The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Music since 1960: Grisey: Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil 

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

Index here.

Astute readers will know that this is a work that completely blew me away when I first heard it January 1999. I was reading some Music and Letters reviews from the early 1970s on Monday, and one critic – from memory it may have been Henry Raynor – suggested that most of us, if we're lucky, see about a dozen concerts that stay with us through our lives. The first performance of Quatre chants, alongside the latest incarnation of Boulez's Sur incises and a Wolfgang Rihm work I no longer remember the name of, was one of my dozen, no question. Since then, I've attempted sporadically to find a recording to little success (although I've not tried recently, so one may be out there now – I'm in Paris next month, so I'll have a nose round the Pompidou music shop. Update: Charlie Quidnunc points out that a recording is available at that obscure emporium, Amazon. Thanks!). The work crystallised for me a number of ideas about music that are important in how I see and hear things 6 years later. One of the most memorable elements of that performance was the great rack of gongs stretched across the back of the stage – a 15-note gong 'keyboard' in fact. Most of the piece is extremely quiet, and at several points the percussionist in charge of this giant metallophone has to play rapid, pianissimo, arpeggios across the full range of the gongs spread in front of him. The precise gymnastics of this, to create an effect that was barely audible, was hugely impressive, and from that point I was convinced of the importance of the visual and the physical aspects to so much successful music.

For the re-presenting of the work, with the original forces of London Sinfonietta, George Benjamin and Valadine Anderson singing the soprano part, at Monday's concert, the linear gong arrangement that I remembered had been reconsidered as a three-sided cage for the player. Actually, I thought this worked just as well – you just had to spin, rather than leap, to hit all the notes. As for everything else, it stood up well against the enhancing effects of memory, and just confirmed for me that this really is one of the most important concert works of the last decade. It's certainly the most shattering I know of – I wasn't the only member of the audience left absolutely shell-shocked by the end, and Benjamin, great musician that he is, gave us a full 15 seconds of silence before anyone even dared applaud.

The four sections of the work (its title roughly translates as 'four songs for the crossing of the threshold') deal with the deaths of the angel, civilisation, the voice and humanity respectively, and set texts from Guez-Ricord, The Hours of Night, fragments from an archaeological catalogue of the Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Empire, two lines by the 6th-century Greek poetess Erinna, and an extract from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It's a great set of texts – the second movement is just a litany of entries in the archaeological catalogue "811 and 812: (almost entirely disappeared) / 814: 'Now that you rest for eternity … ' / 809: (destroyed) / 868 and 869: (almost entirely destroyed) …" Find me a more unintentionally moving text than that. These are set to an almost post-minimal series of three-note patterns – very slow – played with microtonal colourings throughout the ensemble. For Grisey, whose works to this point were generally glittering, intricate collisions of timbre and rhythm, it is, as Benjamin said on the night, a very courageous work. This movement comprises almost nothing, yet it is one of the most immediate emotional cores of the work.

The first song, The Death of the Angel, is hardly less extraordinary. The four songs are separated by interludes, the hiss of a bass drum skin being brushed in large circles, a noise that grows from the ambient sounds of auditorium air conditioning and audience breathing. This is how the work opens too, and the sound becomes the slow whoosh of unpitched air through wind and brass. From this impulse Grisey constructs an intricate web of note patterns, eternally descending. Aside from the singer, the noise level never rises above the barely audible. Adding an additional layer of effect, every player seems to have multiple instruments, mutes and other paraphernalia to deal with. These have to be changed on an almost constant basis. The stage never stops fidgeting (part of me thinks that all this written-in tinkering must be a wind player's dream). With the sound level so low, and each performer in the small ensemble very exposed, the tension of changing, from say, one sax to the next to the next every few bars is palpable. The visual and aural effect is as delicate and intricate as unpicking a spider's web.

The tension is maintained at this borderline-unbearable pitch – it's like working with your fingers at something very small and very precise: after a certain time you have to make a large movement just to clear your head. The beginning of the fourth song sounds as though it might be this large movement: the bass drum interlude that has punctuated the spaces between each song so far returns for a last time, and grows into a fast percussive tattoo of repeated notes, shared between the three percussionists. But what looks like the release of tension that has been expected for the last half an hour never fully materialises; the drum sounds remain so neutral, so flatly percussive and regular, that instead of being released, our tensions are just sent on a different trajectory. What we really want, after all these hints at sound, is a rich noise, something to ease our hyper-sensitised ears into – the chorale from Stravinsky's Symphonies of Winds, or Messiaen's L'Ascension; even a nice chord on the vibraphone would do. But dry drum patterns – word-painting the lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh "For six days and seven nights / Squalls, Pelting rains / Hurricanes and Flood / Continued to ravage the earth" – aren't making anyone feel comfortable. Finally, "When the seventh day arrived", the sea is calmed "into stillness".
I looked about:
Silence reigned!
All mankind had been
Returned to clay;
And the flat liquid
Resembled a terrace.
Some relief is offered – again it feels like true relief at first – by a chiming two-part line in microtonal (just intonation?) violin and cello accompanying these words. They are the first real pitches in several minutes, and they resemble a shaft of light, even if the way out remains obscured. Only at the very last does the music finally allow the scent of fresh air "I opened a window / And daylight fell on my cheek ... " Grisey described this final lullaby as "Music for the dawn of a humanity finally disencumbered of the nightmare," although he himself cautiously added "I dare hope that this lullaby will not be among those we shall sing tomorrow to the first human clones as we perforce reveal to them the indefensible genetic and psychological violence committed against them by a humanity desperately seeking new taboos upon which to ground itself." A mighty work both of, and for our times, then.

