Wednesday, January 21, 2004


The irrepressible Benjamin Zander was on the airwaves again this morning, promoting his new CD of Gustav Mahler's Third Symphony, and promoting the performance of the First Symphony by the Philharmonia at London's Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 25 January 2004. At 6pm, an hour-and-a-half before the concert begins, Zander will give a talk about the work. This has been his custom over many years, and indeed the CD contains a bonus disc of his peroration too.

Zander, a conductor who also earns a living as a motivational teacher, is a great believer in the possibility of peresuading people to engage with music through encouragement, context and explanation. In the continuing debate over whether our greatest abstract art form 'speaks for itself' or whether it needs advocacy, he is very much the advocate.

Zander argues that the regulative experiences of Western culture have increasingly distanced people from the demands of lengthy, complex music. His aim is to 'bridge the fear' and to seek to offer an imaginative route into a confusing sound-world through the medium of language and (particularly) metaphor. He says that everyone -- and he means everyone -- can draw inspiration from a Mahler symphony with the right guidance.

The argument seems to assume the normativity of a certain kind of tonality, of course. And the universality of the Western art-music tradition. There's plenty of room for argument about those.... but it is hard to deny Zander's enthusiasm, or the idea that explanation and encouragement (done without patronising or presuming) can indeed enhance people's capacity to receive music.

I suppose I ought to test him out myself, since, though I appreciate Mahler's art, I can hardly be said to find him inspiring. Small doses, perhaps -- a contradiction in terms, I know! -- but I can sometimes find Mahlerian mannerisms ponderous and draining. Pity I have other engagements on Sunday...

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Tuesday, January 20, 2004

[250.1] QUOTA

"You are the music while it lasts" -- T. S. Eliot

"Listen. 'Listen' is an anagram of 'silent'. And so everything is an anagram of everything else." -- Paul Morley

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Friday, January 16, 2004


The performance of John Cage's legendary 4' 33" at the Barbican Centre tonight is being broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and will then be shown on the digital TV station, BBC 4. These will be the first network airings of the work in the UK and they are already causing something of a stir. BBC Radio 3's Roger Wright gave a sterling performance on the 'Today' programme this morning, sweeping aside criticisms that (in the words of the London Metro free paper) Cage's piece "consists of nothing'. He pointed out that those who dismiss it as a mere gimmick have usually never sat through a 'performance'.

NFE readers will be relieved to hear that the London Symphony Orchestra have rehearsed the 'silent' work thoroughly, including its three intervals. Wright wasn't able to confirm how they were going to approach it, however, so he couldn't answer interviewer James Naughtie's anxious question about whether it might end up being 4' 46"! Meanwhile another cultural critic wittily dubbed the furore "much fury about sound signifying little." (Well OK, that was me.)

Of course you'd have to be pretty po-faced not to be amused by all this. But 4' 33" has a serious point to it. Not only is there no such thing as silence, as it demonstrates, but there is an extent to which the listener's apprehension shapes the experience of what is heard -- and that is one way in which sound is translated into music. Thus the instruction to the players to "approach the piece in a musical way." Not all silence is the same. Indeed Cage's work can truly be described as the grandfather of ambient music. Eno eat your heart out.

There is one further twist to this tale. In readiness for the performance, BBC Radio 3 will have to switch off its emergency back-up system, which is designed to cut in when there is an unexpected silence on air. A couple of years ago they failed to do this for the crucial silence that forms part of the annual Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph. Embarassingly, happy musak broke into the broadcast at its most poignant moment, causing more outrage than even the late Cage is likely to. But less than Birtwistle's 'Panic' at the Last Night of The Proms, apparently.

The concert is part of the Cage composer weekend. Oh yes, and here's a hypertext version of 4' 33", too...

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Wednesday, January 14, 2004


World-renowned cellist Stephen Isserlis tells an amusing audience story in The Guardian:

"[T]he incident took place in Prague, where I was playing a rarity, Dvorak's early cello concerto (not the famous one) with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Near the beginning of the work, I noticed a gentleman in the front row falling asleep.

"Normally, I have no objection to people falling asleep in concerts; of course, I'd much rather they would stay awake and listen, but I accept that it does occasionally happen. This man, however, was falling asleep in a way that rather caught the attention: his neck had seemingly taken on a life of its own, trying (understandably) to escape the company of his head, drooping down to impressively contorted angles before shooting up again to its accustomed position beneath his chin every 20 seconds or so.

