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Saturday 31 December 2011

Modern vs. ancient

POP EXPLORED, part seven. Time to create some perspective: hence Coldplay’s Viva la Vida (current) vs. the Bee Gees’ Night Fever (Feb 7, 1978), a gap equivalent to several pop lifetimes.

Coldplay. Slickly controlled conventional structure (Eight bars repeated, middle eight, eight bars again), conventional instrumental line: guitars produce “train” sound (probably based on no more than four chords) later augmented with strings, lyrics that scan, hummable tune, chorus of la-las for good luck, and the inevitable execrable drumming.

The song is an update of Shelley’s Ozymandias:

One minute I held the key,
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.

Includes an excellent couplet:

Once you go, there was never,
Never an honest word.

Hilariously middle-class line-up: Christopher Anthony John Martin, William Champion, Mark Buckland, Guy Rupert Berryman. Success based on all the self-evident virtues. Plus lots of polishing.

Bee Gees. Having seen, and unexpectedly enjoyed, Saturday Night Fever (albeit thirty years on) I was familiar with Night Fever. Most pop enthusiasts have difficulty identifying the different genres but this is quite definitely “disco”. Which I take to be heavily rhythmic, melodically staccato accompaniment to predominantly single-syllable-word lyrics eventually lapsing into repetition. Typically:

Then I get night fever, night fever.
We know how to do it.

As with ballet, the primitive nature of the music is lost (ie, becomes critically invulnerable) against the dancing. Which can be surprisingly chaste in the movie – almost like square dancing.

Conclusion: It’s apples vs. purple sprouting broccoli. One’s a song the other’s a toe-tapper.

My musical foundations

The history of posh (ie, classical) music is defaced by critics who savaged the premières of works, especially by LvB, which are now standard repertoire. Happily, when it comes to fifties’ pop, my advanced age provides the necessary perspective. And before I’m accused of picking on a more innocent age reflect on this: there is no sentimental movement urging its resurrection.

At its best it was simple-minded, as with Guy Mitchell’s

Shrimp boats are a’coming, their sails are in sight
… why don’t you hurry, hurry home.

Or, I’ve forgotten whose:

I love to bake a sunshine cake.
It really isn’t so hard to make.

Whereas at its worst:

How much is that doggie in the window,
The one with the waggly tail…

I read in the paper that a robber
With flashlights that gleam in the dark.
My love needs a doggie for protection
And scare him away with one bark.

The BBC refused to play such muckment (West Riding term of disapprobation) and enthusiasts like me tuned into the ebb and flow transmissions of Radio Luxembourg. From which we heard Rosemary Clooney, mother of George and likened to a drunken Turk shouting down a well, singing:

Come on a my house, a my house come on

An embarrassed Luxy DJ, doing the Top Ten, admitted neither he nor the broadcaster had any control over the selections. As well he might, given:

There’s oodles of noodles in our chicken soup
The flavour’s a winner and when it’s for dinner,
The kids give a whoop.
Dad thinks it’s grand and he eats it with zest
While grannie, who knows, says it beats all the rest.

Stirring times. Soup-stirring times.

Thursday 29 December 2011

"I told you so"

GROSSE FUGE, part two. My greatest musical influence was Richard (to the right of Mrs LdP and Sir Hugh in this early sixties photo). I’ve mentioned him before. He was born in the West Riding a week or so before me and died fourteen years ago, horribly, from motor neurone disease. Remarkably, he managed to posthumously persuade me to like Wagner. Had he been living he would have immediately pointed out that split infinitive. His frankness was brutal.

He didn’t just expose me to many composers, he helped me recognise different levels of performance. This morning one of his lessons bore eerie fruit.

I needed a version of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge to illustrate the preceding post and YouTube listed one by the Takacs Qt. Now world-renowned, the Takacs were formed in 1975 and within a year Richard urged me to one of their concerts at the Wigmore Hall. They remained one of his favourites.

I clicked on YouTube and the Takacs’ opening of the GF matched the ideal performance rattling round in my skull. Later I needed to check the work further and played my own CD by the Alban Berg Qt. Richard had sold me that particular CD, saying he didn’t like it, it was too smooth. “The Grosse Fuge needs a sense of struggle,” he said.

I thought he was fussy, thought I could easily live with the Alban Berg. Played it this morning but I won’t play it again. Too smooth. Twenty years after he warned me I’ve got around to his way of thinking. I’ll probably buy the Takacs. As a memorial to his judgment? Nah, he wouldn’t like that. He was from Shipley.

NOTE: Mrs LdP tells me she had "just" become pregnant at the time.

Worth the effort

GROSSE FUGE, part one. Aged sixteen I heard a Bach cantata and my interest in posh* music was born. Two years later, triggered by literary cross-currents (I read more widely then), I bought Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge string quartet and discovered music could be rather more than la-la-ing along with broad memorable tunes.

Analogies are as fatal to music as to physics but LvB’s late quartets are like having the irritable bastard telling you personally what matters. They are not for everyday. They’re for the foreground not the background. Some, especially the Grosse Fuge, don’t initially sound musical although the themes – as with GF – are often quite simple.

Let the superb Takacs Quartet, whom I heard in their infancy, be your perfect guide.

Plutarch says I mentioned the GF on the top deck of a London bus forty years ago. I don’t remember but I’m pleased he did. Here it’s the key to one of his previously unpublished poems.

How to keep cheerful
Adjust with care, the instructions in the handbook say,
For misalignments and breakdowns can occur,
Where balanced wheels are expected to engage and play,

Where the seesaw race begins, the dim, obsessive chime,
The winding up and unwinding of the spring.
Within the escapement’s clutch, the seagulls scream

Notes of survival and the constancy of loss.
Yet yeasts ferment and prompt in the memory
How the Grosse Fugue’s galloping colloquy goes

Further than sense can go, where laughter’s the lingo:
Swifter than intelligence, deeper than instinct,
You won’t know sad from glad then, or need to know.

Pick up this theme: even if our revels all are ended,
A crack in the wall will open like an estuary,
And spread its waters where oysters have long bred
And wading birds among the reeds tasted the sea.


