Wednesday, December 20, 2006


A bit outside the usual musical territory of NFE, but I was pleased that former Procul Harum keyboard player Matthew Fisher today won a share in the copyright and royalties of 'A Whiter Shade Of Pale'. It's a great song - an intriguing blend of ballad, Bach and lyrical psychedelia with a fine Hammond M-102 drawbar / Leslie cabinet sound (not the B3, as is often assumed). Fortunately the adjudicator, Justice Blackburne, read music as well as law at Cambridge.To prove his point Fisher [pictured] led the court through what the Daily Telegraph described "a dizzying 40 minutes of bar by bar analysis, picking out quavers, sequences, ascending and descending scales and dissonances." Good on him.

We skipped the light fandango
turned cartwheels 'cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
but the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
the waiter brought a tray

And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale
that her face, at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale

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Saturday, November 18, 2006


There is plenty of moaning about "the state of music" from those of us who see it as more than a purely consumer-led distraction, and the condition of music education (or lack of it) in schools is also hotly debated. But what, constructively, is being done to address the situation? One person who is using the medium of TV to promote better understanding of music in popular but non-patronising ways is composer Howard Goodall. His latest venture, the series How Music Works (showing for an hour on Channel 4, four Saturdays from 18 November 2006 at 20.25), is an excellent case in point. Tonight's programme explored melody, and included references from classical, blues, Gregorian, African, Asian, jazz and rock idioms. Goodall is a gifted communicator. And the fact that he can genuinely appreciate Sting's adoption of the Dorian mode as well as the intricacies of Bach and the demandingness of Schoenberg really helps. He is not trying to build bridges across divides. He is delving into the multiple musical environments in which he lives, moves and has his being. My own choices of Twentieth Century Greats (2004) would have been different. You can't, in my view, overlook Messiaen. But that series, too, was enlightening and well crafted. More, please.

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006


In the view of many people, there is nothing less musically acceptable than Yes's 1973 four-side near 80-minute epic album, Tales From Topographic Oceans. I couldn't agree less. What gets called 'progressive rock' has committed more than a few atrocities, but this isn't one of them. It's coherent, evocative, complex and brimming with ideas. So it was with delight that I discovered, while surfing on Amazon, that at least one thoughtful reviewer agrees. Dr D. B. Sillars' oeuvre is worth visiting anyway, and here he is on TfTO.

Critics have called this album difficult and stated that there was an overstretching of musical ideas. This is not the case. I think the album evolves naturally over each of its tracks. It is complex, thematically and musically, but I think the whole thing holds together... It has stood the test of time very well. It is the album by [Yes] that I re-visit the most, finding new nuances from each listen. This remaster has done the album the justice it deserves. The sound is full and clear, with all the detail finally brought out of the mix. The studio run-throughs are interesting takes on how the pieces have evolved. The digipak packaging is sumptuous. Rhino has done a remarkable job with this and the other releases in the Yes re-issue programme. Take the opportunity and listen to this bold album from Yes’s classic period. It really deserves to be re-evaluated and given the recognition it so widely [merits].

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Friday, November 03, 2006


That being the name of the major Michael Tippett 90th birthday festival held in 1995 (the year The Rose Lake was premiered - one of my all-time musical memories: 19 February, Barbican Arts Centre). Anyway, it came to mind when I was trying to think of an appropriate quotation to mark the fourth birthday of this - now rather occasional - eclectic music weblog. And here it is (below), from Tippett's collection of essays Moving Into Aquarius. I'd take it as a decent job description for a poet, a theologian, a philosopher and an artist, too. But a musician has the advantage of working with the only truly asbstract language, when you think about it...

"I know that my true function within a society which embraces all of us, is to continue an age-old tradition, fundamental to our civilization, which goes back to pre-history and will go forward into the unknown future. This tradition is to create images from the depths of the imagination and to give them form whether visual, intellectual or musical. For it is only through images that the inner world communicates at all. Images of the past, shapes of the future. Images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent. Images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty.”

