Wednesday, December 24, 2008


My Christmastide listening this year will certainly include the piano cycle Vignt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus, in recollection also of the Messaien centenary this December.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


When he wrote his autobiography, Sir Michael Tippett decided to call it Those Twentieth Century Blues, bringing together the archetypes of a transformative musical language, historical tragedy, and the light and dark of a life observed and a dream re-visited. There is no doubt that if he was with us today, he would be thrilled by the advent of Barack Obama in the United States, more for what it represents in terms of the experience of Black Americans and oppressed peoples than for any anticipation that the world's political systems will suddenly put themselves in order.

Tippett had an unshakable faith in people, ins pite of everything, and when he put together the defining oratorio of the last century, A Child Of Our Time, he famously adopted African-American Spirituals to perform the function of Bach-like chorales, and to reflect something that had changed in the landscape of our imagining forever. Being married to an American and caught up, as we all are, in the invitation to a sea-change across the Atlantic, the five Spirituals had to be what I turned to musically to comprehend the paradox and promise of what is going on.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


So much happening on planet(s) music, so little time to reflect on it. For me, anyway. There's been the Proms Season (which I mostly missed, unfortunately), the 40th anniversary Yes tour in the USA (likewise, due to its cancellation), masses of 'new music' events, the Pierre Boulez birthday celebrations - and a fabulous London reunion gig for Chick Corea and friends in Return to Forever. That was an amazing musical evening, and also a reunion with my friend Jonathan Crawford. He and I had managed to lose touch over the past few years, and then he rewarded me with third row centre at the O2 Indigo. Life has its compensations. Next up, a Tippett orchestral concert, Allan Holdsworth back at the Jazz cafe (unexpectedly soon) and Porcupine Tree. I shall seek to catch up with the scribing, and also some comments on Maestro (BBC2) and Goldie.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


The Guardian has this week been giving away a series of booklets (also viewable online) featuring "great lyricists". I'm an enthusiast for both Morrissey and Joni Mitchell (pictured), of course. Dear old Bob Dylan has to be in there, too -- even though he can't sing for peanuts (and still, oddly, has a great voice). I'm less convinced by Chuck D. But Leonard Cohen is on the way, apparently. That will please my wife.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Reviewing the new album 'Spring is Here (Shall We Dance?)' in The Guardian, John L. Walters has its creator well summarised: "Django Bates's music... revels in its complexity like a brainy kitten with a ball of fibre optic cables. But within his own parallel universe (aka Denmark's Rhythmic Music Conservatory), Bates has reduced his simmering brew to its necessary components: sneaky, snarky basslines, asymmetric patterns that groove, sweet vocal melodies, as well as passionate ensemble writing with a sense of humour that redrafts Charles Ives, Spike Jones and Frank Zappa for the age of Britain's Got Talent. Yet Bates is serious too, with such inventiveness, mastery of orchestration and flair that he runs rings around his contemporaries in every genre." [Label: Lost Marbels, 2008, £12.99]

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I'm pleased to see that Sam Wollaston of The Guardian also liked the Berlin Philharmonic programme the other night: "The Berlin Philharmonic is like one of those amazing swarming flocks of starlings, made up of individuals yet able to suddenly morph into a single being, with one brain, operating in extraordinary telepathic unity. Except that they make a nicer noise than starlings. A flock of nightingales then, if such a thing existed."

What pleasantly surprised me was his predilection for Adès (pictured). As soon as I saw the composer's name, I expected the usual "modern music is noise" stuff which you even get from savvy media people these days - those who pride themselves on their cultured taste in theatre and literature, but for whom the world of music ended in the nineteenth century or with the arrival of rock'n'roll. Sam, however, writes: "The Thomas Adès piece they play is eerie and beautiful, and looks fiendishly difficult to play, even for these guys. Then, when they play Beethoven, you can see them relax; they could do this all day, with their eyes closed. They don't even need Sir Simon, who goes and sits down in the auditorium."

