an authoritative report on the nation's musical health" - is slightly undone by the fact that the current Master of the Queen's Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, has been making exactly Elgar's point, forcefully and untiringly, for the last 40 years. However, he's due a break and there's certainly no one else to take his place, so we'll let that quibble ride.

Morrison's strongest point - and this is less of a classical deathwatch observation - comes from John Adams:
In our street we have friends with lots in common. We discuss new books, films, popular culture, politics - everything except serious music. That shuts everyone up. I don't think they even know what I do.
This rings so very true. Other than those with whom I studied music, I don't think I talk seriously about music with any of my friends. Films, art, architecture, theatre, literature, yes, all of that, and frequently. But never music. (Milady is a glowing exception to this rule, but it's no coincidence that I fell in love with the one exception.) Never even seriously about pop. Music - as so many of our conservative listeners would wish - is not something one talks about, even if it's the central defining passion of your life. This is a very odd situation, because I don't imagine there can be many people who will come out of a great film that has really fired their imagination, and who can't give some sort of voice to how that has happened. But it is sadly de rigeur to listen to music (of most sorts, actually, except possibly jazz, so good on you guys) tight-lipped as though it is somehow unworthy of verbal understanding beyond a set of clichéd exclamations (of the 'bravo'/'stirring'/'profound'/'And he was deaf, you know' sort). I don't know why this is. I wish it would stop. My own theory is that it's to do with that damned 'pop'/'classical' division at the heart of music (Elvis has a lot to answer for, you know). None of the other major arts really have this. Theatre is theatre, and it's never really been pop. Art, in its historical forms, is never going to be very pop (although most of the big guns can still get a city talking when a new show rolls in), but half the point about most contemporary art is that it is so far beyond pop that it's absurd to even consider the question. Literature's greatest form, the novel, probably couldn't encompass a broader reach of high and low with such ease as it does today. And film, majestically, has always been a perfect marriage of high art idealism with a popular reach. Music, though, is entrenched around Twin Towers that shall seemingly never meet - each is embarassed that the other even exists. And then any attempt to relate the two is labelled 'crossover', and let's be honest, that embarasses all of us.

Although to be frank, as a reflection of my current listening, the whole business of music could go to hell right now as long as we got to keep Spiritualized's Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space. I've had this on tape (then transferred to minidisc as the tape player died) since it came out in 1997 (1997!!!), but only this week got round to grabbing a CD copy off eBay, and boy, is that ever good. Haven't listened to this record in a while anyway, but there's little doubt in my mind that it's the band's best (and sometimes if I wrote down the spec for my favourite possible band, they'd sound like Spiritualized). Jason's songwriting reaches a maturity here that he never consistently manages elsewhere - 'I think I'm in love' and 'Broken heart' are damn near perfect. Like all the greatest artists, they find a complete and unique worldview that can find room for whatever they want to put in it (rock and roll, gospel, psychedelia, improv, noise, pop, orchestras, guitars, analogue drones). Jason Spaceman's world is full of drugs and love and God and drugs, which is nothing original, but no one does it this well.

So yeah, screw the naysaying, right now I couldn't be happier with the music we have.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Shameless pluggery 

Milady and I currently have a bunch of stuff up for sale second-hand over at Amazon. If you're after some cheap videos, mostly sci-fi/fantasy-related, going cheap, then please take a peek (Angel box sets, anyone?). But the cream of the crop are this LaCie external CD burner (bought second hand myself, mistakenly believing it to have USB, but it's only Firewire), and a first edition copy of the 4-volume New Grove Dictionary of American Music, a world-class reference book (and not completely superceded by the New Grove Second Edition) for a budget price. Some of the binding on one volume needs regluing, but it's in immaculate condition otherwise.

Lawyers: take a break! 

If recent developments at La Cieca are anything to go by, it would seem that irony, satire, and a bit of a laugh are now up for legal scrutiny. Well, that makes me feel more secure...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Music since 1960: Kilar: Krzesany 

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

Index here.