More on Hyperion/Sawkins 

Just wanted to flag up that Galen H. Brown at Sequenza 21 has also, more lucidly than I, explained the arguments for how Hyperion were wrong in appealing their case, and Sawkins is right to claim copyright infringement. OK, case closed on this one.

Me me me: Meme me 

So, The Standing Room has passed on to me one of the many meme batons doing the rounds at the moment.... [Cracks knuckles] Right...

Total volume of music on your computer?

I've actually got two computers with music on them - a desktop Mac and a company laptop. The Mac is telling me 1626 songs (8.59GB); the laptop is much less than it was since I filled up the harddrive over the weekend and had to delete a bunch of stuff; they're mostly CD-length mixes cos that's the machine with the burner. I don't tend to put much music on my computers - at my desk I listen as much to minidiscs (I have dozens of those) as anything.

Last CD you bought?

Erm. It was either Public Image Limited Metal Box or Tadeusz Baird Dzieła [Works]; both were from eBay. Last record bought was Giorgio Moroder's soundtrack to Midnight Express from a local charity shop.

Song currently playing?

Boom Boom Bashment mix by John Eden and Paul Meme.

Five songs I listen to a lot or that mean a lot to me?

Martha and the Vandellas: 'Dancing in the Street'. Along with 'Superstition' and 'I Want you Back' this is a permament fixture on my desert island list. It gets the nod here because it's the one I'm listening to most at the moment.

Olivier Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie. Stretching the definition of 'song' somewhat, but since first hearing this as a teenager this has long been one of my favourite 20th-century works. When I first played it to milady and she laughed out loud at the orgiastic bad taste extravaganza of the finale, I knew she was special.

Gene: 'Does he have a name' (from Libertine). A lost pinnacle of the post-Britpop years and a magnificent song, one that forges a perfect alliance between music and lyrics. The strings at the fadeout, whose harmonies distort and damage the musical space, are the perfect image of a heartbroken man fighting to keep his composure. Gets me every time.

Penderecki: St Luke Passion. Something of an odd one this, as it probably wouldn't ever share my desert island with me, but as one of the central planks of my thesis it certainly figures as both something I listen to a lot and that means a lot to me.

Manic Street Preachers: 'Motorcycle Emptiness'. The favourite song of a close friend who is no longer among us.

Five people to whom I'm passing the baton?

Much as I like receiving them, I hate imposing these things on people so I'm going to duck this one - rather than single anyone out anyone that wants can follow on.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Classical music makes you dumber 

Two very thought-provoking points made by Greg Sandow recently:
As I read this crap [a festival press release full of the usual empty hype] I started to wonder whether there just might be a reverse Mozart effect. Maybe classical music makes us dumber. Meanwhile, if we believe Stephen Johnson's new book, pop culture gets smarter and smarter.
The media, as time goes on, covers classical music less and less. A lot of people in our field complain about that. Sometimes they blame the media, as if all these editors and writers and producers — many in their thirties and forties, precisely the people we know we’re not reaching — had some obligation to cover us, which they shamefully neglect.

But in fact, as some smart classical music publicists explained to me many years ago, the problem is the opposite of this: People in the media are getting smarter, in part because there's more art for them to think about, more theater companies, dance companies, museums (not to mention everything in popular culture).
A reverse Mozart effect? Well, since the 'true' Mozart effect was thoroughly refuted as a load of old bunkum, it's just possible...

Susumu Yokota: symbol 

One of the most interesting upcoming releases is probably Japanese electronica musician Susumu Yokota's 25th (twenty-fifth!) album, Symbol, out on 6th June. Yokota is, for my money, one of the most subtle, inventive artists making ambient-ish electronica. Normally I'd recommend any album of his with absolute confidence - I bought several on the strength of hearing just one track from Sakura (alongside Grinning Cat probably his best record), and didn't hit a dud. There are few of his tunes available to download via his label Leaf.