[Image, 'Tippett in the Countryside', with acknowledgements to (c) Schott Music]

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Monday, October 23, 2006


BBC Radio's 'listen again' facility has undoubtedly changed the way I surf the ether music-wise for good - as has internet broadcasting per se. Searching out what I want to hear when I want to hear it becomes a much less hit-and-miss affair. And sometimes, just to make darned sure I'm not regressing into "I know what I like because I like what I know", I treat it as a random jukebox. Wonderful. This evening, in between two writing assignments, I've been taking in some of the lastest Mixing It (Radio 3), which I rarely hear at its scheduled hour. In particular, I enjoyed Bass Clef's album, A Smile Is A Curve That Straightens Most Things. You can dig it out on Boomkat. The links, for those who might want to dip in, are: Tracks on BASS CLEF - A Smile Is A Curve That Straightens Most Things: - Cannot Be Straightened; Opera; Eight Zero Eight. And while we're about it, here are those programme features from The Glorious Third as we celabrate (see below) it's sixtieth annus glorious in 2006... Classical (62); Experimental (7); Folk & Country (5); Jazz (9); Music Documentaries (1); World (6). What was that rubbish from the"not enough classical any more" brigade?

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006


BBC Radio 3 broadcasts Listen Up!, a 2006 festival featuring more than 30 British orchestras and more than 20 living British composers. There's Free Thinking, the festival of ideas and debate taking place in Liverpool - and R3's role as commissioner of new music and writing is celebrated across thw schedule with new works by Jonathan Dove, Michael Zev Gordon, Judith Bingham, Howard Barker and Simon Armitage.

Listen Up! 2006 plays an integral part in the BBC Radio 3 60th anniversary celebrations. In October, Choral Evensong celebrates 80 years of live broadcasts and the London Jazz Festival returns to Radio 3 in November 2006. Not forgetting Hans Werner Henze at 80, of course.

The Third Programme was launched in 1946 and became BBC Radio 3 on 30 September 1967.
Live music, new work, drama and arts debate have always formed the backbone of the station's programming and the current schedule builds on this heritage.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006


I listen to BBC Radio 3 far less than I should do these days, and largely on the internet (because of poor equipment and reception problems here in Exeter). But I still regard it as, without doubt, the most important musical tutor in my life – I’ve revelled in everything from opera at the Grand Met and the Proms seasons right through to world music, jazz, contemporary, Night Waves, Mixing It (of course) Late Junction, Michael Berkeley’s Private Passions. The list is without end. So I have particular reason to rejoice that, as of 28 September 2006, R3 has been around for sixty glorious years – starting off as the Third Programme I remember reverentially from my childhood.

For me the two defining directors have been Roger Wright (1998–present), who has had the courage to change, and Sir John Drummond (1987–92) who stuck by contemporary music. I also ought to be especially grateful for the often-forgotten Stephen Hearst (1972–78), who, as well as expanding and developing my classical tastes, went with the late Derek Jewell’s Sounds Interesting. It was this programme that enabled me to sample art rock, fusion, folk and a range of ‘popular’ music with serious consequences. The programme for the anniversary celebrations is typically imaginative – and, contrary to Radio 3’s dreary ‘traditionalist’ critics, who put their own ossified preferences above musical adventure, it’s exactly where the station should be right now.

Very much a minority experience, but a veritable life-support machine for vital aural culture.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Greg Stepanich writes: This might sound a little strange, but here’s a disc I’m looking forward to hearing: Sting does Dowland. Early next month, the prestige classical label Deutsche Grammophon releases a disc of songs by the English Renaissance composer John Dowland (1563-1626). Dowland is celebrated for his lovely melodies and dark sentiments, something that could be applied to the songs of Gordon Sumner as well.Apparently, Sting began playing this music in earnest after getting a lute as a gift. On the album, he’s accompanied by another lutenist, Edin Karamazov, a Bosnian musician. Continued here.

