Archive for the 'Music' Category

The Lamberts

Lambert-George-AcrossTheBlackSoilPlains-1899

From sometime before 1933 right down to the present day, members of my family have had on their walls reproductions of George Lambert’s 1899 Wynne-Prize-winning painting Across the Black Soil Plains, and so this image is part of my cultural heritage. (Image due to AGNSW.)

George Washington Thomas Lambert (1873-1930) was an Australian artist born, after his father had died, in St Petersburg of an American father and English mother.  The family emigrated to New South Wales in 1887.  In Australia, he is most famous for his painting, Across the Black Soil Plains, now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which was based on his time living at Warren, NSW.  During WWI, he was an official Australian war artist.

George’s son, Leonard Constant Lambert (1905-1951) was a jazz-age British composer and conductor, and co-founder of Sadler’s Wells dance company.

Constant’s son, Christopher (“Kit”) Sebastian Lambert (1935-1981) was a record producer and manager, and part-creator of rock band, The Who.




Earth moving in Folkestone

SSQ Festival 2014

Two life-changing concerts this weekend, both including Finnish violin virtuoso, Pekka Kuusisto, and both in Folkestone as part of the annual Sacconi Quartet’s Chamber Music Festival.  The first was a  concert in St. Mary and St. Eanswythe’s Church that included the Sacconi Quartet and the Chamber Orchestra of the Royal College of Music. With PK, they performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and knowing they would was the main reason for my attendance.  PK’s recording of Vivaldi is the most exciting and thrilling I know.  But this live performance was on another plane entirely.  Usually The Seasons are twee and effete and smugly complacent.  PK’s recording is not that, but rather raw and rustic.  (See my comments here.) The live performance, in contrast, was sharp and edgy, thrilling and exciting too but in a different way entirely to the recording.  If Vivaldi is usually suburban Barnet gemütlichkeit, then the recording is from the wild places of Cornwall or the Hebrides, and this performance was from the mean streets of Toxteth or Mile End.

PK’s playing as always was superb. He has an amazing ability to mimic the breathy tone of a flute, producing a sound sublime, something I have heard him do before in very different work.  Yet, at other times it was if he construed the violin as a percussion instrument, not hitting it with his hand but striking the strings in a multitude of carefully-calibrated ways with the bow.  Later, in the pub after the second concert, he agreed that this notion of the percussive violin described his intention.  Violinists often see the instrument as a sort of uncanny extension of themselves, and here was an extension that was brash, direct, and forceful – someone who is here to live out loud, in Zola’s great phrase.  How different to the twee Vivaldi of most other performances I have seen.

In addition, PK treated the work as a modern work, interpreting it afresh – moving around the stage, for example, to confront directly the other players in the various duets and rounds, having face-offs at various times, and interacting physically and with immediacy in accord with the temper of each phase of the music.  The other performers responded in kind to his enthusiasm.  The acoustics in the church were excellent, so that everything could be heard well.  This was certainly the best musical experience of my life, and I feel immensely privileged to have witnessed it.

The second concert followed straight afterwards, in the primary school across the street.  We were party to a violin and electronics meditation on Bach’s Partita in D minor, by PK and Teemu Korpipaa.  The movements of the Bach were played without modification by solo violin, and interleaved with duo improvisations on what we had just heard.  This was also sublime, and had the effect of elongating and deepening the emotions invoked by the Bach, an annotation that added to the original.  It was clear the two had worked together before, and so the annotations were profound and heartfelt.




Mao Tse Tung, music teacher

Szabo-Daniel-hands

Learn to “play the piano”. In playing the piano, all ten fingers are in motion; it will not do to move some fingers only and not others. However, if all ten fingers press down at once, there is no melody. To produce good music, the ten fingers should move rhythmically and in co-ordination. A Party committee should keep a firm grasp on its central task and at the same time, around the central task, it should unfold the work in other fields. At present, we have to take care of many fields; we must look after the work in all the areas, armed units and departments, and not give all our attention to a few problems, to the exclusion of others. Wherever there is a problem, we must put our finger on it, and this is a method we must master. Some play the piano well and some badly, and there is a great difference in the melodies they produce. Members of Party committees must learn to “play the piano” well.”

