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Thursday 29 March 2012

The voice gets better

Although I knew almost nothing – prior to Tone Deaf - about current pop music certain poppers are inescapable. Madonna for instance. I even knew of Material Girl which I vaguely applauded since that meaning of material is not an everyday word to be found in pop lyrics.

I knew she’d chosen to live in Britain which seemed vaguely commendable. Also that her professional longevity, her unsuitable marriages, her adoption of African children, her attempts at charity in Africa and her investment in poorish movies had caused the press to treat her as something of a joke. I felt inclined to like her. But what of her music?

Here’s the faintest of impressions. Especially the evolution of her voice. Since the imitation Betty Boop adopted for Material Girl is intended as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe the childish tone is understandable; less so for Like A Virgin (“touched for the very first time”) where M writhes on a gondola as it glides through the canals of Venice. Given the provocative title, which returns as a refrain, nobody can have been surprised by the repetition. Drumming still uninspired.

A lower, more melodious, more attractive voice emerges in Papa Don’t Preach where a working-class girl (details well substantiated in the video) announces she intends to keep her baby. There’s a story, a decent tune and a moral here. Anti-abortion activists were angered – I don’t know why.

But it’s easy to see why the RC church didn’t care for Like A Prayer where the toes of a weeping black icon are kissed and M suffers accidental stigmata. The mid-range voice is genuinely lovely and merges with excellent gospel singing at the end.

Erotica (“A certain satisfaction/In a little bit of pain”) opts for Sprechstimme and I for one was disappointed. Much lesbianism.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Can music bounce?

Part five

Judging an orchestral performance.
Sometimes the differences are enormous. Not surprising given the forces available and the indirectness of the process – the conductor imagines the perfect rendition and must then compel others to produce it. The difficulty is deciding whether two widely varying performances (eg, Beethoven by Klemperer and Toscanini) are both legitimate. This, I must confess, is often beyond me.

In sloppier performances the thing that goes first is texture: strings, woodwind and brass dissolving into a single noise instead of identifiable separate layers. This is harder to detect than I make it seem. The different orchestral sections are intended to blend of course. But a blend is a controlled mixture; the undesirable blur occurs when certain instruments are (fractionally) out of synch. The latter happens when the conductor’s cueing is less than decisive.

In most orchestral music rhythm changes frequently. In great performances rhythmic changes may be applied to tiny pieces of the whole – but without degrading the overall rhythmic structure. Thus small separate phrases flutter into and out of major themes, increasing the delicacy of what we hear. Getting this kind of performance out of an orchestra requires great control (and often great imagination) on the part of the conductor. Otherwise the result is much simpler and much more obvious.

In the best performance I ever heard – Brahms symphony 3, Herbert Blomstedt (see pic) , Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra – there was another quality which is hard to define. It was as if the music bounced slightly. I think this may have been due to the “attack” Blomstedt was achieving when music resumed after tiny periods of silence; a hurrying-up which, nevertheless, didn’t result in hurried music. If anyone better qualified to identify this effect can do so, I would be eternally grateful.

Friday 23 March 2012

When young I was much worse

What makes an adult? Given you agree I’ve made it, sewing this lot together creates an LdP template. But for you – and particularly you! - there’ll be variations.

Always vote.
Of LvB’s symphonies like the Pastoral the least.
No longer end restaurant meals with cheese.
Respond to jazz nostalgically.
Regard things as half of a pair.
See London as a kind of Santa’s grotto.
Prize comfort above cash.
Go for more obscure operas (eg, Janacek’s Jenufa).
Weep appreciatively at unexpected articulacy.
Eschew public transport (other than trains).
Acknowledge that some Mozart is musical boilerplate.
Reflect smugly on time spent in foreign countries.
Weep appreciatively (but embarrassingly) at what I consider to be great musical performances.
Spend unthinkingly on keeping computer “up”.
Avoid sentimentality re. grandchildren.
Avoid sentimentality.
Award imaginary medals to those who explain music well.
Donate more to charity.
Consider deleting previous admission.
Rarely buy programmes at music concerts.
Admire (quietly) those who kill officially on UK’s behalf.
Drink far less beer.
Increasingly prefer chamber to orchestral music.
Write fiction to explore the feminine viewpoint.
Worry about growing incidence of gorgeous (women) soloists.
Read less, re-read more.
Speculate on Sibelius’s ineluctable progress up the charts.
No longer enjoy identifying political mendacity.
Bathe less.
Increasingly doubt worth of lists vs. prose.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Celts vs. Saxons whitewash

Just back from north-west Wales where we celebrated Mrs LdP’s n’ty n’th at “a restaurant with rooms” which served us roast suckling pig, Pelorus rosé (Pelorus is the branch of Cloudy Bay that makes the fizz) and a 2005 Meerlust merlot. But where’s the music in all that?

