A Scottish Scandal

I’m guessing that many of you have seen (or have at least heard about) the now infamous interview with Nicola Benedetti in The Scottish Sun. I say ‘interview’, but it is as much puerile fantasy as actual words from Nicola. Instead of focusing upon the career of the talented performer, the sloppy journalism was scattered with lecherous euphemism. While I shuddered while reading it (if you must take a look, the link is http://www.thescottishsun.co.uk/scotsol/homepage/news/mattmeets/article4502198.ece), I was unsurprised by the article.

Nicola is brilliantly talented, and I have long admired her playing. She is a wonderful role model to young people everywhere – not just to young musicians (she is a ‘Musical Big Sister’ to those in the Sistema Scotland scheme), but as a welcome antidote to the celebrity culture where talent counts for nothing, and extroversion everything. Her hectic schedule demonstrates not only her passion for performing, but also the hours of hard work behind the scenes.

Why, then, has the article triggered such a furore? I doubt that too many people took the article seriously– Benedetti herself said she laughed when she read it. One instance of sloppy journalism is hardly going to make much difference to Benedetti’s international career, or turn her fans away from her (as is clear from the messages of support on Twitter). The Scotsman has even hit back with a parodic response to the interview (http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/scotland/the-sun-s-nicola-benedetti-interview-prompts-rethink-of-scotsman-s-classical-music-coverage-1-2496236). It is the implication that looks are just as valid as performance in the music industry that appeared to shock everyone.

After all, it is not the appearance of the performer that people go to ‘see’ in a concert: they are looking for an added dimension of entertainment to the aural experience they can get at home. This article exemplifies the downside to thrusting performers into the limelight: their elevation to celebrity status within the entertainment sector places them alongside other cultural figures. Female musicians in particular seem to have suffered from the gradual transformation of musicians into glamorous, media-savvy personalities (need I mention Bond’s provocative style of performance?). It is a shame that Nicola’s intelligence and talent was side-lined. This is after all how she made her name.

It is not the artists that I am criticising, but celebrity culture. I understand that classical music falls within the sphere of the entertainment industry, but these musicians are famous for a reason. Let’s make sure that we focus upon their musical talent and that they are given the respect they deserve.

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Cartoon Capers

I was disappointed to find out that the televised version of the Wallace and Gromit Prom was to be highlights. I had heard positive feedback from those of all ages, and so this afternoon I made myself comfy on the sofa with the prospect of whiling away a few hours.

Unfortunately, it was only for 45 minutes that was shown by the BBC! This seemed a shame not only for the Aardman creators (who had lovingly crafted both new scenarios and montages of the old) but for the audience too. The Family Proms have been doing a brilliant job at introducing those of all ages to classical music since they were launched in 2006, and it was clear from the animated faces (and the enthusiastic applause!) that this Prom hit the spot.

Introduced by (of course!) the theme tune, the Prom saw Wallace and Gromit cause chaos from the Green Room below stage. Communicating with the audience through a telephone and sending objects through a tube constructed by Wallace, the puns drew laughs from children and adults alike. The brilliant Nicholas Collon must be praised for maintaining the flow of the evening. Turning to joke to the audience between pieces, the young conductor’s buoyant energy definitely created the right tone. Linking themed montages of Wallace and Gromit to excerpts including Shostakovich, Debussy and Stravinsky, the concert covered a range of musical styles. The Aurora Chamber Orchestra and Collon must be commended for matching the length of the excerpts with these clips. However, the centrepiece of the concert was undoubtedly the chaos surrounding Wallace’s new piece, ‘My Concerto in Ee, Lad’. Preceded by commotion in which the piano (intended as the solo instrument) is smashed, the concerto is eventually performed by Gromit and guest star, violinist Tasmin Little.

Although the Prom was clearly well-received (with my own family laughing along too), I did feel that the music was somewhat disconnected from the video montages. The footage was not particularly synced with the events in the music, and it seemed that any combination of images could have been put in any order! The cartoons also ran the risk of distracting the audience from the performances by the Aurora Chamber Orchestra (particularly the blistering fugato from Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony!). Perhaps this would have been solved by the placement of a more coherent cartoon narrative alongside the music?