Symbol though is a little provocative: it's composed to a large extent of samples of - mostly well-known - classical works. Classical mashups if you like. This is an idea I've always wanted someone to explore well, and by my reckoning Yokota would be the man to attempt it, so on one level I'm really pleased that he has. However, the first review I've read - in The Wire last month - was less than happy with the results. The BBC have three tracks available for streaming, and I'm left pretty ambivalent myself. The third track, 'The Dying Black Swan' is certainly the best of three - and I think stands up well to a lot of Yokota's other work. It's the only one of the three to completely eschew a beat, which has been the case with many of Yokota's better tunes (much as I love the harder, housier things on 1999). The other two, 'Purple Rose Minuet' and 'Song of the Sleeping Forest' tread the fine line between inspired and naff; the limp beats on 'Song' definitely edging it towards the naff side. Pulling riffs from Debussy's 'Au clair de la lune' at the start of 'Minuet' is also a pretty high risk strategy - to most people who've watched much British TV over the last few years it sounds like it could lapse quickly into an advert for soft cheese. The feel of the track is unmistakable Yokota - lots of lovely, rich loops, given the space to really sound - but his source material is just that bit too obvious. 'Song' relies much more on late 20th-century minimalism: plenty of Meredith Monk loops in here, plus some marimba riffs that I'm guessing are Reich. Yokota's clear take on his material here make the mistake that minimalism is a comforting, relaxing, musical trend, rather than the radical, unsettling phenomenon that it is. Again this is a surprise from Yokota, since I've always felt that his strongest ambient work has been coloured with enough dark shades to keep it interesting, and here he's been tempted to indulge in some cheap coffee house sounds.

'The Dying Black Swan' does keep that darker edge - the lack of an emphasised pulse keeps you unsettled, and a few of the samples don't completely lock harmonically, making for some tangy clashes. On the strength of this, I'll probably get the album when it comes out, so here's hoping there's more like it.

On An Overgrown Path: Classic misunderstandings - Hildegard 

Have mentioned James Woods in the earlier post on the recent Sinfonietta concert, it's pertinent to mention a couple of posts at On an Overgrown Path - the first reviews the world première of his opera Hildegard; the second a very amusing follow-up, revealing possible reasons for so many of the audience leaving at the interval...


Shout to Joe Nice of GourmetBeats Radio for sending me a CD of his dubstep show from back in March. Deep.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Spam Apology 

On matters nothing to do with music, and little to do with copyright law (well actually... but then...), my attention has been drawn, via Technorati, to a 'blog' (I'm not going to honour it with a link) that seems to be pulling assorted bits of text from this site - in fact any site with the word 'Rambler' prominent - and publishing them, with links back here, there and everywhere. God knows why, but I fear it's automated, and something sinister to do with spam; so, please usual spam rules apply - delete, don't reply, etc. etc. - and please accept my apologies since this is nothing to do with me, and entirely out of my control. Thanks!

Hyperion feeling 

I know I sniggered at Alex Ross's recent post on the Hyperion saga, but there's a serious point here that is being overlooked. And I also know that I've used words like 'chilling', 'wreckage', 'awful' in relation to the ruling against Hyperion, but I've been giving it more thought and revising my first reactions considerably.

First of all, I'm amazed at how many (at last count all but A.C. Douglas and me, although my thoughts have taken some time to crystallise admittedly) of the scholarly, writerly, creative side of the equation are instinctively siding with the record company, and against the scholarly, writerly, creative plaintiff. Personally, I'm pleased in many ways that for once, authorial control has been teased away from the record companies, and restored to those who actually work manuscript-in-hand. This is a Good Thing. Once again, the actual costs of this to the companies on a recording-by-recording basis (given that up until now it was assumed that Early Music was available scot-free) are not going to cripple the industry. Hyperion acknowledge this themselves. The reason they are in deep financial trouble is that they followed bad, and expensive, legal advice to appeal a case they had already comprehensively lost once already. For the sake of not paying Sawkins - and other editors like him - what will surely have been a pretty paltry sum, they've gambled and lost to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds (and, lest we forget, this is about paying money - Hyperion were happy to credit Sawkins in respect of authorship, but would not agree to pay him royalties). There are words for that sort of thing - let's not get misty-eyed about this. I'm sorry that one of the better labels is going to suffer financially - I really am - but they must have had some knowledge of the serious risks they were taking for their relatively small gain.

Not all copyrights are the same. Copyright DOES NOT de facto mean all royalties for the work. Under existing (EU/European) law, as shown by this case, the work of an editor like Sawkins, has value. This is measured - more or less quantitatively if needs be (see a whole string of recent cases about illegally copying database information: Fixtures Marketing v OPAP (referred from Greece), Fixtures Marketing v Oy Veikkaus Ab (referred from Finland), Fixtures Marketing v Svenska Spel Ab (referred from Sweden) and British Horseracing Board v William Hill) - by the amount of work required to complete that work. Sawkins, as a scholarly professional, presumably put a lot of work - intellectual and physical - into preparing his editions of the scores. Just as, for example, Naxos' engineers put a lot of work into their remastered Menuhin recordings (which, under EU law let's not forget, are Naxos' copyright, not 'bad, evil' Capitol's, and we all applauded that decision, even if the specifics of US law have thwarted it for the time being). Sawkins, therefore, can legally claim some rights over the scores that Hyperion recorded: the court is not saying that Sawkins wrote Lalande's piece: rather that he put a great deal of work into his edition, and it is that work that deserves to be recognised. Were Lalande still alive, or his work still under copyright, he or his estate would be entitled to a share of the rights too. A greater share (assuming that there was no conflict between Sawkins and Lalande himself over authorship of course, but that is an entirely different question). The biggest share, of course, goes to the record company, but let's not let that get in the way of a good argument... If, on the other hand, Hyperion wanted to record Lalande's works, and needed an edition (as, for example, has happened with publishers of Shakespeare, say), they would approach someone like Sawkins and commission an edition from him. If they wanted, having bought his work, they could write in their copyright ownership into the contract (they'd be fools not to), but they can not expect to get his work for free. What's more, his name would be asserted as editor (again, NOT author) of the work in all subsequent performances, reprints and recordings. This is how life is: if you have made something that someone else values, you are entitled to request payment. You are, of course, equally entitled to choose to freely distribute your work in a variety of colours, but that decision must rest with the individual who has put the work in. As a fledgling professional academic myself, I'm cock-a-hoop for my early music colleagues that their endeavours are finally being recognised as valuable to the wider world.

