Sunday 30 November 2014

Oh, the humanities!

Hello, everyone. Some of you may be aware that a few of my blog articles have appeared on a music and media website I hugely admire, The Rocking Vicar. So - while the anger in the column is quite genuine - I was very pleased to be invited back into the parish and comment on the recent 'arts in education' controversy. I've archived my piece below, in case any of you are casually browsing my blog (and thank you, if you are!). That said, the Rocking Vicar presents several views of the debate, and I urge you to take a look and read it. (Really, that's good advice at any time.)

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Theatre journal The Stage has reported back on a speech Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, gave to launch the ‘Your Life’ campaign – an enterprise which aims to encourage more youngsters to study the sciences.

So far, so encouraging you might think, until you hear what she has to say about other disciplines (her full speech is on the Government website, here):

“Even a decade ago, young people were told that maths and the sciences were simply the subjects you took if you wanted to go into a mathematical or scientific career, if you wanted to be a doctor, or a pharmacist, or an engineer.

But if you wanted to do something different ... then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful for all kinds of jobs.

Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths.”

She goes on:

“And yet maths, as we all know, is the subject that employers value most, helping young people develop skills which are vital to almost any career. And you don’t just have to take my word for it - studies show that pupils who study maths to A level will earn 10% more over their lifetime.

These figures show us that too many young people are making choices aged 15, which will hold them back for the rest of their life.”

How dispiriting, that in promoting what could have been a pure positive, Morgan felt the need to label the arts subjects as redundant, to the point where taking them up could actively damage a student’s prospects.

In a remarkably short run of sentences, Morgan makes her real priorities clear: business and money. Although she has a fondness for generalisations that would cause horror in any self-respecting scientist, she’s quite clear that employers just want maths specialists – and as a result, they can expect to coin it in, at least by the time they retire.

It’s only fair she’s specific on the maths point. A look at funding cuts is all it takes to get a measure of how recent Governments have felt about the arts, but scientists in certain quarters might raise at least one eyebrow each, too. Sobering to imagine a new wave of young botanists welcomed into Kew Gardens, for example, only to find themselves in the midst of budget and job loss trauma. At least the finance industry, in the face of similar issues – like bringing the world’s economy to its knees – can expect help from the State. So maths it is.

I would be very interested to know if these algebra-adoring employers are looking to flood their communications, marketing and PR departments with mathematicians. I work for a communications outfit, and you might be relieved to learn that when we recruit a writer, our sifting process doesn’t start with my shuffling the application forms and saying, “OK – I have all the astrophysics graduates here. I’ll prioritise in order of the ones who put down ‘reading’ under ‘interests.’”

I’m not overly sentimental about the arts – I don’t think they are needed merely to produce rounded, fulfilled individuals. In fact, individuals can be more effective when they give their real inclinations their head and become angular, questing. It’s society that needs a balance, of everyone from all camps. The humanities are there for our pastimes, sure: but they are also essential in the workplace.

Since getting my degree (Classics & English), I have ordered books in a utilities library, edited digests for a scientific research institute, summarised pension information for loss assessors and currently write plain language documents about savings and finance. I’ve been able to do these jobs not because I have qualifications in chemistry or accounting – but because of my linguistic background.

If Morgan had more respect for the humanities, she might have had a better grasp of the language she used. She might have realised that she was talking dismissive nonsense, and more – as her words now zing around the internet, untethered – that she could cause real harm.

How many of those 15-year-olds, with a natural affinity towards not just words, but art, music, drama, history – and so on – are now going to think twice?

Let’s follow our teenager as she makes the ‘correct’ choices. (I’ve decided to use ‘she’ because Morgan is cynical enough to dress up this dismissal of the arts as a blow for increasing women’s prominence in the sciences – as if subject choices should in any way be gendered against individual instincts. Shame on her.)

Despite a flair for the written word and regular appearances in the school play, our pupil’s careers adviser points out that whether she’s got her heart set on theatre or not, a normal job is out of her reach with ‘just’ these skills. Suppressing her feelings of inadequacy for not having the right kind of talent, she puts those interests to one side and chooses scientific subjects. As a result, she gets by, because she can put arguments across and all that line-learning has given her a formidable memory. But she never quite achieves top grades.

By the time she reaches the job market, she fills in application after application with no success. It doesn’t matter where she applies – pharmaceutical giant or art gallery – most candidates either have better grades than her, or they studied subjects closer to the company’s remit. Inevitably, she gains no experience, making her even less employable. The end result is long-term unemployment, deep-rooted feelings of failure and wasted potential.

This is the devastating power of careless language, and if we’re not watchful, it will be the stumbling, incoherent outcome of Morgan’s campaign.

Friday 21 November 2014

Different drums

In the past few weeks, I've managed to fit in quite a few opera visits and classical concerts - and when that happens, I find myself loading up the iPod with any kind of contrast: thrash metal, psychedelic folk, Blue Note jazz - you name it. I would love to say it's a deliberate attempt to keep my brain and ears open and wide to receive. But it would be more truthful to admit that it almost happens intuitively, and especially if work is a bit heavy or stressful - as noisy music is my nostalgia, and therefore part comfort zone, part tension outlet.