Mao Tse-Tung [1949-03-13]: Methods of Work of Party Committees. Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 379.  The hands are those of Hungarian jazz pianist, Szabo Daniel.




Musical ignorance

You won’t find this blog doing late-breaking news or commentary.   Web-browsing, I am led to a report of an interview given by Cambridge academic George Steiner to a Spanish newspaper in 2008, in which he is quoted as saying:

“It’s very easy to sit here, in this room, and say ‘racism is horrible’,” he said from his house in Cambridge, where he has been Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College since 1969.

“But ask me the same thing if a Jamaican family moved next door with six children and they play reggae and rock music all day. Or if an estate agent comes to my house and tells me that because a Jamaican family has moved next door the value of my property has fallen through the floor. Ask me then!”

In his essays and books, Steiner is a model of erudition.   But his knowledge of music is quite evidently lamentable.  In my experience, almost nobody likes BOTH reggae and rock music, and certainly no Jamaican I have known.  

Ignorance of reggae seems to be a special attribute of the literati.  VS Naipaul once described its beat as “pseudo-portentous”, a property which I have never been able to hear in the music itself.   I doubt he could either; he just liked the phrase and disliked the music.  And - like Charles Rosen with Mendelssohn – used his sharp verbal skills to seek to justify his prior musical tastes.  In both cases, the attempt fails. 

In response to Steiner’s ignorance, I decided to listen to the Master in a superb chilled-out remix:

  • Dreams of Freedom:  Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub. Remix Production by Bill Laswell, Creative Direction by Chris Blackwell. Brooklyn, NY:  Island Records, 1997.

followed by some of the best industrial noise:

  • Shinjuku Filth.  Darrin Verhagen.  Melbourne: Iridium, 1999.



Paging Joe Leeway!

leeway-joeI saw James Ivory’s film Slaves of New York soon after it appeared in 1989.  The movie contains a scene set in a nightclub (minutes 63-69) with the most superb trance music, played by a male singer/guitarist and 3 female supporting musicians:  one on percussion, one on synth, and a trumpeter.   For most of this number, the trumpeter is smoking a cigarette, not playing, until near the end, when she plays while holding her smoking cigarette.  The rhythm is a consistent, driving pattern:  ta-ta-ta-ta daa daa (eg, 4 quavers followed by two crotchets) in each bar, or variants of this, with no changes of harmony, and drone-like chants over the top.  The percussion includes a regular high-pitched woodblock (or similar).

Apart from two songs both by the combo of Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer, this is the best music in the film (which apart from this music is forgettable).  Unfortunately, this track is not on the official soundtrack, and the credits at the end of the film do not identify it clearly.    The song is Mother Dearest, and the male singer (and the song’s composer) is Joe Leeway, formerly of British group, The Thompson Twins.   It is a shame that he has not released any music under his own name, and no longer seems to be working as a muso.




Unfunny music

Kuindzhi-Moonlit-Night-on-the-Dniepr-Large

Last night, I caught the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under Sakari Oramo, with Olli Mustonen (piano) and Sergei Nakariakov (trumpet), at the Barbican, playing Tristan Murail’s Reflections/Reflets and Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #1.  The Murail work was in two parts, the first (Spleen) a response to Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, oozed sound colours slowly and langorously across the horizon, while the second (High Voltage) involved rapid-fire scales and runs.   I liked the first part more than the second.   The composer was in the audience.

In the Shostakovich, Nakariakov’s trumpet was superb. I have never heard the sad, muted solo of the second movement played so hauntingly: His tone there was breathtaking, and it was as if the sound was coming from another room, perhaps by some form of ventriloquism.  I was reminded of the similarly sublime green-tinged, luminous moon of Arkhip Kuindzhi’s famous 1881 painting Moonlit Night on the Dniepr (pictured).  In contrast, Mustonen’s piano playing was disappointing.  His left hand was decidedly softer than the right for most of the piece.  At first, I thought this may be an acoustic artefact of where I was sitting (at the front left, almost directly facing the pianist’s back), but when he deployed his left hand loudly I did hear it loudly.   The issue is that for much of the work, Shostakovich was writing – as he does so often – in the style of a two-part invention, not a music-hall song with a cantabile solo with uninteresting accompaniment, so the two hands need to play equally loudly so that we hear the parts clearly.