As a bonus, you'll find there a version of Fine Knacks for Ladies, a happier Dowland song, published in 1600. The great tenor Peter Pears sings along with lutenist Julian Bream... bliss.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006


The composer Cornelius Cardew has been dead for almost twenty-five years, yet the integrity and the creative restlessness of his art, life and politics make him a figure of music's present, writes Virginia Anderson. She is editor of the Journal of Experimental Music Studies (Jems) and has played and studied experimental music since she found John Cage's 'Silence' in her local library in 1968. She is the author of British Experimental Music: Cornelius Cardew and His Contemporaries (1983; reprinted 2000) and her doctoral thesis was on Aspects of British Experimental Music as a Separate Art-Music Culture (2004). An event to celebrate and discuss the life and work of Cornelius Cardew – including performances of his music – was held in London on the 70th anniversary of his birth, 7 May 2006.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Disc: The Midsummer Marriage
Composer: Michael Tippett
Conductor: Sir John Pritchard
Label: Gala
Catalogue Number:
Released: 2000, 2005 (CD: ADD)

The Midsummer Marriage is redolent of Michael Tippett at his most enticingly lyrical and invitingly opaque. That said, if you are looking to explore the riches or eccentricities of his marvellous first opera in detail, I wouldn't start here. The sound quality requires some aural excavation. But once you have absorbed Colin Davis's definitive Royal Opera House account (Lyrita SRCD2217, 1995), this radio broadcast of the first performance at Covent Garden - conducted by John Pritchard and produced by Christopher West on 27 January 1955 - is well worth the investment. And for fully-fledged Tippett aficionados, it's obviously essential.
There's vigour, feeling and commitment in Pritchard's pioneering rendition. What it occasionally lacks in polish it makes up for in freshness - something the age of the recording cannot wither. Mezzo soprano Oralia Dominguez's Sosostris is one of the standout performances for me, very much capturing the magical theatricality which Tippett intended. (With a repertoire stretching out from Monteverdi to Wagner, she also worked with Pritchard on a fine Coronazione di Poppaea, recorded by EMI.)

The voice-overs for the radio audience only really become obtrusive during the Ritual Dances - with the first also frustratingly orphaned on disc one. In fact this is probably the most disappointing aspect of the performance, in that the intricacy of Tippett's contrapuntal imagination is dulled and subdued at some vital moments of orchestral intensity.
But such shortcomings should not be allowed to detract from the inherent virtues of this recording. Not only does it capture an important moment in twentieth century musical history, it also shows that Tippett's music - sometimes portrayed as dryly intellectual or obscure - is, at its heart, expressive and warm, inviting us not just to view the world but to relish it in all its glory and pain.

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Friday, April 07, 2006


In the aftermath of his first lecture (see my blog below), Daniel Barenboim responded to a range of questions from audience members at the Cadogan Hall in West London.

The politician and pundit David Mellor asked about music as a way of changing the world, not just understanding it. How is that going, and how would we measure its progress, he asked?

Responding with specific reference to the East-West Divan Orchestra [pictured], composed of young Israelis and Palestinians, Barenboim talked of “the conditions of equality”, musical subversion and “listening to the other voices”. On its own a “utopian republic” of music is not enough. The “note of the enemy” must be heard and understood in terms of an alternative narrative. The work of the East-West Divan Orchestra is not to give each other comfort but to understand the nature of music as an integrated system with its potential for re-situating difference.

Steve Martland (composer) enquired about the role of the living composer in this scenario. Barenboim replied, to laughter, “to write good music”. Today you write with the same 12 notes that every single composer before Bach did. The power of music has nothing to do with contemporaneity. The difficulty today is that very few people practice music. (He illustrated this by playing Schoenberg on the piano).

Julian Lloyd Webber (cellist) asked whether there was a danger of some educationalists assuming that because children are from certain ethnic backgrounds – say in inner city schools - somehow classical music is not for them? Naturally Barenboim agreed that this would be a foolish thing, referring to his own experience of breaking boundaries on the West Bank.

Willard White (bass) spoke about compulsion and voluntarism in relation to music education. The response was that it is not a matter of free will, but about offering a grounding which makes proper decision-making possible. “First you have to know about it.”

Asked by a researcher “how far down” he considers musical value to extend, Daniel Barenboim suggested that knowledge (understanding) is the distinguishing issue. In some cases little is required, the response is instinctual. But often guidance is needed to “live” the music. He contrasted a waltz or popular song with the complexities of Schoenberg.

