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Sunday 29 July 2012

A lot to answer for

The long haul to New Zealand proved excruciating and after three trips we gave up. I cannot bear sitting in a plane waiting for aeons of time to pass. Reading a book for that explicit reason (my itals) can ruin a book’s appeal. But how about a careful selection of music on an MP3 player? That too failed since jet engines obliterate lower frequency sound (ie, about 60% of most orchestral works). But making the choice was fun.

It wasn’t all posh. I also picked from about eighty tracks I’d compiled earlier representing all the pop I cared to listen to. Eighty tracks! That says it all given there were 950 posh tracks. Don’t worry, I got my come-uppance.

Honouring pop music in this way casts a curse over it. How could I imagine the banalities of Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World would survive two listenings? Both versions of California Dreaming (Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas) had me cringing at:

I stopped into a church
I passed along the way
You know, I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray

A shame. It’s a marvellous tune, beautifully sung.

Wikipedia says Guantanamera’s words are “rarely sung”. Let’s make that “never sung” by José Feliciano. And the simplistic plaid-shirt patriotism of Pete Seeger’s This Land is Your Land eventually got me down.

But some survived and prospered. Brian Ferry’s sophisticated voice is perfect for Miss Otis Regrets. Out of a thousand possibilities I conclude New York is the song Frank Sinatra was born to sing. Barbra Streisand’s sheer energy in Don’t Rain on My Parade arrives as a direct transfusion. Joni’s Big Yellow Taxi seems to tell lots of tales. The Pogues’ The Band Played Waltzing Matilda can still make me weep. Bach is not alone.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Twice cursed I am

When I say my collection of posh music CDs (excluding jazz, pop, and stand-up) amounts to “about 700” it sounds like boasting. And boasting would be in character. In fact it’s a potential admission of defeat.

Take Scarlatti. His complete keyboard works, played by the late Scott Ross, amount to (I believe) 460 works and I have the 16 CDs (could be more) which cover them. To my eternal shame I have only listened to a tiny proportion.

Shostakovich wrote fifteen string quartets. I have them all, confusingly by the Shostakovich Quartet, and as a late convert to old Dimitri I have played them several times. Great music but to save my life I couldn’t say to an apostle “Number four’s the one to get you started.” because they’re not separate in my mind.

I suffer from two related curses: (a) being comfortably off, and (b) the boxed set.

Faced with poverty and a love of Haydn I started off buying the symphonies two or three at a time on single CDs. In retrospect I’m glad I did. As a result of this gradual accumulation I can identify the The Surprise, The Clock and half a dozen others. Had I bought the boxed set (ie, 100-plus symphonies) I’d have risked blurring their individuality. I mean, where do you start?

Boxed sets are tempting because it’s comforting to know you have the lot. But they need treating with care; ideally one should choose and play just one work and then switch off. But human nature says: “Let’s just allow this marvellous stuff to play on.”

Boxed sets also tend to lock you into one source. OK in some instances, not in others.  I’ll get around to that later.

PS: The complete Mozart amounts to 170 CDs - but not for me. 

Monday 23 July 2012

Long live Le Grand Boucle

I find myself part of a paradox. For twenty years I’ve enjoyed a minority UK enthusiasm, watching the Tour de France on TV. In 1995 I saw the Spaniard, Miguel Indurain (five consecutive TdF victories) beat the Swiss, Tony Rominger, both head-to-head, white encrustations round their mouths, in the Alps. Bjarne Rijs (Denmark) finally beating Big Mig, The beginning and end of the Armstrong (USA) era – seven TdF wins. I’ve applauded wins by Andy Schleck (Luxembourg), Cadel Evans (Australia) and, on Sunday, Bradley Wiggins (England).

I never proselytise on behalf of the TdF. Those who approach it casually see a boring, long bike race redeemed by helicopter coverage of French scenery. They miss the fact that some bike racers can go well uphill, some against the clock, and some in savage sprint finishes – but none can do all three. That the TdF is broken down into stages which favour these three disciplines. They are unaware that the concept of accumulated time imposes special demands and special stratagems. They cannot appreciate the implications of team riding. Fair enough. The TdF is a complex proposition and there is always soccer which is more easily understood. Snob that I am I’ve taken comfort in the TdF’s international cast list, its minority appeal in the UK, its Frenchness. Also that those who avert their eyes would react similarly to chess, and for roughly the same reasons.

But all that changed on Sunday. Suddenly I’m one of a crowd. Don’t get me wrong: Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish are part of my Pantheon, but then so are Indurain, Armstrong, et al. And in the end what matters is the Tour itself. Not vox pop interviews about beer drinking from fatties waving the union flag on the Champs Elysées 

Thursday 19 July 2012

That smirk of cold command

Elvis never cut it for me. A defensive heterosexual, I failed to respond to his swivelling hips and his lush blue-black hair (clearly a wig). And that globular voice, like methane bubbles emerging from a marsh. So strange. They said he was the first white to sing like a black man. Then why not listen to a black man and cut out the intermediary?