True there was a distorted, very quiet muzak-y buzz, so bass-slanted that the vocals were an undecodable whisper, one step up from white noise. Luckily, 50 metres away were the ruins of Harlech Castle and we had our tune.

A very good tune. For hundreds of years England treated Wales like dirt; latterly Wales has hit back by beating us at rugby and via songs like:

Shall the Saxon army shake you,
Smite, pursue you, overtake you?
Men of Harlech God shall make you,
Victors, blow for blow.

Yes, there are other versions. But this is ours. Over the glorious mountain road between Dolgellau and Welshpool, we sang it aloud. Mrs LdP’s favourite two verses are:

Now avenging Briton,
Smite as he has smitten
Let your rage on history's page
In Saxon blood be written.

His lance is long, but yours is longer.
Strong his sword, but yours is stronger.
One stroke more, and now your wronger
At your feet, lies low.

I get the feeling if Avus reads this post he’ll accuse me of treachery. So be it. My patriotism – a wobbly quality at best – always takes second place to a good song with good words. Starts well too:

Fierce the beacon's light is flaming
With its tongues of fire proclaiming…

I mean, what have we got? The British Grenadiers? “With a tow, row, row, row, row, row…” Feeble!

Monday 19 March 2012

Where brass bands went wrong

Occasionally someone in government reduces a mound of polemic into a memorable phrase and we have the soundbite. Hence the pithy, if charmless, “It’s the economy, stupid”. A century ago they did these things rather better. Georges Clemenceau, French PM, 1906 - 09 and 1917- 20 came up with

There is no passion like that of a functionary for his function.

And, even better, the oh-so-inescapable:

It is easier to make war than make peace.

Finally, foreseeing the emergence of that force for good, Tone Deaf, he kindly emailed me:

Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.

which I widened to include all brass bands.

I come from the West Riding of Yorkshire which has spawned many of these musical perversities, including the doubly politically-incorrect Black Dyke Mills Band. In the early days brass bands had a limited repertoire and merely occupied the leisure of men who worked fourteen-hour days down mines and in weaving sheds. All the tunes sounded the same which is what, I suppose, Clemenceau thought.

NOTE. My antipathy does not extend to the funny, magnificently splenetic, anti-Thatcherite movie, Brassed Off, starring the late and much-lamented Peter Postlethwaite.

Latterly, brass bands have taken on airs. The technical competence of the musicians has risen and they’re no longer satisfied with the Internationale and over-sentimentalised versions of Linden Lea. You can if you wish now hear a much-shortened Pastoral symphony (arr, for brass band). National competitions are held and the musicians’ “delicacy” is praised. Which is of course a nonsense. However agile the trombones, they can never match cellos. A string section, simulated in brass, remains a simulation. Monkeys with typewriters.

As my profile says, I renounced my West Riding birthright some time ago. This is part of the same shriving.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Raw but legitimate

Opera’s for middle-aged middle-class wimps, isn’t it? Men who wear cardigans and women who only shop at Waitrose. Not always.

Anna Nicole was a 15-minute Warhol American celebrity. Single mother, briefly married to a fast food cook, no money, bumping and grinding her way round the pole-dancing circuit in Houston, flirting with “escort” work. Her adviser (his occupation is best summarised in a short word beginning with p) said her advancement depended on having a monster boob job. This she did.

Married a nonagenarian squillionaire oil-man who thought she talked purty. He died in flagrante. Her life dissolved into litigation, television stunts, drugs and death.

An everyday story of Texan folk. Suitable for opera? Well, why not? But, see, it’s got to be authentic and that means demotic parlance. No, not just the familiar, old Anglo-Saxon stuff. We’re talking the gamut of modern-day naughty words, with full descriptions of the activities and sometimes even their simulation. You mean, even…? Not only that, but also…! No! Good grief!