No lengthy analysis for this one. Nor is much demanded. Kilar is now best known in his later career as composer-of-choice for directors such as Roman Polanski - you can hear his work on The Ninth Gate and The Pianist, for example - but he broke through in the 60s with the wave of Polish composers that included Penderecki and Górecki. He was about as heavily promoted by the Polish state publishing house, PWM, as any of his colleague at the time, but like them his music was not well received in the UK. One piece in particular - Riff 62 - crops up on a number of occasions in concert reviews through the early 60s (it's a rare piece of its type in getting more than one mention at least), to general bemusement. Like much of Kilar’s work of the time, it's a pretty raw slab of sonorism, and the general opinion was that it works well enough, but you wouldn't want to hear it a second time.

Although a little later, Krzesany falls into a similar sonic bracket, but, typically, I'd love to hear it again. I first discovered the work on a rare foray into my University's principal orchestra. My break came because Krzesany requires four oboists (it's quadruple wind all round). And three of those ahead of me in the queue couldn’t make it. Yes, I was seventh choice oboist as a student. Which I suppose was fair enough given that I hardly practised.

Anyway, since the concert, I don't think I've heard Krzesany again. It's extremely immediate in its musical language – not easy on the ear as such, but there’s not much subtlety in Kilar's musical language. Most of the fourth oboe part involved fortissimo runs from the highest note of the instrument to the lowest, and there was a long ffff passage of repeating top As - not the easiest note to hammer out at fortissi-issi-issi-mo. What really sticks in the mind though - and this is what made the piece such a riotous work for student orchestra - is the closing section. By this stage in his career, Kilar - similarly to Górecki - had discovered the music of the góral people of the Tatra mountains in the south of Poland; in fact 'Krzesany' is a 'sparking' or fire-leaping dance of the region. For the work's coda, then, Kilar has all the strings grinding out, barrel-organ style, a fast Tatra melody, over and over and over. On top of this, the remaining members of the (large) orchestra enter, section by section, in completely free improvisation. Kilar includes some detailed instructions on the sort of improvisation he's after, but the summarised version is that we should all be playing everything, all of the time. Whether he meant this to include the theme from 'The Muppets' didn't get in the way of one or two of the brass section during rehearsals. In the closing bars, as the Tatra melody accelerates to a frenzy and the rest of the orchestra are threatening to blow the roof off the auditorium, the brass stand and belt out a whopping C major chord over the top. As a musical gesture it's about as subtle as Pantera, but by 'eck it's bloody good fun.

Krzesany isn't exactly an obscure piece on recording as it happens, so follow me in grabbing a copy; then throw it on the stereo, loud.

Currently enjoying 

Mixes hosted at the Cybernetic Broadcasting System, including the legendary l-f mixes Mixed up in the Hague parts 1 and 2. Big. Nice to hear some beats that aren't disappearing into the distance at a thousand miles an hour for a change.

The recent Frenchbloke mix hosted at Boom Selection. It starts to tail off towards the end for me, but hearing Linkin Park and Robbie Williams implode into a pre-digital wasteland of Cage, Crass and Stockhausen is a rare pleasure indeed. The entry of the Undertones at the beginning of a John Peel tribute stretch is pretty special too.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Spotted via Musica Transatlantica, this video has to be the most thorough piece of student recital advertising evah. (Although trying to beat Stravinsky with the stick of Mussorgsky, a composer from whom he drew much early inspiration, is a stretch...)