The composition concerned, by the way, was Asyla, which was premiered in Symphony Hall, Birmingham in October 1997 by Simon Rattle's previous outfit, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the 1997 BBC Proms. I was there, I'm gratified to say. This work also received the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2000, making Adès the youngest ever to receive that prize.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


There was a great documentary film on BBC1 last night, in the Imagine series, looking at Simon Rattle and the legendary Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on tour across Asia - including China, South Korea, Hong Kong... and Taiwan, where, incongruously, they were greeted like teen rock stars. Rattle was eloquent as ever, you gained some insight into the inner machinations of what is probably the best-oiled (and distinctly un-mechanical) musical machine in the world, and it was a joy to see them struggling in rehearsal with some fiendishly difficult Thomas Ades. The instrumentalists provided much of the commentary themselves, talking about what it means to be a musician and the impact it has had on their lives and relationships.

One felt for the young woman on probation, evidently a stellar player in any other context, who didn't make the final vote to get into the BPO. The ruthlessness and ego, as well as the tenderness and passion, of the outfit was all-too-evident. There were telling psychological as well as musicological insights. SR has done a good job pushing the boat out and conserving the tradition of one of the world's great musical institutions. The ghost of Karajan was, of course, at this feast. But the focus was elsewhere, and this Asian encounter was magical and revealing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


The tragic death of the 44-year-old pianist in a diving accident has robbed the world of a sensitive and interesting musician. The Esbjörn Svensson Trio, founded in the early 1990s, played an unclassifiable brand of music which incorporated elements of jazz, art rock and minimalist classical music in constantly varying proportions. Here's an accompanied EST with Round Midnight.

[273.1] CULTURE IS

"The biggest obstacle to understanding a work of art is wanting to understand." (Bruno Munari)

"Culture is what we are not, enabling us to understand what we are." (Lauren Laverne)

Friday, June 13, 2008


I'm looking forward to seeing the Steve Howe Trio doing two sets at the legendary Ronnie Scott's Club in London on Saturday night (15 June 2008). I see that my friend Henry Potts is quoted at the end of the website write-up on the impending gig. Ironically, due to schedule issues, I may miss the concert at the Phoenix Theatre in Exeter (18 June) where I live. The Trio, who re-arrange some of Howe's eclectic compositions and move his guitar stylings ever more in a jazzward direction, may do some more touring this summer - since the planned 2008 Yes tour in the US, marking the progressive rock band's 40th anniversary, has been cancelled due to singer Jon Anderson's ill-health.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Here's a lovely performance, from the 1950s, of Messiaen's 'Le Banquet Celeste', recorded at Washington's National (Episcopal) Cathedral of St John the Divine.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Return to Forever, the electric jazz-fusion outfit pioneered by keyboard polymath Chick Corea (pictured) burned brightly between 1972 and 1977. I first discovered them via the late Derek Jewell's valuable 'Sounds Interesting' programme on BBC Radio 3 - one of the the doyen classical station's earlier ventures in the rock and jazz direction. RTF split in '77, reformed on a one-off basis in 1983, and are now making a re-appearance across the world -- or at least, the Atlantic. The only UK concert is at Indigo2 in London (the smaller venue attached to the 02 Arena). Intriguing. But as tickets are £40 plus a variety of charges levied by sole agent, the lamentably greedy Ticketmaster, I fear I shall give it a miss.

Miles Davis’ electric bands in the late ‘60s (featured on albums such as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew) served as the incubator for several pioneering fusion bands, including Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report and, of course, Corea’s legendary Return to Forever, whose life span stretched across three different versions of the band.

Friday, May 30, 2008


A charming little clip of Steve Howe performing his classical-flamenco influenced piece, Mood For A Day.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


Adey Grummet writes: "The Curate's Egg is back! We will be performing music of the mystical and magical sort at the Spitalfields Festival on 13 June at 9pm in St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch, London.

"The Festival commission this year, 'Interference', is from Naomi Pinnock and is for the oboist Melinda Maxwell and us. We have also commissioned the handsome Mike Henry to write three tiny pieces of three quartets in canon (brain the size of a planet, you know), 'Transitions', for the Egg as well. Both these pieces will be in the programme along with chart busters written for us in the past - Allwood's 'Charades 5' and Plowman's 'shimmering glimmering'. To this we will add the luscious Poulenc 'Litanies of the Black Virgin' with masterful Nigel Kerry joining us at the organ.