*Posh. Substitute for detested “classical”.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Exams are over, thank God

Mrs LdP received “The O-Level Book - Genuine Exam Questions From Yesteryear” as a present from daughter, Occasional Speeder. Slightly disturbing, Was there really a time when we both could have tackled: “Solve the equation 2x(squared)+ x – 7 = 0, giving each root correct to two decimal places”?

I was harassed by the music exams. Have I put these into correct chronological order: Now is the month of Maying (Morley), Nymphs and Shepherds (Purcell), Messiah (Handel), Surprise symphony (Haydn), Who is Sylvia? (Schubert), Meistersinger (Wagner), Midsummer Night’s Dream (Mendelssohn), Enigma (Elgar), Peter and the Wolf (Prokofiev), The Little Sweep (Britten).

But after “In what respect do rounds, canons and fugues resemble each other and in what way do they differ? Name one example of each and write out any one round.” I closed the book, wondering whether I’m up to Tone Deaf.

POP EXPLORED, part six. The Specials. Too Much Too Young. (rec. Cool Kid). Now this is the pop I’ve been expecting. Alienation! Pinch-faced, beaky youth whinges that radio stations have denied this song exposure then launches his sheet-metal sawing voice into rap-style monotone backed by three guitars, an organ and two (I think) tambourine wavers. The lyrics are embittered:

… now you're married with a kid
when you could be having fun with me…

…Ain't he cute? No he ain't
He's just another burden
on the welfare state

but why must the music be uncongenial too? Cool Kid says this song was popular and implies it may have been seminal. OS thinks the lyrics are “very good”. I’m reminded of Hugo Wolf lieder - technically brilliant but unpleasant to listen to.

Monday 26 December 2011

Folk - audible but undefinable

For me folk is a rag-bag of styles and subjects, some horrible (Morris dancing tunes, exaggerated nasality, primitive violins) and some moving (Crosby Stills and Nash’s eminently marine Southern Cross – see pic, certain banjo methods). I have never asked for a definition, simply used folk as a vague sort of dustbin. Certain folk songs seem to demand humanitarian approval – a bit like sorting garbage into separate bags – and this causes me to get nervous. Musically I like Joan Baez’s Blowing In The Wind but morally her insistence hints at direct debits for charity.

Often folk cries out for fun and the cry is ignored. Pete Seegar’s Little Boxes handles humour lightly and unexpectedly, whereas the sentiments of Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changing are often peevish and short-sighted.

Curiously, real English folk (D’ye Ken John Peel, Lincolnshire Poacher) caught leprosy in the fifties and is now a rarity. Or it may be these songs are victims of a delicate filtering system which favours imperishable melody and persuasive – usually simple – words. Lucy’s favourite earworm (and mine too, come to think of it), Did You Not Hear My Lady, still survives as does the shockingly poignant Tom Bowling.

Folk is most successful when its aims are clear. Down By The Sally Gardens (Love measured by age and experience), Ewan McColl’s The Shoals of Herring (An industry now disappeared), the Kingston Trio’s I Feel So Break-up (Perils of a hangover) all know what they’re about. Singers without real singing voices often opt for folk but usually compensate with some other quality: Kirstie MacColl (pathos), Jake Thackray (humour).

A folk song requiring a trained voice (My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose) ceases to be folk.

Sunday 25 December 2011

It's starting to grow up

POP EXPLORED. Part five. Enough Christmas Mozart; time to excavate youth’s psyche. Positive things to say about these three.

Machine. There but for the grace of God go I. (rec. Grandson Ian). But for the soul-destroying bump-bump drumming this would be an engaging song with singers who have audible characters, coherent lyrics going somewhere, a complex tune and – goodness! – choruses. Genuine musical/structural skills, singing propelled by the beat (elsewhere, often not the case), and roots in jazz’s periphery.

Now they gotta split because the Bronx isn’t fit
For a kid to grow up in.
Let’s find a place they say, somewhere far away,
With no blacks, no Jews, no gays.

Leonard Cohen. Hallelujah. Never heard him before but felt I knew the tune. Possible defect (but not for me) is it’s perhaps too well organised, not least the way the verse cleverly grows from monotone Sprechstimme into repeated melodic refrain of title. Then dares to do it again. Includes extremely professional eight-bar organ solo done at high speed. Microphone persona well studied with the rakishly angled trilby and the left fist clenched as if from arthritis. Lyrics audible but unexceptional; some kind of emotional failure deliberately understated, I assume. Hurray for the oldie!

The Smiths. How soon is now? (rec. Professional Bleeder – says it’s her favourite). A synthesised wobble-board, later tricked out with bell textures, provides the background. Usual dull drumming. Pleasingly masculine rather than androgynous, twittery voices. Lasts 6 min. 48 seconds but lyric fragmentation means much of track is instrumental. Quite literate lyrics easily misunderstood: I am the Sun, and the Air turns out to be:

I am the son, and the heir,
Of a shyness that is criminally vulgar,
I am the son and heir
Of nothing in particular.

No one loves a critic

Christmas Eve isn’t proof against performance defects. Starting with our Messiah: Colin Davies conducting, Harper, Watts, Shirley-Quirk singing, a smaller (but highly professional) choir than was then traditional.

Marvellous, but the singers were asked to improvise curlicues at the ends of their lines. A skill beyond them.

King’s College carols/readings. A lovely building which slightly blurs the choir, greatly blurs the congregation. The organist cannot, as in most public performances, adjust his tempo to the slower speed of the congregation since he must consider the choir and the soloists. Also, the congregation cannot beat physics: sound, at ground level, travels at 600 mph and what comes out of some mouths is way behind (in distance and therefore time) what comes out of others. A thrillingly descanted carol at the end, with the congregation joining in, turned into an aural plum pudding.

Such problems can be resolved but only for commercial recordings. Definitive large scale choral performances do not emerge from places like Kings College chapel but (typically and very often) Walthamstow Town Hall.

Salzburg Festival DVD. Magic Flute. Vivacious VPO under James Levine. The best Queen of the Night (Gruberova) we’ve ever heard. A Papageno (Christian Boesch – whatever happened to him?) who reconciled the comic with the poignant – the key to Flute. Defects? Not many – easily the best Flute we’ve seen. Except that Peter Schreier, whose version of Schubert’s An Die Musik is an LdP musical keystone, is slightly too harsh for Tamino’s great love-song Dies Bildnis.