To be fair Elvis faced problems not of his making. I’d just discovered posh music and he wasn’t Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. His songs persecuted me as noise during RAF national service. During a brief period when I listened to pop driving to work in Philadelphia he came up with the relentlessly maudlin In The Ghetto. And Heartbreak Hotel was a perfect target for the musical satirist Stan Freberg (“Too much echo – echo – echo. Turn me off – off – off.”).

One thing in his favour:  he did his national service like a man, instead of claiming to have flat feet or a social disease. And there was a mild hint of self-mockery about Blue Suede Shoes. Other than that I let him be and rather cruelly regarded his ignoble death as a slap in the face for his deifiers.

But with pop, context is all. Often status is achieved in contrast to what went before. I have dwelt on the sheer wetness of Radio Luxembourg output during the very early fifties and perhaps if I’d been limited to that I might have regarded Elvis differently. People whose music I enjoy and whose integrity I admire (eg, Paul Simon) say Elvis was seminal and that I therefore profit from his role as a stepping stone. That he shouldn’t be scourged for interfering with my reading in B Block, RAF Yatesbury, Wiltshire.

Oh, I don’t know though.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Does osmosis work with music?

Once it was OK to label certain people as cultured. Not now, though.  And it isn’t the fault of our minister of culture (somewhat tarnished by his links with Murdoch). The word has lost some of its currency, perhaps because it implies that the rest of us are uncultured – crass, oafish, ill-educated, insensitive, bad with cutlery.

For one thing culture’s meanings are now widely spread: think of pearls and unspeakable things in laboratory petri dishes. Also the noun’s primary meaning (Enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and artistic training) seems a mite discriminatory.

Not that anyone ever has, but I’d hate to be described as cultured. I’d immediately suspect sarcasm. It’s that word “training” that gets me, as if becoming cultured were a conscious goal. A goal which in any case ebbs and flows.

Take music. I own a CD of Alan Rawsthorne’s first and second violin concertos. If I did aspire to being a culturee* those two pieces of music would be worthwhile steps on the upward tilted ladder. The first time Rawsthorne’s had a mention in Tone Deaf. Go on, admit it. You’re impressed.

You shouldn’t be. I haven’t the faintest memory of either piece. Even worse, in checking my discs for something obscure, I was astonished to discover I owned the CD. I could claim kudos for having bought it but since I can’t remember why that would be kudos built on sand.

Which brings me to a niggling question. Does a piece of music, heard and now forgotten, legitimately form part of one’s cultural development?  Can one assume that something beneficial “rubbed off”? Seems slightly fraudulent to me. Gives me the shudders. But then I’m not an instinctive knife-and-fork user.

*Culturee. Word fabricated out of laziness.

Thursday 12 July 2012

A short break from gardens

Yesterday music was the concern of our guests – Relucent Reader and his missus. When we dropped them at their hotel on the outskirts of Cheltenham (under the shadow of GCHQ) at 8.30 pm they were due to freshen up and take a taxi to a concert starting at 9.30 pm. A day or two earlier in their impossibly tight schedule they’d managed to squeeze in some Bach at St Martin-in-The-Fields (north-eastern corner of Trafalgar Square, London)

The RRs from Virginia, USA, were touring grand English gardens and we picked them up from Blenheim (Nearly a Snafu; the adjacent town of Woodstock has TWO gates to the Blenheim estate.) I had grandiose plans which included a tour of mid-Wales but geography and a drum-beat deadline reduced this to a trot round Hereford Cathedral (the chained library – both RRs are librarians – and Mappa Mundi were closed) followed by tea chez da Ponte, a meal few of our acquaintances, or we ourselves, have experienced.

RR has a highly individual blogging voice which is heard all too rarely, knows about technology, books and much more, and years ago noticed Works Well via a chance reference to the American composer Charles Ives. In the end, I suppose, it was conversation that mattered; raising our voices over that of the satnav lady he and I set the world to rights as did Mrs RR and Mrs LdP behind us.

The bottle was a kind memento of their visit and a revelation that Virginia has gone in for viticulture. The grape, petit verdot, is a late ripener in Europe and tends to be added in small amounts for extra tannin, colour and flavour,  especially with cab sauv. However it ripens more reliably in the New World and emerges as a wine in its own right.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

No, it's not unnatural

Alan Yentob’s frequently beguiling TV series, Imagine, consists of well-ridden, quirky and often obscure hobby-horses. Last night  he daringly examined male falsetto singing.

I say “daringly” because many men tend to draw only one conclusion about full-grown members of their tribe who twitter away in the soprano range. Little do they know, since several “falsettists” revealed women are often attracted to such singing, reckoning it to be evidence of a gentler, more sensitive alternative to  the hairy chests.