"Oh ... we will do the whole thing in the dark !

Monday, May 26, 2008


I have long been a fan of the work of the late conductor and keyboardist Karl Richter (he died tragically young, of a heart attack, in 1981), whose recordings of the Handel Organ Concertos, Opus 4 & 7, I regard as the finest available, not least for their superb ad libtum extemporisations. Someone from Ankara in Turkey has been putting Richter archive material up on YouTube recently. Well done and many thanks, whoever you are. Here's the first movement of Concerto No 1 - which has a second movement (here) famously known as "the cuckoo and the nightingale". Confusingly it is No 13 in the Simon Preston set, because of the different cataloguing systems that evolved. Handel put these concertos together from existing material to serve as interval suites for his oratorios. But they are delightful in their own right.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


A good account on YouTube by Chris Lee. See also Bartok and the Piano: A Performer’s View by Barbara Nissman (Scarecrow Press, 2001), which includes a CD with fabulous performances by the author. Benjamin Ivry reviewed it for International Piano.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Among the concerts I've missed recently (I miss more than I get to these days, sadly) is Boulez conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces - the fortieth anniversary of that first happening, reenacted at the Barbican. Andrew Clements is impressed. The series continues. Tonight it's Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and and the British premiere of Osiris by Matthias Pintscher. See Paul Driver (Pierre Boulez looks to the future) in The Times.

"Pierre Boulez might have made the familiar journey from enfant terrible to grand old man, but he has neither renounced his project nor found that popular opinion has come round to his way of thinking. His incendiary comments from the 50s and 60s - for instance, that contemporary classical music which does not follow Schoenberg's lead with sufficient rigour is "useless", and that "the most elegant solution for the problem of opera is to blow up the opera houses" - can still cause him problems..." Nicholas Wroe, profiling Boulez in The Guardian, Saturday 26 April 2008.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Michael Clark's Stravinsky Project was created over three years in collaboration with The Barbican. This project culminated in twelve sold-out performances at The Barbican last November (2007) and now tours to Norwich, as part of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2008. All Stravinsky scores are performed live: Appollon Musagete and Les Noces by members of Britten Sinfonia with The New London Chamber Choir and Jurjen Hempel conducting. There is also a mixed repertory of recorded music from Wire, Iggy Pop and Sex Pistols. Read full details here.

For full programme details, ticket offers and booking visit the Norfolk and Norwich Festival website

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Great story from the US. Violinist Philippe Quint who, who left his priceless 285-year-old 1723 Kiesewetter Stradivarius in the back of a New York taxi cab, has played a personalised tarmac concert to thank the driver who returned it to him. The 30 minute gig took place at Newark Liberty International Airport. The BBC should have a clip soon. Driver Mohamed Khalil got in touch the next day to return the instrument. He has been given a gold medal, a (very small) cash reward, and free tickets for Quint's next public performance.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Peter Rivendell
of Gay for Today on Michael Tippett: "Under Tippett, the Leicester Schools Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra of ordinary secondary school children aged 14 to 18, regularly performed on BBC radio and TV, made commercial gramophone records and established new standards for music-making in an educational context. Many leading British performers had their first experience of orchestral music in the LSSO under Tippett. [He] was, in the words of his partner Meirion Bowen, an 'unabashed homosexual', and he defied the social taboos of his time by incorporating homoerotic themes in his operas. Tippett was regarded by many as an outsider in British music, a view that may have been related to his conscientious objector status during World War II and his homosexuality. His pacifist beliefs led to a prison sentence in World War II, and for many years his music was considered ungratefully written for voices and instruments, and therefore difficult to perform. An intense intellectual, he maintained a much wider knowledge and interest in the literature and philosophy of other countries (Africa, Europe) than was common among British musicians. His (sometimes quirky) libretti for his operas and other works reflect his passionate interest in the dilemmas of human society and the enduring strength of the human spirit."

