Thursday, June 20, 2002


Links in this initial entry are to composer sites, information sites and Amazon files on suitable recordings - though you may find better and cheaper ways to make your purchases.

The story so far... My love of music began when I fell under the spell of a family-owned recording. It was Handel's 'Ode to Saint Cecilia'. (1) Then I received, as a birthday present, my first LP: Karl Richter and the Munich Chamber Orchestra performing Handel's Organ Concertos (Opus 4 and Opus 7). I was about eleven. I almost wore the vinyl out! My parents were slightly less enamoured with the Baroque era - it was mainly the sounds of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mozart and Mendelssohn that filled our home. I appreciated them, though I sometimes resented the reverential nature of our listening sessions. Naturally I rebelled as soon as possible.

It happened at the age of twelve or thirteen. A visit to a record store brought me face-to-face with a violent modern painting adorning a recording of Bartok's Second Violin Concerto. I had never heard of Bartok. My parents advised me that it would probably be a bit noisy. That was enough for me. I invested my pocket money immediately. I took it home, played it - and couldn't fathom it at all. But so determined was I not to waste my money, and not to allow my parents to prove me wrong, that I played it over and over again. After about a dozen spins those grooves started to reveal the magic of the sounds embedded in them. First it was the rhythm and energy, then the contrasts of light and dark. Then the atonal melodic and harmonic qualities started to seep into my soul. I began to like it. A lot. I learned the all-important lesson that good music takes time and effort. You must enter its world, not always expecting it to reveal itself instantly or obviously.

By now the muse of music had worked her wonders on me. I was spellbound. I spent time pondering record sleeves by composers I had never heard of in the now-defunct 'Fine Records' store in Worthing. I came across Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, which I later realised had introduced me to jazz; though that bug didn't formally bite for another fifteen years or more. Meanwhile, as I entered my late teens, serious young men were being influenced by something rather dubious called 'progressive rock'. Popular music had largely passed me by. I'd barely heard the Beatles, though I do recall horrifying my parents some years earlier by listening enthusiastically to Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames ('Yeah, Yeah') on Top of the Pops. I liked the energy of rock, but its lyrical and melodic content seemed obvious and boring. The singers were often not my cup of tea, either. And I could do without twangy electric guitars. Oh, and that 4/4 drum drop was deadly.

At this point I was leaned upon by peers brandishing a copy of the first Emerson Lake and Palmer album. The band would later go on to earn its reputation for tasteless bombast, but on this LP they were genuinely interesting. All the usual rock rules did not apply and they were recognisably good musicians within my listening universe. There was Bartok again ('The Barbarian' was a Hammond heavy version of his Allegro Barbaro), and Janacek ('Knife Edge'). Keith Emerson's long jazz piano break in the middle of 'Take A Pebble' was heaven to my ears. So, as well as pursuing my classical interests, Baroque and twentieth century mostly, I started surreptitiously tuning in to a late night programme on Radio 3 called 'Sounds Interesting'. It was hosted by Derek Jewell, then popular music and jazz correspondent for the Sunday Times in London. His enthusiastic and rather earnest take on new trends in rock appealed to me, and via his programme I came across Yes's sprawling, eighty-minute, four movement epic 'Tales From Topographic Oceans'. Then came the frightening electricity of 'Relayer' and the measured glories of 'Close To The Edge'. It began an unlikely lifelong love affair with that particular band, cemented by a magical evening at the Empire Pool Wembley on 28 October 1977.

In my school music classes I had by now been introduced to the wilds of experimental music - John Cage, Feldman, Subotnik and the muso-Dadaists. It didn't grip me straight away, but it left an impression. I admired their sense of adventure and their conviction that music could and should press every boundary, aesthetic and conceptual. I discovered that liking music and finding it interesting or valuable was not exactly the same thing. That realisation has, of course, enabled me to infuriate many an interrogator when I have been asked for an instant opinion on a new piece! Always restless for a new angle, I simultaneously traipsed the streets of Worthing and Brighton with my friend Stuart. He introduced me to proto-punk band Tonge, who later became The Depressions. My attempts to persuade Cathy to like twentieth century classical music failed, however. But then she went on to study it at Oxford and got hooked. Heady days.