The performance had another, more existential, problem:  This concerto is one of the funniest works in the entire orchestral repertoire, and yet last night’s interpretation was intently serious.  Perhaps having in charge two Finns – a nation notoriously dour – overwhelmed the fun in the music.    And, I think it would have been better had the pianist not has his back to the trumpeter.  The entire work is a sharp-tongued dialogue between the two, particularly the duel at the end, and to hear what is meant to be fast-witted banter played so seriously was disappointing.




Poem: Poem VI

A poem by Derek Jarman (1942-1994), written in 1965:

Poem VI

The days are numbered,
For us, and the old man
collecting pennies under
the bridge.
For he is in disguise
and has attended the concert -
before us,
But now he plays his
violin in a way which
demands our sympathy.

(From Sketchbooks, reprinted in The Observer Magazine, 2013-08-25, page 25).

Previous poems here.




Influential Music

Having written posts on influential non-fiction books and on influential fiction books, I thought it interesting to list pieces of music that have  influenced me.   To start with, I’ve confined myself to western art music (aka “classical” music).   Jazz and world music to come in due course.  The music is listed in alpha order of  composer surname.

  • Adams:  Phrygian Gates
  • Arriaga:  String Quartets
  • Arriaga:  Symphony
  • Bach:  Double Concerto for Violin
  • Bach: Piano Concerto #1
  • Bach:  St. Matthew Passion
  • Bach:  St. John Passion
  • Bach:  Mass in B Minor
  • Bach:  The Well-Tempered Clavier
  • Bach:  Cantatas
  • Bach:  Toccata and Fugue in D minor
  • Bach:  Partitas and Sonatas for solo violin
  • CPE Bach:  Magnificat
  • Beethoven:  Piano Sonatas
  • Beethoven:  Symphonies 3, 5 and 9
  • Beethoven:  Piano Concertos
  • Beethoven:  Piano Quartets
  • Beethoven:  Piano Trios
  • Beethoven:  Violin Concerto
  • Bernstein:  Overture to Candide
  • Cage:  Music for prepared piano
  • Cherubini:  The String Quartets
  • Chopin:  Preludes
  • Debussy:  Preludes
  • Farrenc:  The Piano Quartets
  • Farrenc: The Symphonies
  • Feldman: Triadic Memories
  • Handel:  Messiah
  • Haydn:  Sturm und Drang Symphonies
  • Haydn:  The Creation
  • Haydn:  The String Quartets
  • Hummel:  Trumpet Concerto
  • Maxwell Davies:  Eight Songs for a Mad King
  • McPhee:  Tabu Tabuhan
  • Meale:  Clouds Now and Then
  • Mendelssohn:  The String Symphonies #7-12
  • Mendelssohn:  Magnificat
  • Mendelssohn: Hebrides Overture
  • Mendelssohn:  Octet
  • Mendelssohn:  String Quartets and Quintets
  • Mendelssohn:  Piano Trios and Quartets
  • Mendelssohn: Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Mendelssohn:  Elijah
  • Mendelssohn:  Violin Concerto in E minor
  • Mendelssohn:  Violin Concerto in D minor
  • Mendelssohn:  Concerto for Piano and Violin in D minor
  • Mendelssohn:  Songs without Words
  • Montague: Piano Concerto
  • Mozart:  Last 3 symphonies
  • Mozart:  Requiem
  • Mozart: The String Quartets
  • Nishimura:  Bird Heterophony
  • Ore: Codex Temporis
  • Orff:  Carmina Burana
  • Reich:  Nagoya Marimbas
  • Reich:  Music for 18 Musicians
  • Riley:  In C
  • Schumann:  Dichterliebe
  • Schumann:  The Symphonies
  • Sculthorpe:  Sun Music III
  • Shostakovich:  Concerto for Piano and Trumpet
  • Shostakovich:  Incidental Music for Hamlet
  • Shostakovich:  24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano
  • Stockhausen:  Stimmung
  • Stravinsky:  The Rite of Spring
  • Takemitsu:  A Flock Descends into the Pentagonal Garden
  • Tchaikovsky:  Symphonies #4 and #5
  • Tchaikovsky:  Violin Concerto
  • Vanhal:  The Symphonies
  • Wagner:  Prelude to The Mastersingers of Nuremburg
  • Xenakis:  Metastaseis
  • Xenakis:  Pithoprakta.

