Wozzeck hell was that ?

A very good friend, in fact my son’s godfather, came to stay at the weekend, and was regaling us with stories of his cultural life in London, where he works as a systems consultant for a very well-known financial firm.

He is a music-lover – at school, we became friends over a shared love of jazz, in particular, albums by Chick Corea and guitarist Al Di Meola – although he also enjoys classical music. He went to hear Gheorgiu and Alagna in La boheme at Covent Garden earlier this year, which he thoroughly enjoyed, and mentioned a previous experience.

“A mate of mine rang me,” he launched into the story, “saying that he’d got a box at Covent Garden, and asked if I wanted to come. Well, I thought, why not… I didn’t know what opera was being performed, and I just turned up at the appointed hour.”

“And what did you see ?” I asked him.


I fell about laughing at the expression on his face as he delivered, dead-pan, the title of Berg’s brutal, atonal opera.

“How was it?”

“Well,” he replied, “it wasn’t exactly up-lifting. In fact, I found it rather impenetrable.”

“It’s the sort of piece,” said my wife, “that you ought to be warned about beforehand” (and she’s a professional singer, so she knows about this sort of thing). “You can do a bit of research before you go into the story and the characters, so you can learn to recognise their tunes.”

“TUNES ?!” exploded my friend in disbelief. “Tunes?”

“Well,” I murmured, “perhaps it’s not exactly full of hummable ditties fleshing out a rib-tickler of a story.”

My friend shuddered. What a work to have thrust upon you blindfold…


How to open a jazz solo: Frelon Brun

Although I’ve known and loved Filles de Kilimanjaro for more years than I care to admit, it was only recently that the gem of a phrase that is the opening to Davis’ solo on ‘Frelon Brun’ has struck me.

CBS, 1968

The album itself represents a point in Davis’ career as he was changing from the more modal explorations of his second great quintet (with Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter, bass and Tony Williams, drums) to the embracing of electric instruments and paraphernalia that would form the basis of albums from Water Babies (itself a collection of studio session ‘leftovers’ from 1967-68) through to In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Filles marks a transitional moment, yet is full of the trademark devices that characterised Davis’ approach from Kind of Blue through to Silent Way.

The fourth track on the album, ‘Frelon Brun,’ is characterised by a shuffling percussion punctuated by a decisive rising-sixth figure in the bass and left-hand of the keyboard beneath a sparse melodic line in trumpet and saxophone.

Once the skeletal melody has been played, there’s a short section where the accompanying textures move to the foreground, before the trumpet solo begins. There is a pleasing symmetry in the way it ascends a scale of Bb major, beginning and ending on the fifth degree of the scale, and then peaks briefly on the sixth, hops and skips back down to the starting note, and then does a short decorative burst as it settles.

There’s also a wonderful way in which Davis repeats the skipping rhythmic figure of the first four notes, but misplaces the primary beat such that what began as a downbeat on the second beat of the bar begins the next four notes as an upbeat; the downbeat therefore falls on the first beat of the bar, turning the last two notes into an iamb (to borrow a poetic term) and a feminine ending.

Listen for yourself, as the solo starts at about 45 seconds.

Click to enlarge

The phrase shows the truth of the maxim, ‘Less is more;’ the simplicity of the arch-shape, scalic ascent and rhythmic repetition combines to create a striking opening gesture to Davis’ solo.

Sign of a masterpiece: Mallet instruments, voices and organ

I’ve known Steve Reich’s hypnotic Music for Mallet instruments, voices and organ ever since my second year of college, when someone in the sixth form made me a recording, together with Six Pianos, Large Ensemble and Vermont Counterpoint, which pretty much defined my musical love ever since. That means I’ve known the piece for well over … *coughs, mumbles into hand… years; it’s gone through most of the recorded formats I can think of – cassette, CD, mini-disc, mp3, DVD – and yet I am still hearing new aspects of the piece when I listen to it.

This may, of course, be due to several factors; different recordings have different values, perhaps highlighting different lines or patterns compared to others; seeing the piece performed means the ear can be draw to different lines by virtue of the eye being drawn by some aspect of the visual spectacle; and listening in the car, immersed in the sound emanating from speakers fore and aft, is a very different experience to listening through headphones.

Album coverBut I’m still being surprised and delighted by the discovery of patterns I hadn’t heard before, textural shifts I’d not noticed, harmonies that are altered by suddenly hearing a new pedal-point or sustained note. There’s a wonderful, deft live performance by Alarm Will Sound, broadcast as Reich at the Roxy that I’ve watched often, which showed me new material by my watching the performers in actin and highlighting certain textural aspects I hadn’t discerned previously.