Should I have shut my ears to, or at least not publicised, these failings? Am I a frost on everyone’s frolic? Might I be showing off? Answers: Tone Deaf tries to do its best. Perhaps. Not this time.

Here’s a definitive Dies Bildnis. (But not perfect - one tiny defect near the end. Sorry.)

Friday 23 December 2011

No Here Comes Santa

The alternating-grandparent system means the LdPs will be alone for Christmas Eve and Day. “Why not avoid presents and buy in some opera DVDs,” said Mrs LdP, thus despatching telly and the Queen’s Speech to Uttar Pradesh. So here’s what £124 looks like in disc form. And here’s why.

Mozart three pack, Salzburg Festival. Flute and Cosi are familiars, something to fall back on if we overreach ourselves intellectually. Neither of us has seen La Clemenza di Tito.

Strauss: Capriccio. Clever, witty words vs. music theme with Kiri te Kanawa. We had this on VHS cassette (also with KtK) but in a different performance. We’re both Strauss (Richard, that is, not the waltz man) freaks.

Strauss: Elektra. We have it on CDs but it’s pretty jagged, very modern Strauss and you need something to watch. Birgitte Fassbinder very, very dramatic soprano.

Janacek: Jenufa. New for us. Said not to be a bundle of laughs. But we’ve both been moving towards Janacek for a year or two now.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin. New for us. It’ll be the first Russian opera we’ve ever seen.

An austere Christmas? If we get depressed we can put on the CHRISTMAS ORATORIO; try it for two or three minutes - bloody marvellous drums and an inauthentically large and exuberant choir. Otherwise there’s two white burgundies and a fino and a manzanilla (sherries). Plus reds from under the stairs.

Finally, at age 76, glasses. All the better for wine labels and movie sub-titles.

Cheers to all. Remember: music can be taken neat or as a supplement to many other pleasures. Suggested New Year resolution: try a new composer born on or after 1911.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Feed the toaster; make a noise

Am I a snob? Of course I am. Despite dressing down to the point where Mrs LdP prefers to walk ten paces in front I spoil this raggedness by using big words when I meet a neighbour. Merely admitting to opera turns me into un grand prétentieux. As does italicised French through my blog.

Yet, left to myself, preparing my brunch, I sing hymns. Nothing snob about hymns. Often I mock them for their naivete. Now it’s time to list my favourities.

I like When I Survey The Wondrous Cross because it was my Granny’s favourite. The tune is upbeat but, as usual, I go for good (or goodish) lyrics. Here’s the concise last verse;

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
It were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

In The Bleak Midwinter (“Snow had fallen, snow on snow.”) has already been mentioned as has Love Divine All Love Excelling (“Changed from glory into glory.”)

But what about Christian Dost Thou See Them? Mainly for the lines that immediately follow:

While the hosts of Midian
Prowl and prowl around.
Christian up and smite them…”

Muscular Christianity, you would agree.

Another favourite was inherited from my mother, a quondam churchgoer: Wondrous Things of Thee are Spoken, because she always broke off to laugh at:

With the camp of God surrounded,
Thou mayest smile at all thy foes.

This is the season for forgiveness so perhaps a gesture towards my birthplace, the West Riding of Yorkshire (now West Yorkshire). This one starts well, but fades.

Hills of the North, rejoice;
River and mountain-spring,

Perhaps when the technology’s improved a conference-call sing-song with like-minded unsnobs. The pic’s York Minster.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

A case of nuclear fusion

So why Lorenzo da Ponte? As Avus mentioned he ran whorehouses. Only an over-developed moral sensitivity and a distinct queasiness about STDs kept me out of that line of business. I could have run a whorehouse. But what I couldn’t have done was write this:

Soave sia il vento
Tranquilla sia l’onda
Ed ogni elemento
Benigno risponda
Ai vostri desir.

Don’t speak Italian but will – reluctantly – translate:

Gentle be the breeze
Calm be the waves
And every element
Smile in favour
On their wish

Look at the Italian rather than the English and dwell on this. A man who knew his way about language – who could write simply – meets a profligate tunesmith some of whose best songs are all over in two or three minutes. WAM gets lots of credit and so he should. I do my bit for LdP.

Wanna hear how it sounds? Glyndebourne of course.

POP EXPLORED, part four. Elder daughter (PB, Professional Bleeder – an ex-phlebotomist) has been reading Tone Deaf and thinks I’ve been led astray on the subject of pop. She has some suggestions:

Somehow I think this is going to hurt you far more than it hurt me, she says. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uxP8h0SZRw (The Smiths. Strangeways, here we come. I'm told this is Morrissey (whom I've heard of) and it's about twenty years old. Jangly guitar and a dull, repetitive drummer who is close to being off the beat. Quite a lengthy, daringly unscannable lyric about a record store and a dead star. Melody is unambitious but it is a melody. I could probably hum it after two or plays. Somewhat lacking in energy.)
R.I.P Amy Winehouse
So understated and sadly underrated, says PB. (Elliott Smith, Angeles. Plain solo acoustic guitar with a confidential - almost furtive - way of singing. Very narrow dynamic, making melody hard to identify. Followed the lyrics but not their sense. Eventually checked lyrics in separate file and found them to be a series of line-length non-sequiturs. Is Angeles the city or a person? Can't tell.)
It isn't all about guitars (Blue Monday, New Order. 7 min 26 sec. long. Synthesised mechnical drum continues throughout with sounds of jet engine, explosions, wooden blocks. Lyrics don't start until 2 min 15 sec. , are initially understandable (How does it feel to treat me like you do?) but quickly lose the thread. At a guess, we're talking about rejection. The singing is virtually monotone, as if from a pre-chromatic mode. Very solemn, unemotional.)
Still about the words though
Sadly missed
Often about drugs though
Being able to sing in tune isn't vital h
Saved the greatest 'til last
Bowie sings and Mick Ronson plays The Velvet Underground – doesn't get much better – still about the drugs
I lied – this is best - it is all about guitars and words