"At first, I (and the audience members around him, and several members of the orchestra) found it funny; but I grew increasingly irritated as it started to affect my concentration on the music.

"Before the last movement, I moved the music stand so that it stood firmly between me and him (normally, this isn't a great idea because a music stand in front of the cello soaks up some of the sound, but I was getting desperate). However, his head kept appearing at horribly regular intervals beneath the stand, before being jerked back by his indefatigable neck.

"So by the end of the performance, I was in a foul mood and, when I was presented with flowers as I bowed, I threw them - in rather a petulant gesture, I admit - into the man's lap. He woke up briefly, smiled and went back to sleep (and departed after the concert, I was told, looking very contented with himself and with his flowers)."

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Tuesday, January 13, 2004


Though I now live outside London, I'm privileged to be able to sample, from time-to-time, the many live musical treats the capital has to offer. Do most of the people who live there all the time realise how lucky they are? Almost certainly not. This week, Britten and Cage aside (see below), jazz-rock legends Colosseum return to the Jazz Cafe in Camden (Thursday 15 January 2004). At Pizza Express Soho on the same evening are polymaths Joanna MacGregor and Andy Sheppard, blending perspectives from their different but interesecting musical trajectories. They have a three night residency, following on from Gilad Atzmon and The Orient House Ensemble (12-14 January), who refract Jewish, Mediterranean and central European musics through a jazz prism. And on Friday there is a free double bill - the John Law Trio in the Royal Festival Hall foyer at lunchtime (12.30), and in the evening Dylan Howe's Quartet (17.15 - 18.45). Law is an adventurously expressive improviser with a classical background and a penchant for Thelonius Monk. Howe, who combines post-bop originals with standards, is son of guitarist Steve. What diverse riches. A week is a long time in music...

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Monday, January 12, 2004


A reviewer recently commented that, while the composer John Cage is a relatively well-known figure, his music is virtually unheard. This week London concert-goers have the opportunity to bridge that gap with an imaginative weekend of concerts, talks, films and free events in celebration of Cage. Hosted by the London Symphony Orchestra (who also give the second of a pair of concert performances of Britten's 'Peter Grimes' tonight, incidentally), the series takes place at the Barbican Centre.

Highlights include '4'33"' (along with Cowell's 'Piano Concerto' on Friday 16 January; Cage and his heroes (Ruggles, Satie and Varese, including Varese's 'Ameriques' on Saturday 17 January, followed by percussion extravaganza 'Constructions in Metal'; Cage and the New York School (Wolff, Brown, Feldman et al) including 'Concerto for Prepared Piano' and 'Song Books' on Sunday 18 January.

Josh Ronsen's very helpful John Cage Online links are also worth a visit. The sayings and epigrams are here.

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Sunday, January 11, 2004


Around 12 weeks ago artist Maggi Hambling’s imaginative scallop sculpture in honour of Benjamin Britten was unveiled on the shingle beach at Aldeburgh, the town where the composer spent much of his life. It evokes a significant line from his most famous opera, Peter Grimes: "I hear those voices that will not be drowned." Prior to Hambling’s tribute the only permanent physical symbols of the great man’s presence in Aldeburgh were his grave and a church window.

But sadly the burghers of small town England are up in arms about the presence of Hambing’s ‘modern art’ in their midst. Although one local resident described it as “superbly sited and, whatever the weather or the state of the sea [something that] always blends in with the natural beauty of the scene", nearly 600 residents have been persuaded by malcontents to sign a petition asking for it to be removed and re-sited at Snape.

Before they gripe at this condemnation of their philistinism, yes I’d be happy to have it in my backyard. Britten, who was born 90 years ago in November 2003, put a great deal into the town. Along with Michael Tippett he’ll rightly be remembered as one of the great twentieth century British composers. His worth certainly deserves better than this senseless bickering.

The Britten-Pears Library is in Aldeburgh and, thankfully, no-one has so far suggested booting it out.