Well Mark Turnage who’s had work performed at the Munich Biennale and Aldeburgh and whose oeuvre includes opera, choral works, chamber music and instrumental pieces wrote the music, and Richard Thomas the words. The Royal Opera House in London (better known as Covent Garden) put it on and Mr and Mrs LdP watched it on telly.

One amusing point. A very familiar (short) word, sung at full blast by the singers, appears asterisked in the sub-titles.

But do you know? The whole thing wasn’t half bad. It wouldn’t figure in our Top Ten Operas For Beginners but it’s proof that modern music can handle modern themes. Made me feel sort of grown-up. Erotic? Far less so than, say, Carmen, for which much thanks.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Sublime horn now silenced

I only learned of his existence a few months ago. And now he’s dead. Maurice André, Frenchman, 78, the best trumpeter in the world. Don’t take my word for it; note the length of his obit in The Guardian.

“Solid technique, superb breath control and seemingly inexhaustible stamina” is the obit-writer’s judgment. Herbert von Karajan puts my claim slightly differently: “He’s undoubtedly the best trumpet-player but he is not from our world.”

That’s André the performer but there’s also his influence. He was in great demand for the fearfully difficult playing in baroque works such as Bach’s Mass in B Minor. To expand the limited trumpet repertoire he arranged violin, oboe and other instrumental pieces, then played them on the piccolo trumpet which made high notes more accessible. He even collaborated with the manufacturer, Selmer, in adding a fourth valve to the trumpet which again helped with high baroque notes.

While learning his trade he worked down the mines and this gave him the power to manage this very physical instrument.

Some 209,479 fans have clicked on this 2 min. 27 sec. video of 56-year-old Maurice blasting his four-valve piccolo through the finale of Telemann’s D-major sonata (which looks more like a concerto, but never mind). LEND HIM YOUR EARS

TRIBUTE TO BERNIE Way, way back when BBC radio programmes came in b&w I enjoyed late-night Bedtime With Braden, a comedy show by Vancouver-born Bernard Braden. Insults were a speciality: “And now a song from Bennie Lee whose only musical training consisted of learning to read record labels while they were rotating.”

OK, so nothing moves on a MP3 player. But you too will look foolish thirty years hence when music emerges from an orchestra of ants embedded in the brain of your grandchild.

Bridge over (very) troubled waters

Crossover is music from an unexpected source. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (a clumsy title) doing Blue Suede Shoes would be one example. I’m not sure if the Queen, overheard singing Magic Roundabout, would qualify. But you get the idea.

Crossover at its most notorious occurred when Leonard Bernstein forced José Carreras and Kiri te Kanawa to do the vocals in West Side Story, presumably to make money. The disc was a best-seller but who bought it I can’t guess. José especially was an unlikely New York boy gangster. There’s also a telly programme of the rehearsals with Bernstein bollocking José, perhaps for being too old.

I normally avoid crossover. But comparing performances of Mozart’s aria Voi che sapete I was offered Nana Maskourian and Charlotte Church. Since I’m repeatedly accused of being a snob – not least by myself – I played them. Both failed. Naturally I’m used to hearing the aria sung by trained voices and they don’t just hit the right notes they dig out the emotions. Because:

You who know what love is,
Ladies, see if I have it in my heart
… a feeling full of desire
… by turns delightful and miserable.
I freeze and then feel my soul go up in flames,
Then in a moment I turn to ice
… I find peace neither night nor day,
But still I rather enjoy languishing this way.

which sounds rather better in Italian, has emotion built into it by Mozart as well as, erm, myself. Which Church and Maskourian skated over. Contrarily, when the trained voices of Kiri and José sang Tonight, Tonight, the World is Wild and Bright a formal stiffness tethered the music to the ground. Let’s not cross over.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Musical but unloved

Most people wish they could make music but are discouraged by sharps, flats, staves and the treble clef. They needn’t be.

They could, of course, sing but most are too shy. The alternative is what Brits provocatively call a mouth organ and Americans (ever prudish) a harmonica. That’s what I turned to after Yahway broke my heart by breaking my voice, denying me effortless and unthinking upper register work.

Eventually I graduated to a 12-hole chromatic MO with a plunger at the end to add the in-between notes. I’m astonished to discover (via Google) it had a range of three octaves. Can’t say I often used the extremes.