Saturday 17 December 2011

The original was too good

Plutarch sent me a generous present recently as a reminder to have another go at verse. But since Tone Deaf now comes with sharps and flats I had to get music in somewhere. Here are my words to go with Handel's tune for Did You Not Hear My Lady? - also known as Silent Worship. It proved to be extraordinarily difficult

Hymn to St Cecilia
Patron saint of music

Hers is the hand that makes up
Voices of choirs uniting
Chords from the strings and keyboard
Shrills of the brass exciting

Hers is the hand directing
Tenor and bass legato
Treble in high endeavour
Harmonised soprano

Lacking the pulse of rhythm,
Blind to the score's clear message
Hoarse-voiced and deaf as Moses
I love her fervently

Hand in her hand she leads me
Fast through those fierce cadenzas
Lentos and brisk allegros
Codas with loud hosannas

Brings to my thoughts and heart-beat
Passionate symbols in sound
Sorrow, import, triumph
Glories of music renowned
(Rewrit December 17)

Did you not hear my lady?
(Original words)

Did you not hear my lady
Go down the garden singing?
Blackbird and thrush were silent
To hear the alleys ringing

Oh saw you not my lady
Out in the garden there?
Shaming the rose and lily
For she is twice as fair

Though I am nothing to her
Though she must rarely look at me
And though I could never woo her
I love her till I die

Surely you heard my lady
Go down the garden singing?
Silencing all the songbirds
And setting the alleys ringing

But surely you see my lady
Out in the garden there
Rivalling the glittering sunshine
With a glory of golden hair

A perfect rendering of the original?

Click on Thomas Allen in his prime

Thursday 15 December 2011

Freed from all normal forces

Tone Deaf deals only with music, no more evanescences from the kitchen, the old motorcycling days or riffling through Proust (Hey, look at me! For a couple of weeks a year I could pass as an intellectual.) But dance is surely inseparable from music and this is dancing from another – entirely frictionless – world.

The musical nobody ever talks about: It’s Always Fair Weather starring Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse. I know, I’ve mentioned it before but it stays with me. Three ex-soldiers, glad to have survived WW2, booze it up in New York before going their separate ways. Each has a grandiose plan: one to become a writer, another an artist, the third to run an haute cuisine restaurant. They agree to a reunion in ten years’ time to report progress.

All fail in quite shameful ways and the rest of the musical is concerned with the compromises most of us face up to in our lives. A downbeat theme which is why IAFW rarely figures on Top Ten lists except mine. I was reminded of it recently when I saw Dan Dailey dancing and realised how different his style is from Gene Kelly’s – so loose, so casual, so conversational.

But the clip I’ve chosen does feature Kelly. Given the nature of YouTube the chances are this sequence is quite well known, even though the context may be comparatively obscure. What makes this clip different are the sub-titles (Clear the strip ad to see them.). In the meantime, click on:

Why can't we all move like this?

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Should I really be doing this?

POP EXPLORED. Part three. I know nothing about pop and am inevitably prejudiced. But Tone Deaf covers all music and I need to listen and learn. I’m apprehensive. These three songs represent the two generations after mine. Surely they’re going to be extreme – but in what way?

Tim Minchin (illustrated), White Wine in The Sun (Recommended by Cool Kid, granddaughter’s boyfriend). A piano! Monotonous on-the-beat three/four-chord accompaniment to limited-dynamic but pleasant song. Australian Tim likes Christmas but not Christianity though is willing to break bread with Archbishop Tutu. Long unscannable lines like operatic recitative. Sample: “I don’t go in for ancient wisdoms; I don’t believe just because I’ve got ears ourtenacious (Played it four times - that’s my best guess.) means that they’re worthy.” Charmingly old-fashioned.

Keane, Somewhere Only We Know (recommended by Younger Daughter). Acoustic guitars (?), briefly reduced to single-string picking, piano added later. Starts quietly, gets noisier. Chubby-cheeked lead singer must be about 14 (judging by mimed video) and has a tiny voice. OK by me; it’s the shouting I feared. Lyrics less audible than Minchin’s but I get the drift: he’s back where he knows “pathways like the back of my hand” and finally asks question: “Is this the place we used to love?” Not offensive but neither is it individualistic.

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. (Recommended by Younger Daughter’s husband) Very traditional four-bar intro on block-chorded acoustic guitars, though the sound thickens up as other instruments are added. Guitars are forwardly recorded blotting out the lyrics. The singing is more adventurous than Keane and employs passages of falsetto descant – well sort of.

Conclusion: All three much gentler than I expected. Instrumental music not very ambitious (cf. Paul Simon). Not much expected of drummers. Minchin’s simplicity makes him most memorable

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Luckily I've found one real joke

Music of the classical (straight, formal, posh, Mozart) variety is not a terribly fruitful field for humour. Often, only musicians understand the jokes.

In historical re-enactments of Haydn’s Symphony 45 each musician in turn stops playing during the final adagio, snuffs out the candle on his music stand and departs the stage, leaving just two muted violins at the end. You can Wiki it if you want to find out why. I have never seen such a performance but a musical friend has and was mildly diverted. The audience usually laughs and those listening on the radio are baffled if they are not in on the joke.

In a much more cruel – but comic – musical event I played a central role. During a very boozy pre-Christmas dinner for the editorial staff of the newspaper I worked on I foolishly elected to play several carols on my trumpet. Afterwards I went into the next room for a pint and found a sub-editor I greatly admired propping up the bar. “Who was that awful bastard in there playing carols?” he asked, his atheism offended.

G. B. Shaw used to write musical criticism under the name Corno di Bassetto. He was halfway through a recital by a rather miniaturised Scandinavian women pianist “when the coughing started”. From then on he heard nothing. His recommendation: that the coughers be taken out into adjacent Trafalgar Square, laid in the roadway, “where a warm steam-roller should be passed over their chests”.