So, Alex (and Marc Geelhoed) are correct on one count: their 'corrected versions' of Tristan and Beethoven 5 are, in some small part, copyrighted by them. Should things come to a legal dispute, I'm sure a judge would rule that the changes are protected by copyright only in a small way - and possibly, he would see through the whole thing and rule that a couple of minor tweaks that add neither discernable value nor artistic merit to established repertory pieces that have done very well for a hundred years or more do not constitute work of any value at all. (Sorry Alex and Marc, I'm just picking on you to make a point ;-) )

However, there is one essential point being missed here, and it is precisely why Sawkins' editions warrants legal recognition, and some altered notes in Wagner or Beethoven don't. Copyright is only meaningful if someone else sees value in that work. Sawkins' Lalande edition clearly has value - the amount of money Hyperion were prepared to risk in order to retain their exclusive rights to its recording is as clear an indication of this as you will see. Alex's Tristan refix is - I presume, but apologies Alex if I'm doing your work a grave injustice - of little value to anyone. Since we're never going to hear that "brief xylophone solo in the King Mark scene" in commercial performance or recording, copyright in that version of the score is to all intents and purposes worthless.

[In the spirit of this whole post, credit where it's due to milady for links, fact checking, and several of the opinions expressed]

London Sinfonietta, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 23 May 2005 

The last piece on the programme is Gérard Grisey's Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, one of the pieces in my Music Since 1960 series, so I'm going to talk about that separately in a post or two.

To be honest the other three pieces, James Wood's Autumn Voices, 2001, Hans Abrahamsen's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, 2000, and George Benjamin's Three Miniatures for solo violin, 2001, pale into a certain insignificance; but only because of the strength of their neighbour.

In order of size, then. Benjamin's three miniatures, 'Lullaby for Lalit', 'A Canon for Sally' and 'Lauer Lied', were written for three friends of the composer. In a pre-concert discussion, Benjamin was keen to characterise them as extremely difficult pieces; Carolin Widmann, who was a particular star of the concert, brought them off well. The complexity of the pieces derives from Benjamin's desire to add harmony to the solo violin line - not the implied harmony of Bach's unaccompanied cello, but actual harmony. In the third movement in particular this required the soloist to maintain a steady ostinato accompaniment in left-hand pizzicato and a sustained arco song in the right. Impressive as this was - fireworks of a very gentle sort - for me the Lullaby was the most effective movement. Benjamin describes it as "a slow and simple melody, accompanied by open strings, which transforms into ribbons of harmonies at its end," and the ribbons neatly switch around sustained common tones to produce the most purely harmonic music of the work.

Autumn Voices, another work requiring Widmann's solo violin - this time with tape accompaniment - was particularly good. At 18 minutes, it's a big work for such limited forces, and Widmann, spotlit in a dark auditorium, must take a great deal of credit for helping sustain such a span. Wood was asked before the concert about his choice of a tape over live electronics - "with live electronics so much can go wrong" - but there was a careful synergy between 'dead' tape and live performer written into the work. Although one could sense the passages in which a hidden pulse was needed to lock violin and tape together, this merely helped articulate and relate larger areas of the work. In the main the tape sounded between the violin notes, and chirruped and burbled like the broken pipe organ of some insect cathedral. I want to hear this again.

Abrahamsen's Concerto was his first public work written after a ten-year period of almost complete compositional abstinence. The composer's wife, Anne Marie Abildskov, was the soloist, and it was she who persuaded him that he could write the piece. It is, clearly, a considerably personal achievement, and this sense is reinforced by the large number of quotations, from Abrahamsen's own works and by others such as Ligeti and Mahler - delving into those musical memories that sustained him during his creative silence perhaps? The opening of the piece "starts entirely as I usually start, with this filigree in the piano and many simultaneous layers." It's hard, with his wife as the intended soloist, not to imagine the composer participating as an active character in narrative of the piece. His embodiment is, therefore, the piano and it is a feature of the work that the piano plays almost constantly throughout - Abrahamsen is delighted with the one moment at which it stops: at the beginning of the fourth movement, a post-minimal filigree rather like the opening, "the piano stirs up an anthill", takes a break, and for the first time listens to the orchestral music that falls away from its prompting. There is no programme to the work, but the circumstances of its composition and performance hint at readings like this. Unfortunately as a whole the work ends feeling a little slight, and in contrast with the Wood, too little made of much material - witness the end of the piece which felt like it had come a few minutes too early, and caught all of us on the hop.