 




Mama don’t allow

Norm’s latest entry in his Mommy and Daddy collection of songs is JJ Cale’s version of “Now, Mama don’t allow no guitar playing round here“.   The version of this song that I first recall hearing was that of The Limeliters, who do not refer (as Cale does) to “My Mama“.   So, I’d always understood the song to be about boarding-house owners, rather than natural-born mothers, and hence a fine metaphor for the suffocating nanny culture that was the US of the 1950s.  I cannot find their version online.

Of course, a mention of The Slightly Fabulous Limeliters would be incomplete without a reference to their song about Harry Pollitt, long-time General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain.




PKOM at the Wigmore

This week, I was lucky to catch the first half of a concert by Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto and pianist/composer Olli Mustonen at London’s Wigmore Hall.   I heard them play Beethoven’s Violin Sonata in A (Op. 30, #1) and Mustonen’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, which was a world premiere.

As always with PK, the playing was superb and full of energy.   What he lacks in physical height, he more than makes up for in enthusiasm and pizzaz.  He is an extraordinarily talented violinist, and I try not to miss opportunities to hear him play.  (I have also heard him play piano, but the part was not a testing one.)

In the main, Beethoven’s violin sonatas do not impress me – our Ludwig couldn’t play the instrument nearly as well as he could play the piano, and this shows in his writing for the respective instruments.  I view these sonatas as really being piano sonatas with violin commentaries.  And, as so often with Beethoven, the music at some point comes to a stop, or nearly so, mid-way through the develoment section, like a clock winding down, and has to be re-started again.  What underlying psychological thing is going on here, I wonder, that this happens so often in B’s music?  After a while it becomes annoying, like a friend asking you the same unpleasant question every time you meet, and you want to avoid talking with that person.

Mustonen’s Sonata was superb.  The programme notes warned us that he began as a composer of “Busonian neo-classicism”.   I thought this piece was not at all neo-classical, but also certainly not in the category of up-town modernist complexity.  The first part comprised an ever-present walking treble line of odd intervals by the violin, sequences of uneven lengths and different intervals not quite repeated exactly, with various waves of piano arising and decaying around this.   The particular odd intervals – tritones, sevenths – brought immediately to my mind some music of Australian composer Larry Sitsky, who studied with Egon Petri (1881-1962), who in turn was a student of Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924).    The emotional waves of this first part were very stark.  Would I have thought of Sibelius and the forests of the North if I had not known the composer was Finnish?  I don’t know.

The transition between the second and third parts was slow and beautiful, and very moving, and the effects PK produced were simply stunning.  At one point, low trembling notes on the G string sounded like a breathy flute being played.  And a series of repeated patterns combining trills and vibrata on different fingers of the left hand, was very impressive.  Not at all clear how these effects were produced, but the independent but co-ordinated action of the left-hand fingers would have required long practice to achieve.  Perhaps the effect was partly due to rapid changes of speed and pressure on the bow, also.

It was a privilege to be in the presence of such superb music played by these two virtuosos.

Here is another review of the same concert, by an anonymous blogger.   Following the review, the blogger cites PK’s recording of Vivalid’s Four Seasons, as “restrained”.   I wonder if he or she was actually listening!    We’ve had 60 years of elegant, effete and twee recordings of The Seasons, so we know what restrained with regard to this music means.  PK’s treatment is rustic and earthy and full-blooded, as if the entire ensemble had been taken outside and roughed-up in the mud of the farmyard, and the complete opposite of restrained!   A simply superb interpretation, original, fresh and compelling.  Your milage certainly can vary, as people say.