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Review in The Times of the London RFH concert with the London Sinfonietta on 27 April 2008: "Thomas Adès work [Creation], involving six large screens on which a dazzling fantasy of colour and semi-abstraction sustained itself for half an hour, could hardly have been more alluring. The music was just as dazzling as the visuals, and was its own kind of novel imagery. The title refers to the seven days of creation, and the screen at the start shows the bare ocean, but Adès’s equivalent is a strangely poised and delicate string music with a vaguely Elizabethan-consort flavour. In the fifth of the seven (continuous) movements, there is a parallel display of the upper woodwind, a nine-part burbling that suggested Messiaen birdsong or an excursion from the piano concerto by Michael Tippett. Adès’s solo writing looks even more demanding than Tippett’s, and glories in extremes of register, but one notices that, for all the intricacy of the score’s notation, the actual sounds are transparent and instantly telling. One left the hall lost in a kaleidoscope of colour, touched by an exquisitely decorative experience."

Saturday, May 03, 2008


Last weekend I did get to see Birtwistle's Punch and Judy, I'm glad to report. But sadly I had to miss the World Premiere of James Macmillan's St John Passion at the Barbican Hall, London, on 27 April 2008. It featured Christopher Maltman (baritone) and the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Colin Davis - to whom the work is dedicated. I can't wait to hear it next time I get the opportunity.

In his programme note, Macmillan writes: "After writing my Seven Last Words from the Cross in 1993, I always knew that the inevitable next step would be a setting of one of the Gospel Passion narratives. It has since been my ambition to tackle such a project. I decided on St John's text, as it is the version with which I am most intimately acquainted, hearing it recited or sung every Good Friday in the Catholic liturgy. In fact, since my student days in Edinburgh I have regularly participated in the Gregorian or Dominican chanting of the Crucifixion story on that day. This simple music has had an overriding influence on the shape and character of my own Passion setting."

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


At the beginning of the year, the news was not good. Innovative multi-vocal ensemble The Shout had their revenue grant from the Arts Council cut ("reason given, it was too small – feel the irony!"). But the musical troupe, headed by composer Orlando Gough (pictured), declare: "We are not dead and buried yet." And to prove it, they are taking to the streets of Brighton in May. Literally. From 15-17th they combine with the Protein Dance Company for a collaboration directed by by Luca Silvestrini. It's already excited attention from The Guardian and, er, the Littlehampton Gazette.

In Happy Together, two groups of people, one male and one female, set out from different points in the city. They move through the streets independently, singing love songs. Sometimes the groups come close to each other, but they do not meet. As they move, the groups grow, picking up more and more people. Along the route, situations develop – games, dares, arguments, incidents, accidents, surprises, encounters.

The singing, a mixture of solo and choral, will range from Geri Halliwell’s sublimely daft It’s Raining Men to an Indian ghazal sung by the Sri Lankan singer Manickam Yogeswaran of The Shout, taking in popular songs, folk songs, classical songs, newly composed songs. High art and low art intermingle. There will be no band, only a ghetto blaster providing an occasional backing track. Solo singers may use megaphones.

Eventually the two groups come, simultaneously, to a club. The dance floor is divided down the middle by a curtain, as in orthodox Jewish weddings.

Just like you'd expect, frankly. The Brighton festival runs from 3-25 May. Box office: 01273 709709.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Eclectic jazz guitar innovator Allan Holdsworth was touring Europe in April (not the UK, sadly) and will be doing a string of US dates in May 2008. This clip comes from a visit to Oakland CA last year, captured live in HD at Yoshi's, featuring Alan Pasqua, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip. The 90 minute DVD is available from Seeofsound. More Holdsworth here: Proto Cosmos (one of my favourites) and The Things That You See. See also this profile and interview in Guitar Player magazine (April 2008).

Friday, April 25, 2008


The PRS New Music Award is the most financially significant award for music in the UK and has been called music’s equivalent to the Turner Prize. It champions pioneering new music and provides a significant amount of money towards the creation of one adventurous and challenging new musical work.

The winners - sound artist Jane Grant, musician and physicist John Matthias and composer Nick Ryan - have until September 2009 to create their visionary new work, designed to mimic the human brain at work and reproduce the sound of the UK as music.