Sunday, May 22, 2005

1984 again 

Thanks to On An Overgrown Path for the pointer: Radio 3 are broadcasting live Wednesday's performance of 1984, so armchair opera pundits like myself can confirm whether it is as bad as reported or not.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Valentin Berlinsky 

To matters happier.

There's a gem of an interview with Borodin Quartet cellist Valentin Berlinsky, who is in the unusual position of having played with the same quartet throughout its entire life; what's more, that quartet is now 60 years old. There are several fantastic insights in the piece, but these are two of the best:
The music of Shostakovich has become one of their mainstays. They played the Third Quartet from manuscript in 1947, and thereafter the Borodins and Shostakovich forged a close bond of friendship. They often played works through to him. Did he offer any interpretative tips? "Sometimes he commented on our tempos. We'd say that we were only following his own metronome marks, and his reply was, 'My metronome at home is broken. Don't pay any attention to my metronome marks.' "
"Our first time beyond the Iron Curtain was to Italy in 1958. We had nothing to do with choosing where we went: we had lots of offers from the West, but couldn't accept them. As to repertoire, we were given 'recommendations' by a special ideological department of the Central Committee. Two-thirds of the programme had to be of Russian or Soviet music, but there was a hole in the ideological system. Western impresarios might ask us for Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert. We'd agree this with the impresario; with Goskontsert we'd confirm a programme of Schubert plus Russian music, and on the platform we'd go ahead and play Schubert, Beethoven and Mozart. Nobody kept an eye on our programmes. Goskontsert wasn't interested in what we played, but only in the money we brought back."

Sawkins v Hyperion 

Thanks to Jessica for the pointer; this news from Hyperion is chilling indeed. soundgenerator.com has a few more details.

There's plenty of useful background to the case at Musicweb and La Folia.

It's very early days for picking over the wreckage, but the general consensus, not surprisingly, is that this is awful news for the classical music industry, not least because Hyperion are an extremely valuable asset, and their loss will be ours too. However, putting their fate to one side, as one sadly must, what might the longer-term ramifications be? These are my (as you you know, non-lawyerly) first attempts at optimism:

As Hyperion themselves acknowledge, the actual fees to be paid to Lionel Sawkins for use of his score edition are pretty minimal - would this additional payment have much real effect on future performances of music in edition? Possibly not; editors' fees could simply become another payment, along with performers', sound engineers and so on. The instinct to save money could in fact foster a strong generation of performers able to play from the original scores, able to read figured bass, improvise Baroque ornamentation and so on. That would be a victory for the authentic performance movement at the least.

The other thing that crosses my mind is that, contra many recent developments in music copyright ruling, this represents a victory for the creative musician over the record company. Not that I'm for a moment comparing Hyperion to the RIAA Mastodons, but what goes for one will go for the other, surely? In his corrective, editorial way, Sawkins has played the same role as a cover artist, remixer, whatever. Were this the soon-to-be-out-of-copyright Beatles catalogue, and not works by the 18th-century composer Michel-Richard de Lalande, there would, I'm sure, be many musicians proclaiming this as the greatest thing since Edison's phonograph. Also, if the copyright threshold is so low that a few changes (corrections, not even creative alterations), does this have ramifications for Capitol v Naxos? Probably not, since the clincher there was the difference between US and UK copyright legislation, and the Hyperion case is UK. But even so, Naxos' cleaned-up recordings of Menuhin are, ontologically at least, the same as Sawkins' editions of Lalande.

This is not to put an unnecessary gloss on what is, no doubt, a momentous ruling for the score-based music industry, but at times like this I'm a pathological devil's advocate. The above is surely wishful thinking, right? I think On an Overgrown Path has it more right than I: "A good definition of lose/lose for the music industry if ever there was one."

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Summer Burn 2005 

Woohoo! It's nearly Summer Burn time!

Doesn't seem right what with it being all cold and cloudy at the moment, but I'm dead excited about this. I've sort of put together my trax already 'cos there was some sun the other day and I got all over-excited about summer tunes, but I'm listening to it now and there are too many glitchy (not in a good way) tracks that stop or start in the wrong place. That kind of sloppiness might be OK on your own BBQ tape playing for your mates, but it's no good for a stick-your-taste-on-the-line exercise like SB. So no Piracy Funds Terrorism tracks here, and not the UNKLE Dr Who refix that I dug up on the net the other day. Shame.