Finally the link below – which is genuinely funny – arrived from HHB and was sent to her by her Dad, Avus. What makes this so good (sustained throughout) is the way board movement reflects the music. CLICK

Monday 12 December 2011

Was I cruel? You be the judge

Another bit of recycling. I posted this sonnet in August 2009. It emerged out of a comment made by Mrs LdP (another Janet Baker fan) who said “Just imagine, singing like that while looking like the Queen.” I suppose it’s a bit cruel but I was struck by the cruelty of the UK honours system, as explained.

The LdPs have most of the stuff Janet recorded. Her voice was unique in its richness and her musical integrity was immense. She slipped out of public life when she retired but she did give one recent interview in which she expresses a characteristic opinion.

She had, she said, done just a bit of teaching and had even held one or two masterclasses. (Both Mrs LdP and I regard TV masterclasses as the best way of learning about music.) But, said Dame Janet, she couldn’t see any benefit from doing them in public (ie, before the cameras). Meaning she couldn’t sympathise with publicising the student’s embarrassment.

Janet Baker
Born August 21 1933

Stark contrast with the manly role of knight
The faintly pantomimic joke of dame
Arrived, the way things do, as a polite
If regal tick against the box of fame.
Singer and monarch shared the irony
Of heavy faces and of reticence
And thus the honour’s ambiguity
Tended towards the side of temperance.
A world away from deep-set souvenirs
Of Dido, Dorabella, Orfeo
The Mahler songs and Handel’s baroque airs:
Intemperate outcome of a voice aglow.
The titled name a grace note lacking grace,
The music permanent in time and space.

I included Dido's Lament some days ago. Here's another masterpiece:

Sunday 11 December 2011

Music's role. Cool Kid's list

Is music important? Most would say no, compared with warmth, food and reciprocated emotion.

Since no one has satisfactorily defined the nature of music I think there’s a case to be made. Think of how a bugle playing The Last Post enhances the Remembrance ceremony. How music makes weddings less lugubrious.

(Parenthetical note. A hymn sung at the da Ponte wedding – held in church at the insistence of my atheistic mother-in-law – predicted a rather rocky future ride:

Be thou my guardian and my guide
And hear me when I call;
Let not my slippery footsteps slide
And hold me lest I fall.

Slippery footsteps, forsooth.

The American national anthem precedes major league baseball games. A music-less funeral would ignore latent inner feelings. Bands send soldiers off to war. “Walk on, walk on” at Liverpool. Unimportant?

NEWS (edited by LdP) FROM COOL KID The boyfriend of grand-daughter Ysabelle. Astonished me by revealing he read Works Well regularly. He too now has a job – Yeh! Here’s his pop list.

(The list was contracted to) songs I like and I feel are different from average music both in terms of style and subject. I'm pretty sure you won't like some of them (.. ANY of them…)

Scroobius Pip. Angles. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkvWOAJeZmM
The King Blues. Five bottles of shampoo. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaSMiuvs6uw&feature=related)
Missing Andy. Dave (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOujMyOM0BY)
Noah and The Whale. L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbGUEelmzxo)
Mikill Pane. Summer in the City. (This guy will be popular very soon). (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfHhGZQnjb4&feature=relmfu)
Bright Eyes. Love I don't have to love. (One of my favourite bands). (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuXkhE0VMcw
Bo Burnham. Art is Dead. (Musical comedian). (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eo9pU1q8sy8)
Tim Minchin. White Wine in the Sun. (Musical comedian. Serious song which represents my feelings about Christmas quite well). (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCNvZqpa-7Q)
Scroobius Pip vs Dan Le Sac. Letter from God. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KnGNOiFll4)
Ed Sheeran. Small Bump. (The most popular artist on this list; unusual musical subject).(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9S349Zmu5E)

Scroobius Pip: interesting artist; sings/raps about topics unusual for mainstream music. Also recommend his Magicians Assistant.

This has taken me about three hours to compile. Hope these songs provide some (proof) that not all young people listen to the same autotuned rubbish regularly in the charts.

I’ll do my best, Cool Kid. It may take some time. LdP.

Friday 9 December 2011

Does "lousy" have a skeleton?

Two of the lousiest tunes ever written are, alas, two of the most ubiquitous: “God save the Queen” and “Happy Birthday to You.”

But what constitutes a lousy tune? Straight off “Queen” sounds more like a dirge than a musical tribute. And if you want proof cast your mind back to Casablanca where the Germans are making a nuisance of themselves singing the Horst Wessel Song in a bar. Up stands Paul Henried and stirs the French into roaring out Marseillaise as competition. Can you imagine Brits moaning “Thy choicest gifts in store, On her be pleased to pour” and making any headway?

Has lousiness got an identifiable musical structure? Well “Queen” has modest dynamics with the whole thing contained in less than an octave. Also, it ends feebly, with the last line trickling down (would “oozing” be better?), and slowly swallowing, all the white notes to middle C.

But “Birthday’s” worse. First, second and fourth lines are rhythmically identical and melodically slight variants of each other which is surely why it sounds so repetitive and so banal. You might think it’s popular because it’s easily managed by the human voice but in the third line there’s an octave jump beneath Happy and Birthday and no one – after all these years – is ever prepared for that. It all goes nasal and thus to hell in a hack.

How Much is That Doggie in the Window? we’ll leave for another day

Thursday 8 December 2011

You want pop? I got pop

I take it all back. I wrote libellously, in an earlier post, pop lovers were inarticulate. This is what I received when, having reviewed Radiohead, I asked my younger daughter what else was hot. I’ll eventually review some of these but I thought the responses had a socio-pathological interest all their own.

MY SON-IN-LAW What is hot? Well, Coldplay could sell out any stadium venue – they would be voted the biggest band in the world at this moment I should think.

Dizzy Rascal, Calvin Harris and Example could release 3 min of burps & get to number one at the moment, but it’s rap music & hardly pushing boundaries.

Lady Gaga is the same – will always get to number one, but with a tried & tested formula.

Ed Sheeran has had a good year – but I think one man with a guitar singing about “real” issues, hardly constitutes unusual. Although he does have ginger hair.

Adele has the biggest selling album of the century, so she would certainly be hot at the moment, but again having an amazing voice is hardly unusual.