Consecutive notes are mainly achieved by blowing or sucking. Many people say they couldn’t get on with that but it’s easier than it sounds. In fact my version of Jeremiah Clark’s trumpet voluntary sounded more plausible on the MO than on the trumpet. No need to train as such. Go blow-suck-blow, sliding along the mouthpiece, until the sequence matches doh-ray-me. Then Three Blind Mice. And you’re away.

Two disadvantages. The mouth organ has no dignity: at a distance you could be taken to be eating a sandwich rather than making music. Also it’s fearfully unsanitary and unlike other blown instruments it has no drain taps. Perhaps dying for St Cecilia is dignified.

LdP CONCISE SONNET COMP Done my first draft and it was pure agony. You write a good line but find you’ve wasted words. You compress and it gets clunky. And is a hyphenated pair one word or two? A guideline: Shakespeare’s Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day runs to 114 words. Shockingly profligate; got to get under that.

Friday 9 March 2012

Drums as they should be

Tone Deaf is still a pop novice but one thing's for certain: most groups could ditch their drummer and adapt something mechanical. A kitchen blender, say, or a wind-up Barbie doll. Imaginative drumming is rare in the pop sector although I’ve been meaning to discover whether Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason has (had?) any legitimate skills.

I'm not exactly a drumming enthusiast but ten bars of Coldplay, et al., are enough to send me looking for some more stirring percussion. So how about Chico Hamilton, 91 years young, whose latest CD (Revelation) came out last year.

Of course it isn’t apples vs. apples. Pop/rock groups require something noisy, obvious and only vaguely rhythmic. Most of their practitioners could probably sell off half the drumkit and benefit from the increase in stage space. Whereas Chico, a specialist in jazz chamber music, is subtly insistent rather than an in-yer-face clatterer, a part of the music instead of in competition with it.

He’s best known for his quintet of which the other instruments (cello, bass, guitar, flute) hint at his quiet, laid-back style. In the 1958 movie Jazz on a Summer’s Day he’s seen wearing a suit doing something subtle to his tom-toms with hairy mallets. If you click HERE you’ll get the whole movie which is 81 min. long.

Here’s a shorter piece, THE WIND, dating back to about the same time but with an alto instead of a flute.

Chico’s work has reached a wider audience notably as background music to the movies Sweet Smell of Success, and Repulsion. He’s also played at the White House at an event hosted by George W. Bush. Hmmm

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Opera - not as serious as it looks

My attempts at verse have encouraged both Plutarch and Lucy to send me books of and about poetry, adding several cubits to my metric stature. Soon I may qualify as a poetaster (“a contemptuous name often applied to bad or inferior poets”). Peter Porter’s collected poems, from Lucy, comes with a recommendation to read pages 301- 302 which include nine short poems about opera.

Since Mrs LdP and I failed to return to the second act of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor transmitted from the Met a few months ago, you can imagine my delight at these lines from Porter’s Lucia In The Sky With Diamonds:

Her lover, equipped by the Scottish
Tourist Board, is going to bring
Italian opera into church…
…extols a carnal love
or sepulchre of kisses wearing kilts.
The same contrivances evading death
honour a tone-deaf poet’s end.

I’ve never been tempted to attend La Scala and this two-liner may explain why:

Taught to suck from capitalist sores their venom,
Marxist First Nighters dress in well-cut denim.

And, despite what I recently posted about Wagner, publishing these lines shows I too have misgivings about modernised opera:

With that “dumme Knab” Siegfried around
Fafner had to be a sluggish dragon,
Wotan a quenchless ancient
And Brűnnhilde in the Red Brigades.

MY OTHER SELF As if walking through a graveyard I sought one of the rotting posts in Works Well and was amused to discover that Barrett Bonden, surrounded as he was by trivia, appeared as a more rounded character than LdP. The latter seems like a man obsessed, never a centimetre away from a chromatic scale. It is a distortion, of course. I still cough, fall out with Mrs LdP, puzzle over Amélie Nothomb’s Stupeur et Tremblements and watch Six Nations Rugby.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Making a fool of myself

Part four.

Judging a pianist’s performance. Not like this! Let me repeat: self-embarrassment is the sternest tutor.

Cleaning the Neff oven involved dismantlement; re-assembly was a nightmare. Covered in black grease, knees aching, whimpering at the mystery, I cleaned myself up, changed my clothes and we drove to Malvern to hear Paul Lewis do Schubert.