Presenter Sue Lawley interjected: “Do you accept then, Daniel Barenboim, that, that, that pop music can have that same transcendental power that you were describing that Western classical music has?”

The mercurial reply, at once humorous, generous and highly directional, was… “If you feel it, how wonderful for you!”

Well-known (and classically trained) Jazz pianist Julian Joseph asked about the role of improvisation in the process of music as Barenboim is expounding it – and was told, presumably to his agreement, that it is the highest form of artistic expression, an unpremeditated but dedicated state of consciousness.

Lesley Garrett (soprano) talked about her children’s bombardment with images, and asked how they could be guided to really hear sound. She was told that the situation was worse than this – in our culture we are anaesthetised against music through the musak that permeates of society at large.

“In English you have this wonderful difference between listening and hearing, and that you can hear without listening, and you can listen and not hear. Not every language has that.”

So, Garrett responded, does that make opera the ultimate art form, a perfect unity of the visual and the aural? “Nonsense! In opera people look but don’t listen!” (laughter).

Neuroscientist Lloyd Parsons said that his research indicated that the performance of music effected within the brain a distinction between mental processing and emotional awareness, say through the rendition of Bach. Some areas of the brain were activated, others not. Barenboim declared that in music you can control, for a moment, time – and also the life and death of a note. In this there is a sense of transcendence on a journey which is, in a way, longer than the temporality of a human being.

“You can control life and death of the sound, and if you imbue every note with a human quality, when that note dies it is exactly that, it is a feeling of death. And therefore through that experience you transcend any emotions that you can have in their life, and in a way you control time. I mean, we all know that when we are born, two minutes seem like two hours. And when we're interested, two hours are two seconds.”

James Macmillan (composer) referred to Julian Johnson’s controversial and provocative book ‘Who Needs Classical Music?’ He asked whether it was its ability to rise above the mundane, to evoke the possibility of a secret irreducible to commonality, and the illustrate the fact that the universe is not a closed system which lies at the heart of the refusal of ‘serious’ music in a debased culture? Barenboim declared his determination to resist the moralising of music in the discourse of elitism and anti-elitism. Music is innocent, but imbued. He then talked about the orchestra as the natural forum for discovering democracy – though not democratic in its own right.

“[T]he human being is not courageous by nature, and the human being always likes to blame something else - somebody else or something else - and therefore [s/he] says classical music is elitist, classical music is transcendent. I'm sorry, classical is none of that, classical music is nothing until it comes into contact with a human being.”

A music therapist, Alison Levine, asked about “the early stage of how we are in music”. Children, said the conductor, after some repartee about child prodigies, learn more discipline from rhythm than from being ordered around. The first associations with sensuality come through realising that passion and discipline need each other in musical experience. “We have to make music and we have to teach our children from the beginning the connection between music and life.”

An aside followed on music and political process, in which Barenboim’s dialogues with the late lamented Edward Said (specifically on Israel-Palestine and the Oslo process) were, unlikely though it seems, paralleled with issues in the performance of Beethoven’s Pathetique – producing a kind of cross-disciplinary interpretative dissonance, giving way to fresh perceptions of harmonic possibility in different realms. Well, that’s how I’m hearing it. The transcript and podcast will enlighten further.

A brave psychologist concluded by asking what Daniel Barenboim would play if he had one minute to live, and would he play it now…? To laughter and with momentary bemusement, Barenboim responded by saying that he preferred “to play every concert as if it was both the first and the last.”

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Here’s a first. NFE blogging live from the BBC Radio 4 broadcast of the commemcement of the 2006 Reith Lectures. This globally recognised series of talks is, for the first time, given by a world class conductor and pianist, Daniel Barenboim [pictured] – presently director and conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin State Opera and the East-West Divan Orchestra. [Biographical note]

Barenboim’s subject is “the inexpressible continent of music and the inexpressible continent of life”, in a set of reflections being offered in London (Introduction ... understanding and describing the importance of music), Chicago (the hegemony of sight over sound in contemporary culture), Ramallah (the integrating figure of the musician) and Jerusalem (the difference between power and strength).