“Hot” to me is where the band are still a secret to a select few, unknown by the masses, but on the brink of mainstream popularity. The Vaccines would meet these criteria, and their sound, although classic guitar music, has more of a 1980’s post-punk feel to it that is new and unusual to a whole generation of people. But having lived through the post-punk music era, I personally wouldn’t call it unusual.

Two years ago, Florence and The Machine would have been the obvious answer. The album “Lungs” and the single “Rabbit Heart” were very different to anything else around. New releases still are unique to her, but we’re now used to it & it lacks that hotness.

So, I would go for a Canadian band called Arcade Fire (illustrated).They play guitar, drums, bass guitar, piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass, xylophone, glockenspiel, keyboard, French horn, accordion, harp, mandolin, and hurdy-gurdy. This gives them the “unusual” quality that sets them aside from anyone else. The range of instruments means they are not limited to a specific sound, and keeps them fresh despite going for almost 10 years.The “hot” factor is that they don’t saturate the market by releasing single after single, they release an album every couple of years, do a couple of interviews, and hide away back in Canada. They don’t do huge tours, they don’t do tabloid headlines. They have a short film directed by Spike Jonze, (he wouldn’t involve himself if they weren’t hot), and the album “Suburbs” has won pretty much every award over the last year. Would definitely get my vote as the hot & unusual band at the moment.

MY YOUNGER DAUGHTER (Occasional speeder). You said it would be churlish NOT to listen to Keane. (Ed’s note: I was aware OS was Keane-crazy.) The three to listen to are “Somewhere only we know” (my funeral song and their most popular song.), “Can’t stop now” and “Nothing in my way” (The song the lyricist wrote about the lead singer when he was going to be a (Word deleted. - Ed.). D (OS’s husband) would say “Bedshaped” – and that has the added bonus of having an unusual name…

Heaven's bells, I suppose

It seemed like a stunt. But this was last night on BBC4, jewel in the corporation’s crown, and it was far more than that.

Charles Hazlewood, an orchestral conductor wondered if the sound of bells from two or more church towers could be combined for pleasure. He found three churches near Cambridge centre, checked the bells’ varying pitch, and saw that church bells don’t do tunes but are simply rung in changing sequences.

One church tower could do the first five notes of that beautiful and essentially English tune, Greensleeves. Using CCTV to link his signals to the three towers of bell ringers he let loose - to an appreciative crowd in the central square - first a stirring combination of changes to which all the towers contributed, then had the one tower repeat its “mini-Greensleeves” twice, switched to thirty hand bell-ringers in the square who did the tune properly, and ended with a “chord fest” from the towers.

It worked! I am not normally a bells enthusiast but this was music. It comes in many forms.

Pic: Great St Mary’s Church, one of the towers used.

CLASSICAL OUT? I appreciated everyone’s attempts to replace the detestable and elitist word “classical” applied to music. One or two conclusions. The replacement cannot be definitive (any more than classical is) otherwise it would have been already discovered. It must therefore be a label that carries some plausible overtones. It must not imply “classical” music is superior to any other form. A friend of mine suggested “straight”, which might distinguish such music from jazz and pop. Sir Hugh’s “posh” might work if it were knowingly ironic. “Mozart music” might limit the scope and be confusing. I will return.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Signs his cheques Mr Jazz

These days jazz is like ballet. I enjoy both provided someone else has gone to the trouble of booking the event, getting me there and sitting me down at my ease.

My jazz tastes are fuddy-duddy, end of WW2 to about 1975. After that things started getting - there's only one word for it - etiolated. Look it up if it's new to you. A useful word; lots of things in 2011 are etiolated.

So big bands like Ellington and Basie, giants like Charlie Parker, the Gerry Mulligan quartet, the MJQ, and a whole slew of marvellous practitioners on the big booting tenor sax. I'm listening to the prototypical tenor man at the moment - Coleman Hawkins. There's a word for him too although Carl Nielsen has already snaffled it for one of his symphonies. Inextinguishable! Inextinguishable Hawk.

I don't think of him belonging to any particular style or fashion. He could play fast or slow, bop if you like, ballads, or something he wrote himself. Just now, as I listen, he's engaged in his own Bean Soup and earlier he launched himself à toute vitesse into a very urgent Get Happy.

But let me try and catch his essence. Not as breathy as Ben Webster; can be smooth at the upper end when smooth's called for but more often (I think; I've only heard him about a thousand times) he prefers a buzzy sort of rasp. He was a bulky sort of chap and his shape is reflected when he's down below mid-range and the tone is more chocolatey but with a certain hiss. It's almost unnecessary to say it but even in the most complex variation - and he was never complex for the sake of it - he always swung. Hell would have frozen over before he lost that quality.

No sense of strain, of course. No enormous changes of volume. He wasn't dramatic probably because he thought the word really meant melodramatic. Nothing much I can say about him except that when someone says "jazz" it's Hawkins' broad, generous face that swims to mind.

The sleeve note says he battled alcoholism. If that's true he did it offstage.
I love Strauss operas but I've not seen Elektra and it's rather jagged to take in from a CD. Solution: A DVD version for Christmas

Tuesday 6 December 2011

No problem on lower slopes

POP EXPLORED. Part two. To understand this post, please read the previous post (Strap on the crampons) first - for my sake. Below are my reactions to three Radiohead tracks

General. Pleasantly surprised by restrained style of first two tracks. Music influenced by John Adams (Shaker loops, etc). Rhythm mainly dominates any putative melody. Vocals unassertive, even timid. Nasal falsetto voice is unchanging and denies me a sense of the lyrics. Difficult to imagine the pieces being offered in a large arena without losing their intimacy.

Lotus flower (6.08 min) Starts with extremely low-frequency synthesised sound or, perhaps, electronically modified single guitar note. To which is added metallic tinkle and then conventional (but very limited) snare drum. The repeated theme comprises no more than six separate notes. The mood is reflective, the lyrics impenetrable and the shrunken dynamics reduce expectations to the point of dullness.

Supercollider (7.10 min). I was drawn by the name but any particle research is undetectable. Remarkably long, non-vocal introduction consisting of repetitive, driving synthesiser overlaid with a more substantial repeated metallic phrase. Melody much better established; the voice (I’m starting to conclude I’m not meant to decode the words) acting as filigree to the instrumentation. Could listen to this again.