Don't know how I haven't come across this before, but there's marvellous archive footage on YouTube of Sir Michael Tippett conducting Putnam's Camp by Charles Ives in 1969. The poster, John Whitmore, has also put up other very valuable Tippett footage, which I will link in due course. He was a violinist in Sir Michael's Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra and now jointly runs the LSSO memorabilia website. Good man.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


The story of the murderous Punch and his desire to possess Pretty Polly provides what might initially seem an unlikely scenario for Harrison Birtwistle’s controversial first opera, premiered at Aldeburgh in 1968. But what we think of as a children's fable is, of course, very dark and sinewy indeed. In its latest production at the Young Vic in London (running through to Saturday 27 April 2008) the opera it is directed by Daniel Kramer in the work’s 40th-anniversary year. Conducted by English National Opera Music Director Edward Gardner. I will be catching tomorrow night's performance. Watch videos of the production here. The reviews have been very positive.

Stephen Graham writes in Musical Criticism: "Punch and Judy remains profoundly unique to audiences because of its highly peculiar assertion of the applicability of horror, and of fairground surreality, to opera aesthetics. This production confidently reinvigorates every raw and revolting sinew of Birtwistle's marvellously decadent work that arises out of this marriage of aesthetics, and it manages to convey a new horror and snarl all of its own. For thrills and blood spills of a highly unusual character, look no further than this exciting new ENO production."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

[255.2] QUOTA

"There is no excellent beauty which hath not some strangeness in the proportion." -- Francis Bacon

"Music remains the most strange of the materials because we don't understand what happens when music moves you." -- Michael Tippett

Jazz drummer Bill Bruford, formerly associated with progressive rock, now has a weblog attached to his website. It includes narrative, percussion tips and responses to comments and queries. Intelligent and insightful, as you would expect.

[From 29 Mar 08] "[H]ow pleasurable and natural the musical life can be once it is removed from the slings and arrows of outrageous commerce. Sure, everyone has to get paid, but generally the world of instrumental improvised music – the stuff well below any record company’s radar – is full of generosity and goodwill between and among musician and audience. Last night in Guildford, brilliant Swiss Guitarist Nick Meier and wonderful Israeli alto and soprano saxophonist Gilad Atzmon charged thru Turkish influenced originals as if the house was burning down, to a warm reception from an uninitiated and unprepared crowd. The music communicated at such a level, everyone forgot they were uninitiated and unprepared, and just got into it. Excellent." {Pic: Atzmon}

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Motif (illustrated) is the overall title encompassing the first volume of a two-album project from eclectic guitarist Steve Howe, best known for his work with Yes, but about to hit the road in June 2008 with his jazz trio - who have 13 dates lined up, happily including Ronnie Scott's in London and The Phoenix in my current home city, Exeter. The line-up for the trio features Steve on guitars, his son Dylan Howe (a highly respected jazz performer in his own right) on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond Organ.

Cited fretboard influences include Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow and of course Chet Atkins. There's bound to be a bit of Jim Hall thrown into the mix as well.

Regarding the album, Howe says that its primary purpose is to showcase and explore disparate solo pieces otherwise only available on group or other albums. He writes in the liner note: "I recorded the Gretsch guitar tracks in 2005, then the others in 2007, once I'd realized the calling. This was to build up a complete overview of my solo guitar music, afresh in the studio."

He adds: "I've occasionally changed the style of guitar used on previously released tunes, and recorded the first studio versions of others. For these, along with four new pieces plus Trambone, by Chet Atkins, I utilize 9 different guitars: 2 electrics, 3 folk guitars, 2 Spanish guitars, a 12 string and a dobro slide guitar. All are solo performances, no overdubs."

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Thursday, April 10, 2008


The BBC has announced, a little earlier than usual, the plans and programme for the 2oo8 Proms season. The full concert listing starts here. The full prospectus will appear this week (it usually appears the first week in May). For those of us interested in the music, as distinct from the egged-on but essentially bogus 'culture wars' surrounding the annual festival, the news is that the Elliot Carter, Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen anniversaries are duly marked - especially the latter. There's also a justified remembrance of late Proms director John Drummond, a champion of new music, in Mark Anthony Turnage's Chicago Remains, which is dedicated to him.