Rob Witts has a handy link-summary of the current condition-of-the-classical-music-scene coverage (there have been quite a few recent pieces in the mainstream media here in the UK). Which reminded me that I meant to draw attention to a debate that has been ongoing in the Times letters pages, arguing the (faintly ludicrous) case for paying to see a concert, then closing your eyes throughout in order not to be distracted by such things as performers, etc. This is precisely the point I was making below with regard to Reich. Attending a live concert is more than a question of sound fidelity (and, necessarily, attending a concert at London's major venues is certainly about something other than the sound); classical music is most fully experienced as a live audio-visual performance. It was written as such - you only have to spend a few seconds in the company of a half-decent string quartet to see that the shaping of time in live classical music is an expression of both sound and movement. To me, closing your eyes to the work of the performer on stage seems both dishonest, and a little selfish. It's an act that exalts the composer, and his romanticized intellect above all (a position I always find difficult to agree on anyway). It makes redundant the physical labour of the performer (and if this was no matter in, say, the 'Hammerklavier' sonata, don't you think Brendel would still be playing it?) - in fact it removes the performer entirely other than as a lightning rod for that romanticized intellect again. It attempt to exclusivise (word?) that intellect for yourself, to deny the community around you, to consume in isolation. Attending a concert is not the same as reading a book - there's a profound difference in design that is not entirely coincidental.* And worst - but most typically - pretending you can't see what is being performed on stage removes the body from music. Watching (watching!) a concert with eyes closed is a plea to remove all vestiges of the physical from music, to leave just the spiritual husk, beamed in from the heavens where Beethoven's soul resides. Rather like those intravenous all-over body drips in The Matrix. Music is bodily: this seems obvious enough to anyone who's ever tapped a toe, shed a tear, had their heart broken, smiled, winced, headbanged, air-guitared, watched Rocky II or Carmen or Moulin Rouge or The Magic Flute or sang or picked up an instrument at any point in their lives. It makes me sad that people are relieved to miss out on any of that.

[Update: On matters of applause, which often depends upon the same audience-performer-music relationship, see Alex Ross's outstanding post. Ossip Gabrilowitsch speaks words of wisdom: "It is a mistake to think you have done your part when you buy your tickets."]

*And just in case there's any confusion, a CD is, or can be, like a book. Recorded music is ontologically different from live performance.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Music since 1960: Reich: Six Pianos 

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

Index here.

When my mum first heard Six Pianos we were driving back from Newcastle, where I'd just bought the piece on CD (this recording, which I wholeheartedly recommend). Mum was driving, and in the end the relentless rhythms were grating on her nerves so badly that we had to turn them off.

When I first heard Six Pianos a few years earlier (in its arrangement for six marimbas) it was a formative teenage musical experience. I can't remember the first piece of minimalism I'd really heard - this may have been it - but this was certainly the first piece I'd seen live, and formed in me a belief to which I still adhere: minimalism (particularly of the Steve Reich/Phil Glass variety) is music for live performance. At their best, seen up close, Reich's interlocking patterns create their own visual magic. You can't follow the movement of all twelve hands on the keyboards, but whichever you look at seems to be performing some sleight of hand trick; the rhythms you hear never seem to lock with the rhythms you're seeing. The hand strikes the keys, there's a sound,


The hand lifts, there's a sound.


Unlike large orchestral, non-repetitive orchestral works, with Reich's music you feel that you can follow how each individual action of the performers translates into the notes you hear; yet this sense only leaves you more open to fooling. You can't follow everything, so what you get is always more than you see.

And then there's the sound. My Six Marimbas epiphany was at the Albert Hall, with the stage positioned ideally in the centre so that the resonance shot straight up and swirled around the auditorium, like a wall-of-death biker. It was the first time I'd really heard all the auditory tricks to be found in deep, sustained resonance - strings and choirs drifted down, curtain-like from the gallery, the walls hummed.

Since then, I've preferred my minimalism in granite slabs like Six Pianos. On the same CD as linked above, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ just about fits the bill (although in a much more tintinnabulate fashion), but Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards marks the point at which Reich seems to lose some faith in the power of those sculpted blocks, domesticating them with semi-functional harmony, traditional forms, pseudo-melodies, stratified orchestration and so on. With the sustained wind notes of Variations - by which the visual performative act is subordinated to the sound it makes - the edgy unpredictability of something like Six Pianos is lost (simply put: wind playing doesn't look as good as percussion, or even strings).