Jigsaw falling into place (7 min). Identifiable lead guitar with hugely booming bass guitar. Vocal line later includes ensemble but is virtually reduced to nah-nahs. Some words (“Take my hand just as you play my favourite song”) can be recognised. Gradually the two guitars fuse into a single sound. At halfway point sound increases and I have to turn down the volume. Increases again and this time I turn it off.

Mrs LdP, in next room, generally unsympathetic – unspecifically critical.

Strap on the crampons

POP EXPLORED. Part one. This will be a great climb. Not Everest (described once as “a dull trudge”) but technically hard like K2 or Kanchenjunga.

My problems are several. Left to myself I only become aware of pop songs twenty years after their emergence. Yesterday I listened to Elton John and Kiki Dee singing “Don’t go breaking my heart.” OK, but it has whiskers. I need to know 2011.

But who can I talk to? Pop lovers are inarticulate. None could define Garage Rock (Does it deserve capitals?) for me. And I’m not referring to teenage I-phone flippers, I’ve asked adults knowledgeable about particle physics and/or schisms in left-wing groupuscules. Their vocabulary shrinks, they “er” and “um” when asked about Bjork.

Luckily I have a springboard. Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, doesn’t just write about Messiaen but also about youthful, evanescent guitar-strummers. His book Listen to This includes long articles about the aforesaid Bjork (Apparently seminal, except for having survived decades in a field where longevity is suspicious) and about Radiohead.

I’ll put Bjork to one side for now, listen to Radiohead, and report back. Here’s what Ross says about Radiohead’s Colin Green: “Lavishly well read, he can talk at length about almost any topic – Belgian fashion, the stories of John Cheever, the effect of different kinds of charcoal on barbecued meat – but he gets embarrassed by his erudition.”

My kind of guy. Better still: “(Green) seized hold of his brother’s tune that had set the song in motion. The doubling of the theme, a very Led Zeppelin move, had thunderous logic, as if an equation had been solved.” So pop is analysable. Let’s see if my erudition is up to it.

With pianists slow movements are what count. Any fule can play slow, but does it hang together? Solomon, blasted by a stroke at the peak of his powers, always made sure it did

Monday 5 December 2011

Bust the 300-word limit. Sorry

Is music more moving than poetry? A silly, imprecise question. These two things have moved me most

In an uprising against the English crown, likeable, brave, impetuous Harry Hotspur is killed by Harry Monmouth who later becomes Henry V. In the aftermath Hotspur’s widow, in an agonised and detailed lament for her dead husband, blames Hotspur’s father (Lord Percy) for not providing sufficient battle support. (Henry IV, part two)

I came upon this speech when I was a snotty, uncaring fifteen-year-old knowing nothing about anything.

The time was, father, when you broke your word
When you were more endear’d to it than now!
When your own Percy, when my heart’s dear Harry,
Threw many a northward look to see his father
Bring up his powers, but he did long in vain.
Who then persuaded you to stay at home?
There were two honours lost, yours and your son’s.
For yours, the God of heaven brighten it!
For his, it stuck upon him as the sun
In the grey vault of heaven; and by his light
Did all the chivalry of England move
To do brave acts: he was indeed the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves:
He had no legs that practis’d not his gait;
And speaking thick, which nature made his blemish,
Became the accents of the valiant;
For those who could speak low and tardily
Would turn their own perfection to abuse
To seem like him: so that in speech, in gait
In diet, in affections of delight,
In military rules, humours of blood,
He was the mark and glass, copy and book
That fashion’d others. And him, O wondrous him,
O miracle of men! Him did you leave,
Second to none, unseconded by you
To look upon the hideous god of war
In disadvantage; to abide a field
Where nothing but the sound of Hotspur’s name
Did seem defensible: so you left him
Never, O never, do his ghost the wrong
To hold your honour more precise
With others than with him! Let them alone:
The marshal and the archbishop are strong:
Had my sweet Harry had but half their numbers
Today might I, hanging on Hotspur’s neck,
Have talk’d of Monmouth’s grave.

Too long? Too Shakespeare? But wouldn’t we all wish, post-mortem, to be remembered in those passionate words: “And him, O wondrous him, Oh miracle of men” and have our beloved evoke us as bitterly as: “hanging on Hotspur’s neck, Have talk’d of Monmouth’s grave.”

Can music match that? Yes it can. Queen Dido, envisaging her death, asks only that she be remembered. But this will require patience. Forget the terrible film quality, the timing numbers, the stupid costumes, the uncertain gestures and the initial lines of song. Listen, finally, to Janet Baker singing When I Am Laid To Rest with out-of-world intensity that hints at death’s unknowingness. (Purcell, Dido and Aeneas)

Click http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_50zj7J50U

Sunday 4 December 2011

Clearing the "first time" barrier

This (above) could be yours

Satisfy me with a substitute for the ghastly word “classical” (as in music) and I’ll send Cosi Fan Tutte (Colin Davis, Janet Baker, Caballé, Gedda) to your home address. Warning: this is far harder than it looks.

Length often makes new “classical” (Ugh!) music hard to react to, hard to absorb. Yesterday I faced two firsts. But what is new? I’d never heard Handel’s opera Rodelinda but I have seen his Xerxes and Theodora and Messiah amply demonstrates his orchestral techniques and vocal sympathies.

Rodelinda, one of 40 GFH operas, is too long (arrive: 5.30 pm, depart 9.50 pm) and isn’t as well paced – or as universal – as lengthier Wagner. Arias repeat themselves several times. The one hit Dove sei was sung by Andreas Scholl the counter-tenor (ie, a vocal range usually taken by women), there’s one duet and a brief ensemble. Otherwise all solos. NY Met cast irreproachable. Two long-line solos by Renée Fleming almost tickled my tear-ducts. An absolute novice could have embraced it but might have been bored.

What about the other new piece? - Janacek’s concertino for two violins, viola, piano, horn and clarinet? Reflect on that curious combination. What does it sound like? Very spare, percussive piano, assertive horn, but recognisably a melody, not aggressively dissonant. Best of all it hangs together unlike some more fragmented modern stuff. But then Janacek (1854 – 1928) is not exactly modern. Second time around I reckon I could hum the first movement theme; hey, just picked it out on the keyboard.