Also notable is the tribute to Stockhausen (2 August, including Gruppen), Handel's Belshazzar (16 August), a Janacek evening (the night before), several chunks of Varese, the often overlooked Bach St John Passion (24 August), Shostakovitch's emotionally exhausting and exhilarating 10th Symphony offered by the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle (3 September), and a world premier from Anna Meridith on the Last Night (which is otherwise the usual jingoistic embarrassment at the end of what is otherwise surely the world's greatest music festival - time to relocate the dated denouement to the moon, surely?).

The so-called 'Doctor Who prom' is the obvious populist gambit, though it probably won't succeed in pleasing anybody in particular. The new Proms director Roger Wright appeared with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4 Front Row yesterday, affecting surprise that this is what the general press would pick up on, since none of them are the least bit interested in 'difficult' music.

It looks a balanced programme overall. My only real complaint is about the continuing, inexcusable and shameful neglect of Sir Michael Tippett's music. Surely no other nation treats its recent greats with such contempt? The fact that Wright proclaims "the British Isles" to be a major theme for 2008 only adds insult to injury. [Pic: Ilan Volkov, (c) BBC]

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Radiohead, who made alt rock mainstream with the wonderful Kid A and Amnesiac albums, drawing on electronica, experimental and jazz, did two portfolio concerts for the BBC last week. Available online and worth a look and listen.

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Monday, April 07, 2008


The New York Times critic Steve Smith writing on one of the most important recent Tippett recordings: "English composer Michael Tippett left an idiosyncratic body of work shaped by keen intelligence and humanitarian spirit... [H]is music has been best served by performers who approach it with sympathy and absolute commitment. The latest to do so is the Scottish pianist Steven Osborne [pictured], whose new collection of Tippett’s piano music is a revelatory achievement.

"The four sonatas span Tippett’s career, providing a concentrated overview of his restless style. The First, completed in 1938 and revised in 1942, responds to Europe’s darkening political climate with virtuoso fireworks and boisterous folk melodies. The Second Sonata, from 1962, shares the brittle, jagged sound Tippett fashioned for his second opera, King Priam, yet passages of gracious lyricism pop up throughout the single-movement span.

"Tippett’s musical language had become still more abrasive by the time he wrote the Third Sonata in 1973, but the icy stillness of the Lento movement and the explosive vitality of the finale speak clearly and directly. The Fourth, finished in 1984, is stuffed with enough material for a dozen pieces, including a quirky fugue, a gamboling fourth movement and a ghostly finale. Somehow Mr Osborne makes it all stick."

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Thursday, April 03, 2008


The Guardian has today published a good and justified riposte from my friend Stephen Plaice to yet another formulaic moan about creative musical hybridity (Hip-hop has a place in the world of opera).

'Tom Service disparages the attempts of opera houses to attract new audiences with "cool", youth-oriented events (Give me divas - not DJs, March 26). I am the co-creator of one of the works singled out for criticism by this hugely generalised polemic.

'Service says that every time opera houses "try to tempt a demographic of young, ethnically diverse, trend-setting opera-lovers through their doors, they end up creating more problems than they solve". From its lofty white perch, this statement deliberately overlooks the coherent work in the major opera houses over the past 20 years in developing young audiences, and ignores many successful productions.

'Service's intention is doubtless to provoke, but should we really accept this kind of lazy hyperbole: "Anyone who knows what opera houses are really capable of in full-scale productions of standard repertoire feels short-changed"? Anyone? Not this one actually. Nor the many who have enjoyed the productions Service so categorically condemns.

'Glyndebourne's main-stage youth operas Misper and Zoë, and its Mozart hip-hopera School 4 Lovers (complete with DJ) - for all of which I wrote the librettos - enjoyed critical and box-office success. A hip-hop audience at Glyndebourne? Yes, it did happen, Tom, and they were thrilled.' Continued here.