Lewis is one of our heroes but my mind lingered on the ratchet holding the heating element to the oven roof. The programme started with a group of sixteen German dances which I didn’t know or like. They must have been very short. Lewis stopped but remained seated at the Yamaha. Some latecomers shuttled in, bent like crabs. For a foolish moment I thought he’d interrupted the dances to let in the latecomers.

He resumed and I still imagined I was listening to the rest of the dances. But when he stopped this time it was the interval. What I’d thought were dances included a shortish allegretto and (unforgivably) piano sonata 14 which, in my own defence, I didn’t know. Mrs LdP was sympathetic and gave me a Minto.

We remained seated as I contemplated my inadequacies with ovens and Schubert. I wondered gloomily whether I knew the forthcoming (latish) sonata 16. But after three notes I knew I knew it. A huge, wide ranging piece ending with a trio and a rondo. Finally, I could listen to some music. Lewis’s especial virtue is clarity which may seem strange. Isn’t all piano-playing “clear”? No, if notes overlap it ceases to be a piano, just a piano-type sound. He is expert at shaping passages, giving them individuality – phrasing in fact. The Neff became mere theory.

Back home we drank a burgundy from under the stairs.

Friday 2 March 2012

Got a big vocabulary?

I can't pretend I take verse writing seriously but I do enjoy using multi-syllable words that fit. The more syllables the better. Recently I contrived to squeeze in "physiology". That's five syllables, so in iambic pentameter there's only five more to find. What's the limit for squeezing? I suggested to Lucy a competition for A SONNET WITH THE FEWEST WORDS and she said she'd be up for that. Hearing of this Lucas said he was game too.

Just a few rules, then. The entries will be published in Tone Deaf, all together, on June 1. "All together" is important. If I posted sonnets as I received them later competitors would have a total to shoot for. Can't have that. All entrants retain their copyright, sonnets must scan and any form (Shakespearean, Miltonian, etc) is acceptable. Because Tone Deaf is musical at least one musical reference should be included.

The LdP Concise Sonnet Competition will be entirely democratic when it comes to prizes. Everyone gets one unless the first-year students at the London Royal College of Music decide I’m ripe for exploitation. And the prize will be worth having: Charles Rosen's book Critical Entertainment. Rosen is a concert pianist, professor emeritus of music and social thought at the University of Chicago and writes about music in a way that makes me weep with envy.

I intend to be the greyhound-track-poop-scooper to the LdPCSC, modestly publishing my own sonnet on June 2. Since I already have Rosen’s book I won’t be awarding myself another copy.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Better second time around

POP EXPLORED – Pt eleven.
Younger daughter (Occasional Speeder) goes to Keane concerts with her daughter Ysabelle. This seems strange. Children should resist their parents’ musical tastes otherwise the dynasty withers. Then I recalled that Elder Daughter (Professional Bleeder), a fan of David Bowie inter alia, watched Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of The Screw on telly with us when she last stayed. Is the da Ponte strain incestuously blanding?

My earlier review of Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know wasn’t exactly kind. So I tried another track – Can’t Stop Now, recorded in Neanderthal times (2003 to be exact) on telly. Previously I thought Keane’s lead singer looked about fourteen. This time the lower half of his pixy-ish face hinted he was turning into a girl. With straggly unwashed hair and NHS dentures.

So I concentrated on the music. Forget the drummer, probably wearing Wigan clogs with which to belabour his tom-toms. But the pianist started with an almost Bach-like continuo and second time round I found myself enjoying his spare, displaced beat accompaniment. Really this was OK.

The singer’s voice hardly spans an octave and lacks identifiable character. But – again, second time around – I realised it was melodious, a singer’s voice in fact. Youthful, undeveloped but – hey – this is pop. The tune he sang could, with different backing, have made its way in the nineties if not the eighties. Not old-fashioned but lacking fashion. Passionately delivered from a familiar crouch.

The sentiments were personal, unexceptional and unafraid of bathos:

I noticed tonight that the world has been turning
While I've been stood here, dithering around

A YouTube commenter said severely, “To all those complaining, this is a bad performance.” – no doubt dreaming of vast arenas. But the boutiquey environment suited the band’s unaggressive style. I may listen again.

Want to arrive at your judgement? own Click HERE