Ultimately, the effort was clear to see, and the new films continued in the same vein as the much-loved cartoons. Even though it was aimed at families, the Prom had much broader appeal. Whether for the film clips, the music or both, the success of this concert will without doubt attract even more to next year’s Family Proms.

Suffolk Sun: A day in Aldeburgh (Friday 24th August)

Pebbles crunch under my feet as I stroll along the shore. To my right, the bank of stones slopes towards a narrow band of sand over which waves lap. The sapphire mass of water is barely broken by waves, despite the light breeze. Ramshackle fishermen’s huts sit beside the promenade to my left, their wooden boats resting on a sheet of tarpaulin next to bundles of netting. The catches of the day are scrawled upon blackboards, the goods displayed between hills of ice. Freshly dressed crabs sit beside plump scallops and a selection of plaice, cod and whatever else the fishermen have caught. Lobsters observe the customers with curiosity from inside a glass tank by the wooden door, adjusting the positions of their bound claws with an air of confusion. Some huts have extended their business by offering to cook the food there and then, adding more competition to Aldeburgh’s eateries. Locals linger around the sheds, making conversation with their owners and eventually leaving with a bag of fish. Not that Aldeburgh was lacking in choice for a bite to eat. Alongside a selection of pubs, cafes and hotel restaurants (The Brudenell offering a delicious cream tea alongside a prime spot for people-watching), the fish and chip shops are particularly notable. The Aldeburgh Fish and Chip Shop and the Golden Galleon are twinned, both frequent recipients of national awards for fish and chips. Although I have tried both in the past, it is the Golden Galleon which I opt for today. I sit on the promenade wall to look over the sea. The piece of cod steams from within the paper wrapping, and crumbles into soft flakes as I eat. The firm chips aren’t greasy in the slightest, and the helping is generous.

After eating my fill, I stagger into town. The High Street sits local bakeries and independent shops beside such names as Jack Wills and Crew Clothing (surprisingly for this small town). I pass the offices of Aldeburgh Music, an organisation founded by local composer Benjamin Britten. The concert hall in nearby Snape Maltings sits beside swaying reed beds, attracting musical talent from across the globe. Passing out of the North end of the High Street, I emerge besides the boating lake. A quaint ice cream hut sits beside it, queue snaking around the benches. The Grade I Moot Hall (built in 1520) proudly dominates the scene, its chimneys poking up into the breeze. The Hall is referenced in Britten’s 1945 opera, Peter Grimes. The plot revolves around an Aldeburgh fisherman who is persecuted by the conservative coastal community. Although the sun is out today, any clouds cast a more forbidding grey tint upon the sea. The danger of storm and sea which has caused tragedy to these coastal communities is reflected in the presence of the lifeboat station on the seafront. Although visitors are welcomed in, the displays tell of the vital role which the boats have played in disasters over many years.
Continuing further north along the promenade, a large steel sculpture stands resolute in the middle of the beach. The Scallop has been the centre of controversy since it was put in place in November 2003, with many criticising its perversion of the natural beauty. Made by local artist Maggi Hambling and dedicated to Britten, a quote from Peter Grimes traces the edge of the upright shell: ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’.
I sit down upon the beach and look around. Groups of teenagers laze upon blankets and chat, their tanned skin poking out from under pastel tops and Jack Wills shorts. Middle-aged couples walk dogs along the promenade, and children jump the waves which lap gently upon the shore. Seagulls circle overhead, occasionally dipping down to retrieve the odd discarded chip. Yachts bob their way back to the harbour, with larger cargo ships making their way along the horizon down the coast to Felixstowe. However much the town might have changed, the sea is still central to life here. And so I sit, and watch the waves.

A Trip to the Tyne (Saturday 18th August)

I’ve just returned home from a relaxing week in Northumberland – a mixture of lazy afternoons with a book in a deckchair, and various outings in the area. Alongside strolls around the Alnwick gardens and the Gibside National Trust estate, I visited Durham and Newcastle-Gateshead. It was the nucleus of Newcastle and Gateshead which caught my attention, and in particular the cultural experiences afforded by the riverside which links the two.