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Saturday, January 10, 2004


Front-rank British composer Peter Maxwell Davies' future compositional plans will concentrate entirely on chamber (including choral) music, reports the latest issue of Schott Acktuel: The Journal (1:2004). Schott published Max during the 1950s and early 1960s, and in more recent times have put out a number of his scores, including 'Carolisima'. There are more plans for 2004 starting with 'Angelus', an acapella work for the BBC Singers, which will be given its world premiere at St Giles Cripplegate, near London's Barbican Centre, in connection with other celebrations for the composer's 70th birthday. These include performances of 'St Thomas Wake'. 'Eight Songs for a Mad King' and 'Worldes Blis' with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Rumon Gamba.

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Friday, January 09, 2004


NFE has had occasion before to remark on the fascinating and unclassifiable phenomenon that is The Necks. The Australian acoustic trio consist of Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Tony Buck (drums). Their latest album, 'Drive By', is due out on 26 January 2004 - and it's what you might call jazz-in-opposition, though the label is ReR ('for experimental, electronic, art rock, avant-garde, sound art, radio art, phonography, plunderphonics and recommended recordings'). What they oppose is conventional expectations. Evolving repetitive phrases, juxtaposed and blurred polyrhythms, wandering chromatic shapes and a certain quiet, deliberative frenzy create an illuminating but dimly lit sound-world.

As John Walters says in The Guardian today, The Necks "can be slow, fast, gentle, aggressive, multi-layered, minimalist, tonal, abstract, retro, futuristic, chilled, funky, trance-like, controlled, overwhelming, intellectual and sensual."

On 'Drive by', he adds, "a triple-time electric piano figure provides a click track against which several different versions of The Necks fade in and out. There are glassy piano chords, deep bass guitar riffs, rattling snare, buzzing organ counterpoint, a Moroccan hand drum, the sounds of a children's playground, sci-fi percussion effects, played out across a constantly evolving and shifting pulse."

The band's live concerts are composed in real time (shades of Patrick Moraz's 'Future Memories' projects). In the studio they distill endless overdubs into an ethereal synergy of stasis and propulsion. Minimalistic in certain senses, but quite elaborate in others: you just have to hear it. I find them by turns compelling and unnerving.

The album is available through the ReR Last Release Memo. Also check out the definitive 6-CD remastered collection from The Art Bears, 'Spoors' from The Science Group ("somewhere between intense contemporary complexity and rock - passing most points between") and Absolute Zero's debut, 'Crashing icons' ("densely composed, layered, slightly post 5UU-school music).

Experimental and contemporary compositionalists such as Cornelius Cardew and Iancu Dumitrescu are also on ReR. The ReR discography at Squidco gives a good overview of what's going on. Says founder Chris Cutler, "we are not ever concerned with commercial viability, only with distributing the music we feel close to." General links here.

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Thursday, January 08, 2004


The London Symphony Orchestra celebrates one hundred years in 2004. It was Britain's first independent, self-regulating orchestra. Now resident at London's Barbican Centre, the LSO is involved in around 100 live concerts a year, multiple recordings, music education and tours. Celebrations in 2004/5 include performances of key works by Shostakovich and Prokofiev (the Symphony cycle), together with a Bernstein appreciation on 11 July. Nothing too radical it seems, but a clear emphasis on the twentieth century.

Among the LSO's prestigious 'first performances' have been Benjamin Britten's 'Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra' (1946), Michael Tippett's 'Concerto For Orchestra' (1963) and 'Triple Concerto' (1980), John Adams' 'Violin Concerto' (1994) and James MacMillan's 'A Deep But Dazzling Darkness' (2003).

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Wednesday, January 07, 2004


Maximalist composer Brian Ferneyhough is to be explored from all angles through 'Inventions', a day of workshops and concerts focussing on his output at London's South Bank Centre on Saturday 14 February 2004. The central event will be the UK premiere of a major new ensemble work, 'Seven Tableaux Vivants'. Earlier compositions will also be featured, along with material by a younger generation of composers - including Mary Bellamy, Dai Fujikura and Brian Herrington. 'Inventions' is a joint project of the London Sinfonietta, the Arditti Quartet and spnm. Bookings can be made here. The Sinfonietta's site provides an overview.

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The return of NewFrontEars after the seasonal break (ah yes, happy New Year to you all!) has been hampered by a number of technical difficulties. Normal service is now resumed.