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


My good friend Henry Potts has conducted a very fruitful on-line interview here with contemporary composer Colin Riley, whose work drew itself to his attention, in the first instance, via the recent interesting collaboration with pianocircus and drummer Bill Bruford. The following question was one of mine, and the following two if I recall correctly.

On your MySpace page, you describe yourself as a "composer of no fixed indoctrination" and you've talked about using "non-classical" instruments. How do you go about being "of no fixed indoctrination"? Others generally label you as "contemporary classical": is that term still relevant, and how would you situate yourself in relation to it?

CR: Now … how long have you got? ... I feel very much that this is an exciting time for new music and that the meeting up of the worlds of the avant-garde, of rock, pop, electronic, world music etc. has meant that musical aesthetics have been challenged. The commercial world of buying and selling music (whether in traditional record stores or over the internet) still requires categories, but increasingly we are seeing a healthy proliferation of music which is being made where these are largely swept aside. As with many notions of style, we can see that once you travel in one direction far enough you are likely to come back on yourself. If you look at the world of 'free improvising' for instance it can appear very close to the soundworld of complex, heavily-composed avant-garde composition.

The term 'contemporary classical' really does not mean anything now I don't think. The word composer is becoming pretty hard to define as well. I think that many creators of music are quite wary of working outside their comfort zone in terms of how they feel that they will be perceived by say the media. I've long since given up on this whole rat-race. I'm sure some people regard my music as discordant and difficult, whilst others will scorn it as popularist, simplistic and possibly even crowd-pleasing. The only measure I use is that I compose music that I wish to hear.

[Picture: (c) Tim Whitehead]

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Friday, March 28, 2008


Here's a very sensible Guardian article by Victor Keegan on the music piracy argument. He remarks:

"If the industry had spent more time devising a payments solution for the digital age instead of suing customers, it could have cleaned up. The younger generation supposedly nurtured in a culture of non-payment is the same one that pays £3.50 a shot for ringtones. Why? Phones had an easy payment system.

"The latest - global - gambit of the industry is to persuade governments to make internet service providers (ISPs) do their dirty work for them by disconnecting repeat offenders. This must be resisted, even though it is bound to have some effect: an Entertainment Media Research survey found seven out of 10 people would cease illegal downloads if they received a warning. That's not the point. To force unwilling ISPs to take powers to cut off internet connections (a priceless tool for education) without even a judge involved would not only not do the job (there would be an upsurge in ISPs based abroad) but would be a precedent for ISPs to police any other activity that happens in their conduit (cue in MI5).

"One good thing about the industry's misbegotten attitude is that it has spawned a discussion about the nature of copyright."

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Saturday, March 01, 2008


An all-Canadian opera, Lloyd Burritt's Dream Healer, based on Timothy Findley's novel Pilgrim, will have its world premiere on 2 March 2008 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver. It is a production of the Chan and the University of British Columbia, marking the university's centenary and the Chan's 10th anniversary.

There's no knowing what Findley would have thought of the opera, but it seems fitting that this is the novel Burritt chose after that long-ago trip to Little Sister's. Findley dedicated Pilgrim to a composer, Michael Tippett. Tippett died in 1998, a year before Findley published his novel about dying and not dying.

For Pilgrim's dedication, Findley quoted Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time - for which Tippett himself wrote the libretto.

"Here is no final grieving," the dedication reads, "but an abiding hope."

UBC is also holding a Dream Healer Symposium on Psychiatry and Mental Health beginning Monday evening 3 March. Details at

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Here's a review by Scott Cantrell in the Dallas Morning News of the recent 2-dsic Hyperion Tippett set - Piano Concerto; Fantasia on a theme of Handel; Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-4. (Steven Osborne - pn, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, cond. Martyn Brabbins, two CDs)

Cantrell notes: "Along with Vaughan Williams and Britten, Sir Michael Tippett was considered one of the pre-eminent British composers in the middle decades of the 20th century. And he used to have some profile in the U.S., with Houston Grand Opera premiering his opera New Year in 1989 and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra his Fourth Symphony (in 1977) and Byzantium (in 1991). Since his death in 1998, at age 93 (and active to the very end), he seems to have fallen off the American radar. So it's good to have this two-CD set to remind us of some of his most attractive works."