As I only had a few hours to play with, I decided to head for the Quayside area. The River Tyne separates the city of Newcastle (on the North bank) from the town of Gateshead (on the South). The riverbank is strewn with a plethora of restaurants, overlooking the seven bridges crossing the Tyne (including the famous tilting Millennium Bridge). In its place next to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts, the rippling silver blob which is the Sage Gateshead dominates the scene from its hilltop vantage point.
Now an integral part of postcards of the area, the Sage Gateshead opened its doors in 2004 as part of the Gateshead Quays development. The arts centre combines two auditoria with a rehearsal room and a sprawling music education centre, the musical spaces rubbing shoulders with restaurants and cafes. What struck me about the arts centre was its principle of inclusivity. The leaflets on display proudly outline schemes for all ages and all abilities, encouraging both professional and amateur forms of music-making equally. Although the outside of the building suggests a glitzy centre of elite culture, the relatively modest size of the concert halls belies these expectations. I was surprised to see that the auditoria were closer to the scale of my local concert hall (The Apex in Bury St Edmunds) than Festival Hall, for example. This modesty demonstrates that the musical sphere should not intimidate (as in some glossy cosmopolitan venues), but inspire. This is not only echoed by the diversity of acts featured in a concert season, but in the Sage’s involvement with In Harmony (a scheme modelled upon Venezuela’s El Sistema, using music to transform the lives of the community). Although I didn’t manage to see a concert during my visit, the queue at the ticket desk spoke volumes for the success of this inclusive approach.
On the opposite side of the river is ~Flow, a tide mill which uses different tidal conditions to generate a variety of noises through laboratory-like instruments. Those on board this temporary artwork (part of the Cultural Olympiad) become participants as they fiddle with switches and knobs connected to the machines, altering the sounds produced. The feed from the tide mill is relayed to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, and
recordings from ~Flow are to form a new commission by Chris Watson to be premiered on 5th September at the Sage Gateshead. This project fits neatly into the inclusive approach advocated by the Sage, debunking any preconceptions and showing that local roots are important to the centre. It seems apt that the river which unites Newcastle and Gateshead also bonds an unlikely combination of people through their participation in the artwork. Like the Sage, it is the intersection of place, sound and people which makes ~Flow special.
This stretch of the Tyne blends communal pride with music making at a national standard. In this Olympic year, the words ‘Inspire a Generation’ seem particularly appropriate. But it is not just a generation which the cultural projects in Newcastle and Gateshead are seeking to inspire, but those of all ages from both near and far.

http://www.thesagegateshead.com/
http://www.flowmill.org/

All the world’s a stage: Music as theatrical experience (Wednesday 8th August)

I was recently given a copy of Martin Fröst’s 2011 CD, ‘Dances to a Black Pipe’. Although I know and love most of the repertoire on the disc (particularly Lutosławski’s Dance Preludes), it was a piece by Anders Hillborg that stuck out. In the CD liner notes, Peacock Talesis described as a concerto which also includes dance.