The other edgy thing about Six Pianos places it firmly in the American experimental tradition, something that is some way behind Reich by the time he writes Variations. For a couple of years my dad, in semi-retirement, worked at the local music shop (my parents' village is home to England's largest music shop north of Leeds) helping restore pianos. He once told me about the complexities of tuning pianos, and why it is so hard to tune one, damn near impossible to tune two to each other, and actually impossible to tune three or more. I don't know if it qualifies as an example of chaos theory, but the upshot is that even small variations in the wood and metal used in piano construction can affect the way in which it is tuned. Since no piano, being equally tempered, can be tuned absolutely, the material variations affect the tuning compromises that are made across the entire keyboard. Dad could explain this much better than I, but the result for Reich's piece is that even though the notes are on the surface composed to give the impression of one single super-piano rather than six individual instruments, a monochrome wall of sound, the end result is in actual fact completely unpredictable. Reich's fully-notated, metronomically precise work is in fact deeply reliant on chance, on an awareness of the physical limitations of music-making, and the points where pressure can be applied. Each piano has its own slightly different tuning, and when six are played together, there is no mistaking the six different instruments for one; it's not that difficult to aurally pick out individual voices within a Six Pianos performance (even if the appearance can momentarily deceive). It would of course be simple to realise Six Pianos through MIDI, but even with the best synthesised piano available there could never be any confusion over which version was acoustic, which digital. The MIDI version would have its own qualities, for sure, but it could never glisten with the clashing of all those ever-so-slightly off-key upper partials; there would be no breath in the sound. We are back to the essential drive for live performance that is built into Reich's music.

In this respect Six Pianos shares something with the work of Brian Ferneyhough - an awareness of the potency of live performance. The relationship between score, performer and sound is unique, and central, to classical music, yet not all composers (and fewer performers themselves) are willing to explore its ramifications. There is a danger in thinking that since there is such a thing as a good or a bad performance, there must, somewhere, be a Platonic Form of that work. The problem is that when that Form is discovered, it will render all other performances useless. Thankfully music does not exist in such a sterilised world; it is rather in the deliberate non-congruence of six pianists playing six pianos, and in this, Reich's work has an important lesson for all musicians.

New blog alert 

New blog covering grime and dubstep in the USA: URRRRR (from Cooper of Urban Renewal Records. Kid Kameleon looks to have it spot on in his comment
Wow … can I just say that if more people who design websites ran blogs the world would be a better place (and blogs would look tighter). Also, if more DJs knew how to write and more writers DJed, also, the world would be a better place (and would sound better too). If webdesigners who can write about good music also DJ … well, then you have Cooper. Welcome to the sphere.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Musicircus moves 

Just a heads up for y'all - Rob Witts' Musicircus blog (formerly here) is now here, and he's back and blogging with style on London's classical and jazz scenes.


This is all very well, but no mention of little me?


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Best postmodern pop song evah. 

OK, how great is this?

[via Clap Clap]

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Lazy blogging 

Sorry - not much new content today. Possible Work changes afoot (shhh!) so am trying to get plenty of hours in the bank. But, the following might be worth a moment of your time at least ...

Britain's orchestras starting to smell the coffee?

Do your own cutups [via 86400 secs.

Cage and Feldman chew the fat, archived online [via Disquiet (sweet!)

Also, if you've never trundled over to the Library of Congress' American Memory online collections, you probably should. I'm hauling my way through them at the moment, and you could spend days immersed in priceless stuff like this, this or this.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Arthur Miller dies aged 89 


Someone out there... 

Please buy me this. Thank you!

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Wilco = Metallica? 

Hal Halvorsen - whose blog I discovered via his often interesting contributions to dissensus - makes the unusual, but revealing point that Wilco may be the new Metallica (in response to the usually wise Larry Lessig's claim that the indie darlings are the future of music).