He began by noting that Busoni claimed music to be“sonorous air” – a precise definition which says everything and nothing. But why is music so important, formative and powerful? Before entering the realm of interpretation, Barenboim chose to pay attention to the objective nature of sound giving rise to “the first note” and to a piece of music which “becomes, rather than is”.

Hearing music is therefore something like joining a train which has already started. An immediate relation is created between “sound” and “silence”. Does one simply displace the other? No. There is energy in sound which sustains its purpose for a time in a way analogous to the establishment of an object in relation to the grounding force of gravity. Then it disappears. There is a fight to the death against a “power of silence” (cf. Castenada) . Each note will die. Thus the entire tragic basis of the nature of the musical enterprise.

"You must forget for a moment, please, that there are such things as technologically developed devices which permit to maintain this sound artificially so, and this is no ungratefulness to the radio, to the recordings, to the CDs and all other means that we have to preserve the unpreservable, but the fact remains that when you, even in the old days when you had a gramophone recording and you put the needle on the record, the sound was suddenly there."

Barenboim went on to talk of “the science of emotion”, that is, the interplay between passion and feeling – drawing on the ethos of the philosopher Spinoza. “If music is sound with thought then talent is a very poor weapon”, he suggested. There must be much more than this if a real connection is to be made between music and our capacity to understand the condition of life.

Spinoza was a religious scholar, a political architect, a philosopher, who aspired to geometric demonstration of the universe and the human being in it, and he was a biological thinker who advanced the science of emotion. And there lies of course one of the great difficulties of making music, the science of emotion. How do you play with passion and with discipline? Having realised all of this, I saw that there was a need for knowledge, and these much abused words 'He is so musical' was absolutely senseless because talent is certainly not enough...

All this has brought me to the conclusion that I am very unhappy, and for a long time, about the place of music in society. This is the part that I will try to explore further in the next lectures. Music can and from my individual point of view should become something that is used not only to escape from the world but rather to understand it.

Nb. The Reith Lectures are available as a video, in transcript and as podcasts from the BBC. I've decided to blog the beginning of the series in order to see how their immediacy relates to a more studied view; to experience them in their raw state. There is also an online discussion.

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Monday, March 20, 2006


At last the ISM has done its duty to one of the true giants of modern music. And not before time. The Herald newspaper in Scotland writes: "If one man is synonymous with twentieth-century music in Europe it is Pierre Boulez. A former chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and in the pit for crucial productions by the Royal Opera and Welsh National Opera, he has also been an important feature of Brian McMaster's Edinburgh Festivals. It is a tribute to his lasting enfant terrible status, however, that it has taken until now for him to join Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Michael Tippett, Sir Colin Davis and Sir Charles Mackerras in receiving the Incorporated Society of Musicians' Distinguished Musician Award, an honour announced this week. M Boulez was born in 1925."

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Saturday, March 18, 2006


No doubt Glyndebourne will gain ridicule, respect, incredulity and indifference in roughly equal proportions for their hip-hop version of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, which plays tonight in Lewes, UK, and then travels to Helsinki, Finland, and Tallinn, Estonia, in June 2006. Whatever the final critical judgement (and bear in mind that worthy 'youth opera' Zoe was praised in performance and then panned on Channel 4) I think this adventuresome idea deserves praise for its intentions and concept. After all, RSC have been rapping Shakespeare for years -- and in a narrowcast, broadband culture where artforms are readily stereotyped and ghettoised, it's good to have hip-hop and opera out, proud and phat in School 4 Lovers. Or should that be "Schl4lvrs"?

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006


"I know that my true function within a society which embraces all of us, is to continue an age-old tradition, fundamental to our civilization, which goes back to pre-history and will go forward into the unknown future. This tradition is to create images from the depths of the imagination and to give them form whether visual, intellectual or musical. For it is only through images that the inner world communicates at all. Images of the past, shapes of the future. Images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent. Images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty."

(Michael Tippett, from Moving Into Aquarius)

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

[173.1] QUOTA

"Music is the only language in which you cannot say a mean or sarcastic thing." (John Erskine)

"It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page." (Joan Baez)

"Art is a house that tries to be haunted." (Emily Dickinson)

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