In preparation for a performance of Peacock Tales, Fröst worked with both a street dancer and a classical dancer. A Youtube video of a performance (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5d21HMq3ir0) sees Fröst changing between black and white suits, working his way around the stage under a spotlight. Although playing any piece of music is undoubtedly a performance, at which point does music become theatre?
If you go and see any classical concert, there will be certain rules of decorum. The process of tuning, the concert dress, the bows after the performance: all of this points towards a theatrical experience. We take all of this for granted when we go to see a concert, and barely even consider the effect of these different elements. Even the space in which we perform elevates what happens on stage, yet many of the audience can be seen studying scores or closing their eyes, abandoning themselves to the music. Period performances see players donning ‘authentic’ clothing, and it seems to draw in the audiences. But when did music start to become more theatrical?
Any performance requires a certain amount of engagement with the audience. CPE Bach even spoke about the importance of the performer being emotionally moved in order to move the audience. The idea of music as a one-way dialogue (from performer to audience) has endured, with strictly enforced silence in concert halls and regimented appreciation of the performers afterwards. I would argue that a crucial shift towards a more extroverted form of performance came with the advent of technology. Given how easy it is to acquire CDs, performers must work hard to distinguish themselves and give themselves more presence. After all, you go to ‘see’ a concert – you can hear one at home in surround-sound on a comfortable seat with a cup of tea. Perhaps this is why soloists feel the need to exaggerate any emotional response to the music. After all, isn’t part of Lang Lang’s appeal his showmanship?
It would only be a matter of time before these changes were reflected in the music. A prime example of theatrical music is the music of John Cage. The Experimentalist composer was fascinated by the idea of chance, and many of his works were open to a wide range of interpretations. For example, his 1977 piece Inlets instructs performers to play large water-filled conch shells by tipping the shell until a bubble would form and produce sound. The performers would have little experience in how to make sounds, and so every performance would be unpredictable. In this way, the performance is as much informed by the visual element as the auditory. By removing the musicians from their comfort zone, this would break down the barrier between themselves and the audience, removing the mystique from music and opening it up to an increasingly wide range of possibilities.
It wasn’t just the modernists who elevated the visual element of performance alongside that of the auditory. Wagner coined the term ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ to describe his vision for a total work of art (blending many art forms together). His theatre in Bayreuth was designed specially to ensure that a performance was an immersive experience. In fact, the theatrical nature of opera can be extended back to its very beginnings (and beyond, to its roots in the intermedi). In this case, aspects of theatre can be identified in music from its very beginnings: it is only natural that its ability to evoke strong emotions should be extended. Listening to music is often compared to a journey, so why shouldn’t it be mapped with narrative aspects?

It is clear that theatrical aspects of music have been present from its very beginnings. It is only Fröst’s unambiguous statement of his intentions that makes his piece stand out. Some might argue that dance would ‘distract’ from the music, but I would disagree. It is an inseparable element, and a CD recording of Peacock Tales omits a vital part of the piece. With costume and dance being used to enrich music at present, what will it turn to next?

Bernard Herrmann: film composer extraordinaire (Sunday 5th August)


This week a poll from the British Film Institute named Hitchcock’s Vertigo as the best film ever, eventually knocking Citizen Kane off the top spot. Although Bernard Herrmann composed the music for both films (and many others besides), his score for Vertigois one of my favourites.

Born in 1911, Bernard Herrmann was classically trained at both New York University (with Percy Grainger) and the Juilliard School. His position at the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) as music director and conductor introduced him to the film director Orson Welles, and it was through him that Herrmann made the transition to film composition. His first score was for Citizen Kane in 1941 earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Score of a Dramatic Picture. However, it was not until 1955 that Herrmann’s collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock began, producing acclaimed scores for Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest amongst many others.
A psychological thriller, Vertigo was made in the middle of Herrmann and Hitchcock’s professional partnership (in 1958). The plot is centred upon a detective (played by James Stewart) who falls in love with the wife of an acquaintance when he is hired to follow her, winding around cases of mistaken identity and deception. Herrmann’s score echoes the obsession of the detective through spiralling figures – the Prelude pits an ascending and descending string pattern against one another to create a sense of confusion. The climactic scenes of the film are catalysed by the vertigo of Stewart’s character, and Herrmann creates a musical equivalent to this acrophobia, integrating it into the score. Herrmann contrasts repetitive figures in a high register with a darker low register. This not only creates the impression of a view into a precipice, but the repetitions evoke the paralysing fear that it comes with it.
Herrmann was creating his film scores in the middle of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ (roughly 1930-1960) amongst such composers as Max Steiner and Erich Korngold. Although Herrmann isn’t afraid to use luxurious, sweeping melodies for his scenes of romance, much of the score for Vertigo is murkier in character. As in Wagnerian opera, film composers made use of ‘leitmotifs’ – brief musical figures which identify with particular characters or ideas, and could be transformed according to the situation which the character is in. One leitmotif which is used throughout Vertigo is that of the fear of heights – a clashing chromatic chord, used at any point when Stewart’s character has to confront his fear.
These leitmotifs are responsible for holding together the score. In this case, the music has to follow the pictures and an unpredictable plotline, meaning that the composer is freed from any conventional structure. Herrmann’s score is not just an illustration of what is on the screen, however – his music is crucial in its creation of the film noir atmosphere. His integration of Spanish dances into the score anticipates a crucial turning point of the plot, but also adds balance to the score.
Not only is the score an invaluable addition to the mood of the film, but it’s also brilliant to listen to on its own. Herrmann’s scores are formed into suites which are often central to film music concerts – another favourite of mine is North by Northwest. For me, it’s Herrmann’s ability to capture the mood of the film that makes him so brilliant – and the fact that every score sounds so different. Although composed for film, Herrmann definitely deserves his place in the concert hall.