Newer acts like Laura Cantrell and Bloc Party are providing free MP3s, Moby is keeping an up-to-date diary, Magnatune has an exciting business-model, podcasting, Creative Commons licensed music: all this is novel and exciting.

There is nothing making Wilco different from Metallica (or say David Bowie), apart from Wilco using the internet to make a comeback. That is good story in itself, but hardly the future of music.
I quite liked the sentiments of Wilco's 'Music is not a loaf of bread' interview (I've blogged about it before), and there's no doubt that as a bit of online viral marketing it was a huge success - most bloggers picked up on the story and it must have got hundreds of thousands of readers. But Hal's got a point here - the sentiment was great, if only they could practice what they preach.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Wirtualna Polska 

Today, thanks to a chain of followed links from E.C. Brown to Oddio Overplay and beyond, I have been mostly flicking my way through the MP3 archives of Wirtualna Polska. To be honest there's a lot pretty iffy stuff in there - the optimist in me headed straight for 'Darkwave', hoping to find some nowy Warszawsky dubstep but it wasn't to be; the drum and bass and electro lists were pretty unencouraging too. More joy is to be found in 'Underground Techno', where minimal 4x4 techno allows less room for over-elaborate cut-and-splice effects.

Also at Oddio I discovered a Polish folk compilation, of which the Dzieci z Broda (Broda Children) are a particularly enjoyable. More from my adventures in free Polish music later...

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Bad news week for Scots pipers:

RIP Calum Campbell;

RIP Martyn Bennett.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Currently reading 

Britpop reaches the GCSE syllabus. Is there no limit to the New Labourising of Great Britain? Key quote:
"God help the students in the classroom taking apart the music of Kula Shaker and Northern Uproar. There's nothing there."

Martin Kettle, also in the Guardian writes unconvincingly on the dea(r)th of new composed music. Hmm. Seems that here's a classic example of the critic unable to see beyond the orchestra pit to what is actually happening in music today. No, not many pieces of the last 50 years have made achieved "a genuinely established place in the repertoire", but:

a) is this a bad thing anyway?
b) is it too early to tell? (a common question asked of new music, but not actually one I hold much truck with. Good music gets you pretty quickly if you're paying it enough attention.)
c) what repertoire? Kettle says that he means "a piece that you can count on hearing in most major cities most years, and a performance of which is likely to bring in a large general audience". This is no mark of quality, but even so there are plenty of recent works that fulfill that criterion - you can be fairly confident that you can find John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine somewhere in the world in any week of the year, and always to a large concert hall audience.

But I doubt this is what Kettle means - what he's after (as his own suggestions imply) is a large symphonic/concertante work that can hold its own as the centrepiece of an evening concert. Well, many composers simply aren't writing those any more. This is not a golden age for either the symphony or the concerto (but neither was the barren musical wasteland stretching from Dunstaple to Bach), and quite rightly the very best composers are writing works more appropriate to the present musical situation. Kettle's right to say that classical music survives "after a fashion ... overwhelmingly on the strength of its back catalogue and performance tradition", but he is misguided when denying the presence of any new creativity. Creativity in non-pop, composed, notated music abounds - some of us even worry that there are too many composers - and has never been greater, but only a tiny proportion of it goes into propping up a dead and irrelevant worldview. New classical music does have little to say about today - that's because it's a pre-WWII legacy. New music outside the confines of the orchestral stage has plenty to say.

Kyle Gann always has good things to say on this precise point; here he is observing the cyclic pattern of the complexity vs simplicity/progressive vs reactionary debate. Good stuff.

Someone who will be greatly missed from the British new music scene is Susan Bradshaw, who died over the weekend. Gerard McBurney has written an excellent obituary to this remarkable woman in the Independent. Do go and read it before it slips behind a registration wall.



Jess Harvell is epic in response to this much discussed Simon Reynolds piece. [c + p copy at the top of this ILM thread]

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