The definition of wtflol 

Spotted via Alex Ross, this Kyle Gann T-shirt (produced in aid of Adaptistration's Take a Friend to the Orchestra month) really does take the biscuit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

More on 'piano man' 

The mystery surrounding the so-called 'piano man' amnesiac who was discovered on a Kent beach last month continues, with no real progress made. Trails leading to Sweden and France have both led to nothing. As milady reckons, there may be plenty of lonely women calling the helpline spuriously claiming to be his wife. Conflicting reports in the immediate aftermath of the press conference at which his picture was released on Monday have only added to the misunderstandings, with one paper claiming that the music he played was unrecognisable, since none of the hospital staff knew enough about music; another claiming that it reminded them of the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi who I hadn't even heard of before this week.

Hollywood, needless to say, is already considering a film, and Paul Abbott must be expecting a call from Channel 4 at any moment.

With regard to how the story has the power to capture the British imagination, Jonathan has remarked
it also says something about how people in this country continue to see music as fabulously romantic; were he not an accomplished pianist (and interestingly the tone of articles I've read has ratcheted up the description of his talents from 'adept' to 'extraordinary') but instead a poet, I wonder if he would have had the same attention.
Pedant says that a poet would have been able to write, but it's clear what Jonathan means. The comparison with Shine is lazy and ill-fitting but has already been made in at least one national newspaper. Maybe we should invoke Beethoven or Jacqueline DuPre as well; is there some low-resistance mental path that connects mental/sensory/physical breakdown and musicians in the popular conciousness? Possibly. Giving it a few moments' thought, perhaps it's something to with music's combination of the sensual, physical and intellectual - a balanced combination that none of the other arts really achieve - that makes physical or mental illness so much more affecting alongside it. In the case of the Piano Man, there is also something about music's relationship to memory that rings deep and true.

50 Fun Things To Do With Your iPod (kottke.org) 

I like Jason Kottke's list of curious, useful, and utterly pointless things to do with your iPod - especially no.18; but no.43 seems unnecessarily contrived when such things as these are freely available....

Monday, May 16, 2005

Mystery of the 'piano man' 

Incredibly, this story is true. I only add that qualifier because it's the most extraordinary story I think I've ever read in a newspaper; it's like something out of a film script.
The "piano man" was found on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, last month. He wore a black jacket, smart trousers and a tie, all dripping wet. Police officers tried to find out who he was and if he had fallen into the sea, been pushed or even swum ashore from a boat - but the man remained silent. They dried him off as best they could and took him to accident and emergency at the Medway Maritime hospital in Gillingham. ...

fter hours of trying to elicit any scrap of detail about his life, someone had the idea of leaving him with a drawing pad and pencils. When they returned an hour later they found he had produced an excellent and detailed sketch of a grand piano. Realising that music might be the key to unlock the mystery, he was taken to the hospital's chapel, which contains a piano. The man sat down at the instrument and began to play. The doctors were amazed at the transformation. For the first time since he had been found on Sheppey he appeared calm and relaxed. He was also a good player - some say exceptional. ...

If allowed to he would play the piano for three or four hours at a stretch and at times has had to be physically removed from it because he refused to stop. When he is away from the piano he almost always carried a plastic folder with sheet music inside. ...

Meanwhile social workers have issued a missing persons' bulletin on him. Until he is identified he will no doubt continue to play his sad but soothing music to the pleasure of those caring for him and his fellow patients.
According to the BBC, calls are flooding in helping to identify the man, and there is at least one possible lead. Go and read some of the stories - this is extraordinary.

London Sinfonietta: International Benjamin 

Contemporary music fans in London could do worse this week than book tickets for next Monday's concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I'll be there, having used my student discount to book one of the best seats in the hall for a fiver (hurrah!). The concert includes James Wood's Autumn Voices, George Benjamin's Three miniatures for solo violin and Hans Abrahamsen's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Abrahamsen is giving a pre-concert talk at 7pm to ticket holders (his concerto is receiving its London première), but the really big draw for me is a repeat performance of Grisey's Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, which is one of my Music Since 1960 recommendations, and was one of those shattering musical experiences you only get once in a while when I first heard it, in this hall, with the same ensemble, five years ago. I can't wait for the rematch - a highly recommended chance to see the last great work by a composer who died too early to make the impact he deserved.

I bet... 

... this guy is more rock than you.

[5.1MB wmv file, click 'Télécharger la vidéo' link at bottom of page]

Hilary Rosen follow up 

Following up on that Hilary Rosen post I linked to the other day, Corante has an excellent, measured response. As well as the appropriate mix of outrage and we-told-you-so, the following is a particularly well-made point:
But keeping the iTunes system a proprietary technology to prevent anyone from using multiple (read Microsoft) music systems is the most anti-consumer and user unfriendly thing any god can do. Is this the same Jobs that railed for years about the Microsoft monopoly? Is taking a page out of their playbook the only way to have a successful business? If he isn’t careful Bill Gates might just Betamax him while the crowds cheer him on. Come on Steve – open it up.