He concludes: "The First Sonata is utterly irresistible, with its cheerful jazzy tunes and shifting rhythms. Why don't pianists play it? Its successors are sterner stuff, but still represent a thoroughly humanist modernism. The first and fourth movements of the Fourth Sonata sound like boogie-woogie gone crazy.

"This is, after all, the music of a man who went to jail for his pacifist convictions, and who during the Depression worked among the unemployed poor in the north of England. He told of seeing children with sores on their legs because they lacked proper food, and how ashamed he felt returning to the comfortable South. He composed for people... Any one of these works would be welcome in a concert hall..." [Pic: Steven Osborne]

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Saturday, January 26, 2008


"Art is a move from what is obvious and well-known to what is arcane and concealed." - Kahlil Gibran

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Tapping away at my keyboard the other day, I caught Simon Rattle's Desert Island Discs selection. As I've often commented (as recently as December 07, in fact), this is comfort listening, but it's always better when the interviewee has a passion for music intertwined with observations on their life - rather than the notes forming little more than an incidental backdrop. What it also illustrates is how early and relatively fixed our musical foundations turn out to be. In Rattle's case, Mahler rather than the Beatles. Perhaps that's the reason I rarely find myself particularly surprised by the subject's selections. Predictable or exotic, personal or PR-oriented, there is frequently an indefinable congruence between the appearance of the person and the sound world that sustains them.

My own selection changes somewhat over the years, but not radically so. Sometimes I like to throw the cards up in the air a bit. But some features have to be there. I will always have something by Michael Tippett (the Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage or The Rose Lake, his last major work), Olivier Messiaen (probably Turangalila, though I might end up with Quartet pour le fin du temps), G. F. Handel (one of the Organ Concertos, or Ode to St Cecilia) and Harrison Birtwistle (The Last Supper, when they record it) - the composers who, for various reasons, have ingrained themselves most strongly on my psyche. Then again, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G is a must; the Poulenc Organ Concerto a powerful contender, Shostakovitch's heart-rending Tenth Symphony too, and Bartok's Second Violin Concerto (my introit to 'modern music', as my father once put it when trying to dissuade me from buying it at the tender age of 12).

But hang on, that's one over the limit of eight already, and no space yet for Miles Davis (In a Silent Way), Yes (Awaken, or Ritual from Tales from Topographic Oceans), Allan Holdsworth (something from Secrets), The Smiths (Cemetery Gates from The Queen Is Dead, or Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before from Strangeways Here We Come), Suzanne Vega (Gypsy from Solitude Standing), Hugh Masekela (Coal Train from Waiting for the Rain), Andy Sheppard / Steve Lodder / Nana Vasconcelos (Where we going? from Inclassifiable), Fripp-Sylvian (the exquisite Damage live), or k. d. lang (Constant Craving, of course).

It really is a daunting task. But fun. And like life itself, never quite complete...

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Yup, you read that right. It's the title of Rambert Dance Company's ever-popular Season of New Choreography: an opportunity to see brand new work created by some of Rambert's versatile dancers. The company has a track record of nurturing young choreographers. One of these is Hubert Essakow, who has commissioned a new work from composer Richard Thomas for soprano Adey Grummet to sing live with the dancers. Those who know Adey won't be surprised to find out that she gets to sing the word "arse" quite a bit. Friday 1 February, 7.45pm, Southbank Centre, London: Tickets £11 - £16. Box Office 0871 663 2500. La Grum is also compering Songs From The Shows: The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and young people from Glasgow schools bring a footlit night of show numbers to the Grand Hall at City Halls.

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars

Tuesday, January 01, 2008


A very happy 2008 to all NFE readers! The centenary of Olivier Messiaen's birth will be internationally celebrated throughout the year. As one of the major composers of the last century, concerts and events will pay tribute to his singular and creative personality, his poetic and spiritual world, his revolutionary vision in many paths, and to his fertile musical pedagogy. This website will inform you about Messiaen's works (chronology, works catalogue, discography, bibliography), and keep you updated on all of the events which will take place, from large concert halls to small music schools.

Comment on this post: NewFrontEars