Stuck with Gesualdo and the liturgical stuff? Try http://youtu.be/G8LZbM0Px38 and move forward four hundred years. Thanks Julia

Saturday 3 December 2011

He sung 'em. They stayed sung

Loathsome in life, Sinatra was a professional angel when singing. A music lesson in himself. Two songs representing the extremes of his style.

One For The Road. Lyrics that are sometimes wonderful (“We’re drinking, my friend, to the end of a brief episode…”), sometimes dreadful (“You’d never know it /But buddy I’m a kind of poet…”) but FS gives them full value. Not surprising, much of his repertoire is of the era when lyric writers were king. Instinctively he recognises the song’s narrow musical range (I know; I can sing it plausibly myself) and uses this to be conversational. With beautifully judged delays (eg, “There’s no one in the place (Pause) except you and me.”)

Although it’s a lament it’s no Richard Strauss long-line legato. The music emerges in soft bursts like one side of a dialogue, implying that Joe the barman says nothing. I’ve only realised this, just now. Notice how FS dwells fractionally on “my” in “Hope you didn’t mind my bending your ear.” Adds a couple of “longs” to the final line but, I think, he’s entitled.

New York, New York. Don’t be confused, this one starts “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today.” And I’m concentrating on just one line: “If I c’n make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Second time round he changes the delivery: increases the volume, snarls the words and somehow grins confidently. Grins? How can I tell? It’s there, I say, a far more persuasive summary of his life than the frequently maudlin I Did It My Way.

Horn concertos? Surely Mozart and Dennis Brain? There’s an alternative. No slouch, Antonio Rossetti wrote a Requiem for Mozart’s memorial service in Prague.

His concerti are great fun; WAM would have approved

Friday 2 December 2011

The thrill of DIY music - part two

There is a cheaper, less arduous way of creating music and that’s to sing it. Even better, sing it in the company of the others with someone to direct the rehearsal and to impose discipline during the performance. Briefly I was a choirboy in a parish church and at evensong the choirmaster used to lean out from his higher-level seat and smack the heads of those who were misbehaving. My mother, who was usually in the congregation, said the crack of his hand was far more disturbing than any minor fussing by the boys.

I enjoyed singing but was too young to reflect on why. I wasn’t given to accepting instruction or restriction anywhere else so I assume it was something to do with music’s secret impulses which this blog hopes to explore.

I wrote a sonnet about this for the previous blog. No doubt those who noticed it then will accuse me of gross duplication. In my defence, I have improved three of the lines.

Sonnet – Wednesday night practice

The darkened nave entailed a womb of light
Gilding our boyish group. Standing, we sang
The Nunc Dimittis, Angels ever bright,
Stainer – all proof our church was Anglican.
My task was simply this: to recreate
The notes with an unthinking treble voice.
I soared the heights towards that aural state
Where music is a licence to rejoice.
Fatigued by descants, holding volume low,
I left betimes starved like a refugee,
Ate Marmite toast then, drowsy, let things go
Dispensing with the evening’s ecstasy.
Oh wasteful child who lost that gift along the way
And deeded me this false reed in decay.

ONE FROM MY SHELVES OK, a small part of this is technical but the rest is hard-eyed , witty and revelatory

Thursday 1 December 2011

The thrill of DIY music - part one

Faced with a seat someone else has paid for to see Berg’s Wozzeck at the Paris Opera (as I once was) or the suddenly-arrived ability to complete a rackety, but two-handed, account of There is a Green Hill Far Away on the piano, which would you choose? The latter every time.

Sure, a great professional performance can blow you away. But putting the notes in the right order of any tune, however simple, however banal, has a strange effect on those with no instrumental training. For one thing there’s this giddy sensation of I shouldn’t really be here. Not me. Somehow I got in via the back door..

Even more exciting is the knowledge that you’ve just played one note and the next one is over there, three notes to the east. And… yes… you… were right!

Such experiences are, alas, quite rare. If you come upon an unused piano chances are the owner is close by. You tentatively try the first three notes: There – is – a -, and the owner is suddenly by your side. If he/she is a kindly person you’ll be gently discouraged by a rattled-off performance of Green Hill followed by a much faster variation in Z-flat. A more protective owner may simply close and lock the keyboard.

Far too late in life I bought an electronic keyboard which can sound like a piano – sort of. Sometimes I pick out Love Divine All Loves Excelling all on the white notes (scale of C-major). Sometimes I start off on a different note to make things more difficult. And I frown like Emil Gilels.

ONE FROM MY SHELVES Heard by Mrs LdB on Ian Burneside’s much lamented Voices programme; acquired and recorded by me. Vigorous account of a sex maniac’s childhood

Possible cure for depression

The readers were the best thing about my previous blog. I’m proud of that. But for reasons I won’t go into – and were in any case disbelieved – I found myself depressed and closed the damn thing down.

Luckily I do have other writing. Stumbling, knot-fingered at the keyboard I found myself humming a tune over and over. Knew it was Mozart, asked Mrs LdP who said: Dalla sua pace (On her peace of mind (depends mine too)), sung by the much put-upon Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, who should have paddled Donna Anna’s dithering backside several scenes earlier.

I Googled it and one YouTube option was by Pavarotti. I know he was a great tenor but I’ve avoided him because he’s always singing Verdi whom I can’t stand. But what does Pavarotti’s Mozart sound like? Bloody marvellous. Melodious at both ends, unforced, delicious when quiet. And I’ve heard Wunderlich and Gedda. This is what music can do. A familiar song, a new (titanic) voice, and you’ve got something different – including a tightened throat.

Mrs LdP says people liked my previous blog because it was eclectic (aka misguided, scatter-gun, indulgent). Thinks this one won’t work. She’s usually right (one commenter says she’s always right). Certainly the musical posts I did attracted little attention. And who wants to watch Jack Nicholson recovering from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

Give me, say, three weeks.

ONE FROM MY SHELVES Includes Embraceable You – not the one where he virtually expires through his soprano – but a foretaste.