Is it the only way to run a successful business? No, but it is a very good way to run one. Jobs isn't going to open up his system until it makes business sense. Unfortunately, Miss Rosen hasn't provided a single argument as to why it makes good business sense for him to do so.
The point that Apple are merely applying a business model - a user-unfriendly one, granted, but one that the music industry has in no small part forced them into - is often missed among the bluster. Most of us music lovers are not against the music industry; we're simply against an industry that makes access to the things we love unreasonably difficult.

We are back in the league, say We are back in the league! 

With apologies to Southampton, Crystal Palace and Norwich fans, there was only one result that mattered to me this weekend:

"Carlisle justified the Eddie Stobart logo on their shirts with a juggernaut approach to the game"

"The year of the great flood will forever be remembered at Carlisle, not so much for the devastation that the Cumbrians suffered, but rather for the promotion that followed."

"Carlisle United are back in the Football League after securing a victory to hearten the purist"

"Under the stewardship of Andrew Jenkins, the chairman, the club regained their footing and despite being homeless for 35 days, playing at the homes of Workington and Morecambe after floods devastated the region early in the year, blighted by long-term injuries to key players including Kevin Gray, the captain and influential defender, and a dip in form that saw them floundering in mid-table in March, they have achieved their ambition of a hasty return"

"We're back where we belong"

Thursday, May 12, 2005

PRS New Music Award 

The 3-person shortlist for the first Performing Rights Society New Music Award, new music's answer to the Turner Prize has been announced. Ivan Hewett in today's Telegraph discusses the earlier 6-strong "longlist" (not that long really...) in rather cautious terms, concerned that there's too great an emphasis on sound art, rather than actual composition. It's very often a fine line to draw, but I do see his point - at first sight there's not much room for pen and paper composition on either the short or long lists.

On the other hand, I'm delighted to see that a one-time Goldsmiths contemporary of mine, Terry Mann has made the final cut. He's the one "planning to tour all 47 cathedrals in Britain to record their bells, and weave the results into a vast aural tapestry with the aid of software" mentioned by Hewett. In the words of the PRS site
The Bells of Paradise project involves an individual recording of every cathedral bell in the UK, from the greatest Tenor to a small Sanctus bell or clock chime. In addition, ambient noise surrounding the cathedrals such as traffic, weather or bustling people, will be recorded. These recordings will provide the material for the piece. Using minimal electronic manipulation, the final composition will form a piece of installation art with the sound of the bells at its heart.
I've heard a couple of Terry's pieces, and although his Goldsmiths background naturally places him in relation with an experimental tradition, he's also studied with 'conventional' pen/paper composers like Sadie Harrison and Phil Cashian. Sure, his piece sounds heavy on concept, and will undoubtedly involve a lot of fieldwork, but I see no reason why this should preclude 'genuine' compositional work either (if you're concerned about that sort of thing). It certainly won't be a curatorial work that simply plays back a bunch of tapes of cathedral sounds. I wish it well.

Classical MP3 blogging? 

Koreyel, in a comment on Tofuhut's totally awesome list of MP3 blogs laments "Still no classical....". It's something I occasionally toy with. Mostly when I feel like completely whoring myself to my hit counter (by far the most popular single post on this site was the one with the crazy organ accompanist, also the only post linking to a soundfile hosted by me), although there is also the obvious value in hearing the stuff I'm talking about - especially when it often falls under people's radar, and isn't exactly regular at your local symphony hall.

However, much as I am an advocate of making music distribution as open and as easy as possible, I confess to being a bit soft about ripping music and whacking it up on my own site sans permission. Whatever the moral questions about MP3 blogging - and morally I think audiobloggers are, in the main, in the right - it is still, straightforwardly, illegal. And I'm a wimp. Listening to the stuff, even recording a copy for your own use, well that's even cleaner - and a more legally grey area too, since it's pretty much the same as taping off the radio, so I have no problem with that at all and do it quite a bit. But, well... there's a fair to good chance that I'll have to deal with music publishers regularly for most of my professional life, so I don't want to alienate them all too early on.

There are also other complications with classical MP3 blogging. For one, classical tracks tend to be much longer than the usual 4-minute song you get on 90% of blogs. 20+ MB is quite a big ask for a single file, for both user and server space/bandwidth. There's the corresponding time to listen, too. Most of us with day jobs do our blog reading in the gaps - it's one of the strengths of the medium, I believe, that items are necessarily packaged so small. Compared to the three-course dinner of the printed press, blogs are plates of canapes drifting at intervals through the room. A 4-minute slice of electro/J-pop/soul/exotica/grime is the perfect aural counterpart to a 400-word rant about Tony Blair or the neighbours, or the sort of writing that is sharp and brilliant and makes you think refreshingly hard for the few minutes it takes your coffee to cool down - the sort of writing that is all over the web. I have huge admiration for really long blog theses that reduce my scroll bar to a small square - you wrote all this? for little us? - but I rarely actually read a post like that all the way through. Certainly not on the screen - if it's really good I'll print it and save it for the next tube journey. But only if. So uploading 20-30 minutes of instrumental music flies in the face of this somewhat, it doesn't fit the way in which I - and I'm sure most other people - actually use blogs. Who can take the time in their coffeebreak to listen to a symphony, even if we'd want to?