Making space for the Spectralists (Thursday 2nd August)

The music of Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail too often lurks on the periphery of classical music, classified as part of the ‘dangerous’ zone of contemporary music. I was drawn to the sound world of these composers and the rest of those classed as ‘Spectral’ because of the quality of space in their work. Although many would argue that this music is hard listening, for me it seemed to offer a space removed from the auditory assault of everyday life.
The sound spectrum acts as a basis of material for compositional material for Spectralists. The spectrum comprises of a set of frequencies, stacked in a ratio upon the fundamental (the lowest in a wave form). Although based upon scientific principles relevant to all parts of everyday life, the music is often approached with wariness. It sounds ‘contemporary’ (read: difficult), and its dissolution of traditional modes and scales of Western musical language means that it stands outside of the comfort zone of many. I have yet to see Grisey or Murail in a record shop, or on a concert programme. But Spectral music doesn’t need to be approached with apprehension.
Although composers only started to identify themselves as part of the Spectralist movement from the 1970s, they were inspired by the work of previous generation – Messiaen taught Grisey composition. Based in France, the composers developed their techniques at IRCAM (a Parisian institute for science about music and sound, and electro-acoustics). Even eschewing the label of ‘Spectralist’, these composers made a conscious effort to separate themselves from other branches of contemporary music. More of an attitude than a technique, the movement takes an exploratory approach to the nature of the musical tone and the composition of the spectrum.
How, then, to listen to Spectral music? Timbre becomes a focal element, due to the lack of a clear structure or direction.  Many Spectral works are composed for small chamber groups, featuring much solo playing. This is in vast contrast to the aural assault of, say, Varèse, and creates an intimate quality. Even though time is moving at a regular rate, there is a meditative feel to the music: ideas will be repeated several times, nullifying any sense of progression or direction. The usual palette of timbres is widened by use of extended performing techniques and electronics. This again creates a sense of the otherworldly: if you are not watching the performance, you might wonder which instrument you are listening to (or if it is an instrument at all). Meanwhile, the looming presence of silence not only intensifies the perception of timbre, but adds a sense of isolation.  This music goes beyond the usual concert hall decorum to find something more primeval, a creative exploration of possibilities.
This improvisatory quality is also encapsulated in the Spectralist play with time. However, it is the relationship of time to space which is crucial to the understanding of this movement. Space is manifested through register: the pitch of the notes in relation to each other leaves gaps in the texture, creating an emptiness. It challenges us to identify what we identify as high and low.
Whereas other music is defined by its ‘events’ (musical happenings which determine perceptions of the piece’s direction), I would argue that Spectral music is better viewed in terms of the relations between different pitches. The piece is defined by the coincidence of these pitches, all built from the spectrum. The fact that time is not teleological in a traditional sense means that these works allow space for meditation. This allows us to consider our placement in relation to these sounds and prompts us to consider our orientation in the world around us. This music places the frenetic noise of modern life as undesirable, and invites us to take a step back and really consider what it is we are hearing, and how it is we are hearing it.
Try sitting in a quiet room and putting on some music by either Grisey or Murail. It goes without saying that the Spectral movement extends far beyond these two, but their influence had a crucial effect upon the following generation of composers (including Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho). Although definitely modern in its sound, their music offers you the time to think amidst the chaos of today’s society.