It’s often said that one of the signs of a masterpiece, in any artistic medium, is the work’s ability to sustain the repeated experience and yield new elements. If this is true, then Reich’s piece stands as an example of just such a work.

Facebook, how little you know me

Regular readers will know that my taste in music is unabashedly modern.

Facebook just suggested, under ‘People You May Know’ – Bob Chilcott.

I nearly died laughing…

What a wrench! Torke’s grasp of rhythm

If you’ve not encountered the joyful, ebullient, and rhythmically versatile music of Michael Torke, you’re in for a treat: herewith the opening few minutes of his chamber piece, Adjustable Wrench.

Perhaps best-known for his orchestral piece Javelin, which mercifuly seems to have avoided being used exhaustively this year during the Olympics, Torke’s light-footed, deft and mesmerising music combines aspects of repetition with a real rhythmic drive, full of twists and turns, that constantly delights. The music is never still – as a listener, you have to pay attention to the intricacies of its endless variety, but it’s effortless in its creativity.

With bright, brash ensemble sounds, his music shines with an irrepresible energy: just listen to the bouncing baritone bass-line in July, for saxophone quartet;

Or the brisk, sure-footed rhythms of Change of Address:

Or the unstoppably vivacious Telephone Book:

There’s the song-cycle Proverbs, or the opera Italian Straw Hat, a concerto for saxophone, and Rapture, the concerto for percussion, amongst a wealth of output.

Torke is sometimes clumped together with the school of Minimalists, alongside composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, or post-Minimalists such as John Adams. Whilst his music embraces aspects of repetition and cellular or rhythmic development (perhaps extension would be a better word), his rhythmic intricacy perhaps owes something to the ‘sprung rhythm’ technique of Tippett. With whomsoever you care to pigeon-hole him, Torke’s music refuses to sit still.  His Four Proverbs, for instance, mixes text and melodic line around, whereby each word has a fixed pitch: as the melodic line is sliced and diced, so too is the text; this has the effect of liberating the chosen proverb from a linear meaning and making instead new associations, as the words are jumbled as freely as the notes of the melody.

There Is Joy

Hold on to your (Italian Straw) hat: the music of Michael Torke.

(Audio extracts via LastFM).

Musicians, painters, money and the Olympics

Further to my post a while ago about the offensive expectation that musicians should get up and perform for free (which can be read here), the culture of expecting hard-working instrumentalists and singers to give of their time, skills and abilities for nothing continues with the London Olympics.

A photo posted on BandPage’s Facebook page appears to show a letter in what looks like the London Metro, in which a professor of Jazz at Trinity College of Music protests at the idea that ”performers should be be delighted to showcase their talents at the Olympics for no money.’

Metro letterIt’s that dangerous word, ‘showcase;’ it’s often used by cheap-skate promoters and organisers to encourage people who would otherwise expect to be paid for their time and services to give them for free, under the dubious misapprehension that the exposure thereby atained will lead to an increase in bookings, and hence revenue.

This is bull. When you see someone being ‘showcased,’ it often means they are either a) naively believing the cheap-skate event organiser who told them it was good publicity, or b) that they aren’t actually all that good in the first place, otherwise they would be performing somewhere else and be getting paid to do so.

The idea of being ‘showcased’ as being advantageous to the performer is disingenuous. If you don’t want to pay them, tell them you either can’t or you won’t; don’t try to fool them into believing you are offering them a useful platform as a means of widening their publicity.

As I’ve observed before, you don’t expect painters, plasteres and decorators to decorate your house for free; why expect a musician similarly to give of their services without payment ?

I’d like to see the original article, to which the letter was written in response. Another photo, someone ?

Penny for your thoughts on the Cultural Olympiad

According to Tony Hall, Chair of the cultural wing of the London Olympics,the penny hasn’t quite dropped yet with the general public that the Cultural Olympiad kicks off tonight (see article in today’s Guardian).

Reading the very first events highlighted in the introductory paragraph to the article, though, I suspect that the penny has dropped – and the public simply isn’t all that moved.

Apparently, according to the events it lists at the start,

The waters of Windermere will burn in the Lake District, Jeremy Deller’s bouncy castle Stonehenge will pop up in the National Botanic Garden of Wales and a peace message from Yoko Ono in 24 languages will be played on all the giant screens installed for the Olympics.

If the quality of the whole cultural festival accompanying the Olympics can be judged from these events, the public aren’t all that excited about a bouncy Stonehenge (which will ring some bells for all fans of Spinal Tap) and a message from Yoko Ono, who is not interesting in herself and therefore can hardly be expected to enthuse the Great British Public.

We are aware of it; as I observed previously with regard to the damp squib that has been New Music 20×12, it’s just failed to set us alight. Disappointment rather than lack of awareness, I’m afraid, Tony…

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