Maybe the solution to all of this is to post just samples. Not full works, but short movements, or even snipped chnks of pieces. That would be contingent upon me getting the appopriate MP3 editing software of course. And if I was going to do this, I'd want to rip a lot of the vinyl that I've started collecting (and that often has little or no chance of ever seeing CD reissue), so I'd need a computer with an audio in jack (and more software). So we're some way off from the possibility in any case. Who knows, maybe one day I will. I'm not short of music that I think the world ought to hear, that's for certain.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Hilary Rosen: iTunes DRM is cruel 

This is too good - ex-RIAA head complains about iTunes DRM:

"The new iPod my girlfriend gave me is a trap. Yeah, it is great looking and I really love the baby blue leather case but when, oh when, will Steve Jobs let me buy music from somewhere other than the Apple iTunes store and put it on my iPod? … Why am I complaining about this? Why isn’t everyone?"

Uh, everyone already is, all the time...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

In the process of gathering info for a short presentation on Gdansk for my Polish classes, I came across this page on the 1980 Gdansk Shipyard strikes. It's part of a larger site on non-violent protest, apparently centred around a TV series we've not had here in the UK. All well and good, and very interesting, but what I wanted to post up here was their page of Protest Songs from Gdansk. These are, without exception, really moving sound clips, studio recorded and released by Smithsonian Folkways Records, F-37251.

Elsewhere on the Force More Powerful site, you can also find a similar set of clips of freedom sings, related to the 1960 Nashville anti-segregation protests, including a huge gospel rendition of 'We shall overcome'.

Monday, May 09, 2005


I swear, I was toying with the idea of a post on online mixes, and then I see that Jess Harvell has already gone and Pitchforked a good piece already. Dang.

The story of my year's listening is going to be dominated by MP3 mixes. Right now, I'm particularly enjoying Kid Kameleon's Mashers Without Borders mix for Mashit, a much more laid-back, dubbier mix than the hyperactive, hyper-referential Shockout mixes from November last year. When you spend a lot of the day at the computer working the freelance grunt, 60+ mins of cool tunes are the perfect thing. Just set one to download each time you boil the kettle, and you've got as much seamless music as you'll ever need.

Also on my download manager's radar is the Cybernetic Broadcasting System's collection of electro mixage - which includes the the two volumes of I-f's essential Mixed up in the Hague sets (haven't stopped listening to these since I grabbed them at the beginning of the year).

Other source for downright fun stuff is the regularly excellent Boom Selection - lots of good mashie/poppy/favela/whateva gubbins there recently.

Guardian Unlimited | Arts features | Do the arts matter? 

And within this debate: does music matter?

The Observer, following in the spirit of John Carey's forthcoming book What Good are the Arts? asks the former question; the second is begged by their choice of interviewees. Other than Dominic Masters of the Others, there are no musicians on the list - and no concert musicians at all. Yet of the 14 people who give their views, nine mention music, and a tenth, Tessa Jowell, refers to "a personal heartland of images, sounds and expressions that we can draw on". Maybe music matters, but musicians less so?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

1984: the opera 

Well, it would seem that Lorin Maazel's alleged 'vanity project' opera, 1984, premiered last night at Covent Garden, has more than lived down to the very low expectations of it. I must confess to know little about this project other than the Guardian's reporting of it, but I would agree with Andrew Clements' dismay that this is the only new opera the ROH have planned for this year and next.
This is an international opera house - it's not as if there is any shortage of composers. They have never mounted a Philip Glass opera on the main stage; there are plenty of European composers whose work they have never done
I'm also kind of alarmed by the words of Elaine Padmore, Director of Opera at Covent Garden:
With a new piece you never know whether it's going to be good or bad. It's always a gamble
Well, you see, it's not. I always get angry when football managers like Glenn Hoddle try to explain an England defeat on penalties as 'penalties are a bit of a lottery really'. No, they're not. If you spend half an hour practising penalties at the end of every training session, you will massively improve your results from the spot. If you don't - as Hoddle prescribed - you end up with David Batty-esque crap. In the same way, there are established contemporary opera composers - as well as established composers who are itching to write their first opera - such as Birtwistle, Glass, Adams, Glanert, Andriessen, to name the first five that spring to mind, who deserve a place on the ROH stage. All of these composers have written successful, important operas in the last few years - and they're hardly the only ones - so to say that staging new work from composers of such stature is 'a bit of a gamble' is ludicrous. Unless, of course, you hold firm to the belief that contemporary music is spiralling out of control; that OK, some decent things slip through once in a while, but in an unpredictable, unintentional fashion; that it's all a bit of a mess these days, and no music of quality has been possible since the 19th century became the 20th; that a new Puccini will some day ride in to save us all from eternal damnation. But surely, no one in such a high position in the opera industry would actually think like that though, would they?

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