Normal disservice will be resumed: Programming the Proms for television.

I’m not going to complain about the Proms. It brings music to many, catering for a range of tastes from popular warhorses from the classical canon to contemporary music, jazz, gospel, chamber music, family concerts, film and television music. And Stockhausen. Amidst all the complaints of elitism, catering for bums on seats, unimaginative programming and more, the Proms quietly gets on with celebrating music both ancient and modern, and creating one of the best festivals anywhere in the world.

20130720-142200.jpgWhat I am going to complain about, however, is how it is programmed for televisual consumption, and specifically the evisceration of last Tuesday’s Prom as it was packaged for television. Tuning in to watch last night’s broadcast on BBC4, in delighted anticipation of hearing David Matthews’ A Vision of the Sea, which was receiving its world premiere, I found that the work had been brutally torn out of the televised version, going straight to the second item in the programme, Rachmaninov’s enduringly-popular Piano Concerto no.2.

I feel the BBC missed a real trick, here. Matthews’ piece, an evocative tone-poem exploring the coast of Deal in Kent, would have been a useful way of introducing audiences to contemporary music; it occupied fairly safe tonal territory, had plenty of drama and melodic lines, and is reminiscent of Debussy and Britten. As modern music goes, it’s not scary at all, and is in fact very accessible, and would have done much to dispel the myth that all modern music is complex, atonal, and Difficult To Listen To.

I fully appreciate that, of the two works, the Rachmaninov is the more likely to keep people watching rather than reaching for the remote to flip channels – a key factor in the elements at the beginning of any programme. But to have excised the Matthews completely does a disservice, both to the BBC itself, which does wonders to promote challenging and modern works and commission new music, as well as to Matthews himself. “Sorry, David, but we don’t think your piece will work as well on television as it did in the concert-hall.’ And in wanting to cater to Rach-lovers, the Beeb failed to cater to those of us who tuned in specifically for the new commission. Some of us love new music, too.

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New sea pictures: David Matthews premiere at the Proms

Ravishing – that’s the only word that can describe David Matthew’s A Vision of the Sea, which was given its world première at the Proms on Tuesday night.

David-MatthewsInspired by the sound of the sea off the coast at Matthew’s home town of Deal (a series of watercolours made by the composer during the writing of the piece can be seen here) the piece has occasional nods to Debussy’s similarly south-coast-inspired La Mer in its skirling harps and strings beneath a trumpet melody, combined with aspects of Britten’s Sea Interludes. Matthews’ orchestral pallette ranges from the drama of battering timps and growling brass to the lone echoing clarinets, imitating the call of sea-birds. The piece is a tone-poem in the Sibelian tradition, relishing a range of cascading effects as it captures the changing hues of the sea. And whilst the piece occupies fairly safe tonal territory, it does display Matthews’ post-Romantic leanings to great effect.

Listen online until Tuesday on iPlayer here.

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.

“Wozzeck.”

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…

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.

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).

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…

Hardly setting things aflame: New Music 20×12 disappointing

Does anyone else find a lot of the New Music 20×12 written to celebrate the forthcoming Olympic Games somewhat disappointing?

It seemed such an exciting idea: the opportunity to commission a host of works in anticipation of a major sporting occasion would surely yield a range of vibrant, exciting and thought-provoking works, trumpeting the state of contemporary composition in Britain.

And yet…

There’s the anodyne Track to Track: the Athlon from Graham Fitkin; the pompous and unadventurous  Pure Gold: a 4×4 relay by Luke Carver Goss, of which the only redeeming quality is actually not written by Goss at all, but the lyrical poetry of Ian Macmillan; and I’m not even going to talk about the horrendous car-crash that was Joe Cutler’s Ping, for string quartet and live table-tennis players that surely had the police out in force to hunt for the reported-as-missing element of merit, or Anna Meredith’s HandsFree pile of clap.

Jason Yarde’s Skip, Dash, Flow could have been fascinating, a blend of the festival theme with jazz, but hardly breaks any new ground.

Sally Beamish’s Spinal Chord had a few interesting moments, and is an unusual take on the sporting theme; but most of the pieces I’ve heard so far seem to be trading either on gimmickry or a musical language that won’t challenge listeners or frighten them away.

I’ve not yet heard some of the other pieces as part of the project; here’s hoping Julian Joseph’s Brown Bomber and others can rescue it from being consigned to the dustbin of cultural history. As yet, none of the commissions I’ve heard have struck me as likely to be performed more than once. It’s been a real disappointment: the music of many of these composers has been exciting, dynamic, challenging – all qualities no doubt hoped for from them again. A chance to cash in on the Olympic Games and showcase some of the best of British music and its composers has, like the Olympic torch since its arrival on these shores, stuttered and gone out.

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