Round and round I went on the musical kaleidoscope. At the Roundhouse in London I heard George Crumb's eerie 'Ancient Voices of Children', competing with the rumble of rail trains nearby. Poulenc, Messiaen ('Vignt Regards', 'Le Banquet Celeste'), Debussy, Faure and Frank Martin made it into my collection. A little Bruckner and Mahler, too. But it was the French who seemed especially to grip my soul. Mostly it was instrumental material, here and there choral and vocal. With the late David Munrow I found Machaut and the joys of Early Music. I can't remember when I discovered Tippett, but I know what first inflamed my passion for his strange and demanding sound world. It was the 'Ritual Dances' from his early opera 'The Midsummer Marriage'. I also became a Proms devotee. Copland (I saw him conduct), Ives and Ruggles chanced upon me that way. Britten's 'War Requiem' too. Messiaen's 'Turangalila Symphony' literally transfixed me in the fifth row of the stalls at the Albert Hall one night. It was as if something had arrived from another world.

In the 1980s I lived in London and enrolled for an extramural sight-reading and theory course at Morley College. I didn't make massive progress, to be honest, but I borrowed an awful lot of records from the library! Webern, Henze, Ligeti and Varese come to mind. Also around that time I discovered jazz, particularly through a friend in Leeds who was devoted to Art Pepper. He introduced me to the fledgling pianist Jason Rebello and the legendary sax giant John Coltrane. The extraordinary Miles Davis thus came late - I had already encountered the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Soft Machine during my prog days, so the connections flowed naturally into the burgeoning fusion scene. Bill Bruford's Earthworks, of course, and the unfathomable harmonic flights of guitarist Alan Holdsworth. Then back to King Crimson. Inter alia I should offer a quick prayer of thanks for the South Bank Centre, the Contemporary Music Network, Serious/Speakout , the Society for the Promotion of New Music, and the CD-zine ‘Unknown Public’.

While I shared a semi-communal pad in Brixton the 'house band' was women's jazz combo The Guest Stars. An Australian flatmate then introduced me to The Smiths (I still rate Morrissey as one of the great songwriters), New Order and Talking Heads. The intelligent folk of Suzanne Vega blew through open windows during that period, and Asian and African music too. I remember a mesmerising set from Hugh Masakela at a jazz club in East London. In the nineties I began listening to Turnage, Birtwistle, Bill Frisell and Zappa. I found myself reading The Wire (for adventures in the more obscure environs of recorded and live sound). When I married Carla I discovered the gentle country-jazz of Montreux and Barbara Higbie. I also enjoyed a powerful re-awakening to Monteverdi's 'Vespers' at Union Chapel. I heard Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard live in church and concert hall. An electrifying chance meeting on a plane introduced me to a new friend from the US, Priscilla. She loves opera and has more traditional classical tastes - a reminder for me of those all-important roots. I love the Beethoven late String Quartets. I may yet listen to the Symphonies from end to end. I might even soften to Mozart.

So onward goes the unchartable adventure that is music. At the moment I am returning to Handel's Organ Concertos after a thirty year gap and enjoying the legato jazz guitar of Deirdre Cartwright who I came across in the '80s. At the same time I've discovered Elizabeth Maconchy's String Quartets, the sonic mind warp of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Goldie's drum'n'bass anthem 'Timeless', Evan Parker's freeform soundscapes (not before time) and a host of hidden contemporary classical voices via MP3.

This weblog is called 'NewFrontEars' because, poor pun though it might be, that's exactly what we need every day to refresh our acquaintance with the wonders of music. When all else in the world seems dark and fitful, the muse of music continues to weave a spell, open better vistas, enrich the spirit, enchant the past, and invite us ever forwards. Each musical journey is different. But if mine can enrich yours and vice versa all shall be well in the end.

NOTE: (1) The actual recording was: Handel Ode for St Cecilia: final recit. & chorus. April Cantelo and Choir of King's College Cambridge/Willcocks. Decca 436-259-2. LP. Get the vinyl if you can track it.

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