But where are they employed? Leading gospel choirs and in close-harmony barbers shop quartets seemed to suggest these voices are only suited to slowish, often humdrum songs. Not so, since both The Beach Boys and the Bee Gees made good use of them. And falsetto’s pop apogee occurs with Queen where Freddie Mercury multi-tracks his voice to the point where the different layers eerily “pulse” in a way I thought required more than one singer. Making a sound I can only describe as beautiful.

All of which was news to me but Yentob was moving towards something I do know a little about – counter-tenors, otherwise known as male altos. Despite forcing myself to be open-minded I must confess I am occasionally uneasy listening to counter-tenors, not because of their range, rather their timbre. A little too flutey. But I’ll make an exception with Iestyn Davies (pictured). We’d heard him recently in Handel’s opera Rodelinda but here he sang an achingly gorgeous Purcell song (Name forgotten, damnit) which left me unequivocal: this was echt counter-tenor territory.

Afterwards, Davies spent several minutes teaching Yentob to explore the counter-tenor range with his own voice and there were further techno-sessions where a voice specialist, using a fibre-optic probe, showed how one singer’s vocal cords coped with these upper flights. Good on yer, BBC.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Too much of a good thing

Repetition, unacceptable in fiction, is vital to much music. But it doesn’t always work. It does in the Hallelujah chorus but not in Ravel’s Bolero. (Or perhaps it works rather too well, which adds up to the same thing.) For me repetition turns Hey Jude into sheer monotony and it doesn’t help the first movement of Schubert’s eighth symphony (Unfinished).

I’m in dangerous waters here. Mrs LdP disagrees about the Unfinished and millions support her. Even if you’ve never heard the symphony, ten-to-one you’ll love the waltz-time theme Schubert employs. And employs. And employs. Dah dah, di-dah di-dah… Until I for one start biting my nails. Beautifully orchestrated you understand.

Repetition in the Unfinished is integral and untouchable. Keyboard music is another matter. Bach’s Goldberg lasts about an hour; some pianists play all the repetitions, some are more selective though possible fatigue is rarely cited.

Songs – often four lines to a verse – are a form of repetition but only tend to be burdensome if the words are second-rate. Best to sing them in german when in England, and english when in Germany.

It’s no coincidence we limit ourselves to the first verse of the national anthem.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Better than main-lining Côte Rôtie

Propulsive Bach. Glenn Gould, mumble-singing as he hammers away at the English Suite causing my knees to jig up and down, my fingers to break away from the computer keyboard and attempt – vainly – to drum out arpeggios on my bare wood desktop, my heart to give in to all this musical gaiety and convert it into stuff that goes straight into my brain making me spryer and younger than I have any right to feel. I’m writing Blest Redeemer and closing in on 100,000 words; Gould’s Bach forces me to attempt the impossible and match my word creation to his impish, agile fingers. I used to think music would distract me from writing but its very accessibility on the computer hard disc means it can be as comforting as sucking a humbug and as transformational as gin. After all if I can work in the company of the former cantor of Thomasschule in Leipzig and German Royal Court Composer to August III, that’s high-flying company and some of it’s going to rub off now and then. And even when the piano shifts into a more reflective, less demonic tempo I still have his image in my frontal lobes, benign but clever, tea-towel wig down to his shoulders, waiting for the English Suite to end so that he can try – for the hundredth time – to explain that the chromatic scale isn’t really all that hard and I’ll be a better person – A better writer? – once I understand. And as my creative wellsprings put Judith, Zara and Mabel into the order that Blest Redeemer demands there’s this mental left-hand accompaniment pushing up via vibrations in my rotating office chair and I’m calling him Joh instead of Maestro because he’s so damn familiar and he’s been with me most of my life. 

Sunday 1 July 2012

A lugubrious celebration

Since this is my hundredth post (as LdP) and I am demonstrably old, I am using the hymn tune, Old Hundredth, to celebrate. Despite my atheism hymns represent my introduction to music. My mum sang them round the house and I copied her. Briefly, inexplicably, I joined a church choir. Hymn words and music are still embedded, three-quarters of a century later.

OH is a lumbering TUNE usually played very slowly, as here. It becomes risible when attached to these words:

All people that on earth do dwell

since the second line is distinctly contradictory:

Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.

OH is not cheerful. Later the words become repetitive and then acutely genteel:

Praise, laud and bless His name always
For it is seemly so to do

When was the last time you did something seemly?

The tune also accompanies a four-liner also known as the Doxology.

Praise Him from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all creatures here below, etc.

The Doxology is not the scientific study of detergent but “a short hymn often added to the end of canticles, psalms, and hymns.”

None of which is very interesting. What is interesting is that you can sing Good King Wenceslas to OH. It’s difficult but possible. Doing so tells you a good deal about how the brain’s cells work for and against your inclinations. Your instinct tells you what you’re doing is wrong, but another set of cells supports this inventive and adaptive act. I urge you to try this. It will cause you to love your brain.

The recording is by the Westminster Abbey choir, sharpened up strategically by London Brass.