Why do I even describe this music as 'noisy'? God knows I've witnessed enough loud classical music to terrify the eardrums-- ah. There we have it: the drums. Pounding, shuffling, agitating, hammering. The simple pleasure of hearing someone thumping something in time still pushes all the same buttons it used to back in my indie-teenage days when I was trying to avoid 'dancing' into a barrier in Brixton Academy. Now that I'm more likely to be closing my eyes and donning headphones when I crank up the volume, it's easier to hear that keeping the band playing at more or less the same speed as each other is only part of what a good drummer is up to... Here are some tracks that reveal them for the elusive, maverick creatures they really are.

Led Zeppelin - 'When the Levee Breaks'

Seasoned rockers may wonder why I might bother including a song celebrated for one of the most iconic drum performances of all time. Well - if one person reading this hasn't heard it before, then it's worth it. The story goes that to achieve John Bonham's extraordinary sound (and volume) on this track, they moved the drums into the hallway of the house where they were recording, allowing him to blast and echo his way up several stories. What I find incredible is the way every part of the kit is equally upfront in the mix - yes, the snare is punishing, but so is the patient, relentless hi-hat, and the pounding bass drum. It makes the whole song lurch and totter, as if its own rhythm is beating it into submission, like the waves on the levee.

Can - 'Halleluwah'
The Bakerton Group - 'Life on Lars'

After the lumbering gait of 'Levee', here are two tracks that also feature drummers particularly adept at holding a metronomic groove in the midst of chaos. Jaki Liebezeit of Can seems to display superhuman stamina during 'Halleluwah', especially since he's not simply playing a basic rhythm but a kind of swinging military tattoo - the pace somehow seems both leisurely and propulsive because he's hitting at least two drums for every beat. Listen to the whole thing if you can, but from about 2 minutes in he takes centre stage and you can hear the most jaw-dropping runs and fills. The Bakerton Group are the instrumental alter-ego of US rock band Clutch. Their drummer Jean-Paul Gaster is capable of varying the colour of his playing enormously while maintaining an immense beat. You can hear this on 'Life on Lars' where the track begins with a stealthy tom-tom beat, then snares at 1:30 make him seem to spring forward in the mix and shift the song up a gear. Then - pow! - at 3:15 he changes his sound again, with a more laidback, loping beat including a casual roll, and this sends the rest of the band into overdrive. And he still isn't finished at 4:10, when he switches to a less 'fat', drier beat as the guitar and keyboard come forward. (Details people will love the way the initial tune is brought back right at the end, but married to the second main drum pattern.) Unfussy, but stoically magnificent.

Mastodon - 'Blood and Thunder'
Lee Morgan - 'Yes I Can, No You Can't'

Here are two drummers who play like they might be in the wrong body. Mastodon are a heavy metal band (so - warning - the vocals on this one are bellowed rather than sung) who love complex riffs and a good concept - this song is the opener on their album about Moby Dick, 'Leviathan'. But their trump card is drummer Brann Dailor, who plays rather like a metalhead with jazzer's limbs - in there, somewhere, is the actual beat, but amid a riot of smashing everything in sight, without losing control. From his skittery entrance across the kit to his insane fills between the chant in the chorus ("White! Whale! Holy! Grail!")... to a brilliant effect where, from 1:32 he suddenly lays out, as if to make you think "Well fair enough - that frantic riff would be impossible to play to" - and then, of course, from 1:47, he does. Conversely, Billy Higgins - often Lee Morgan's drummer of choice on his Blue Note albums, can sound like a rock star in a jazz player's body, always upping the 'funk' level compared to many of his peers, not afraid to drive things along with the snare drum. Although, the delicious jazz aspect is that you never know quite when he'll hit the snare drum...

Kylesa - 'Unknown Awareness'
Radiohead - 'Staircase'

While you're still recovering from Mastodon, I may as well keep my pedal to the metal and introduce Kylesa - who have two drummers, Carl McGinley and Eric Hernandez. Kylesa are certainly heavy, but as this track shows, they favour a kind of swirling psychedelic sound that buffets rather than bludgeons. They underline this effect by separating Carl and Eric in the stereo - ie one to the left, the other to the right - so you can experience that slight disorientation of their playing in time but not in strict unison with each other, or taking on different aspects of the rhythm pattern. It's a great effect that goes beyond a gimmick to really adding something unsettling to the sound. By contrast, Radiohead use two drummers live to play the most delicate beats of their career. The upbeat (Yes! Upbeat! You can even see Thom Yorke smile at the start of the video, unless it's some kind of cruel hoax) 'Staircase' is a perfect example of how, in seeking to emulate fallible machines and take glitch to the mainstream, Radiohead have decided that two humans clicking and tapping around each other provide best results.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions - 'Uncomplicated'

I've often wondered if being in the Attractions was extraordinarily taxing because the band members were all so strong - in particular, I think, drummer Pete Thomas, who was capable of performances that really gave the songs character. 'Uncomplicated', the full-on opener to a ruthlessly full-on album, has a drum pattern defying the song's title, with a pounding snare on the first three notes of each four in the bar. This is even odder to try and describe than it is to listen to. It makes the song sound pushy, front-loaded, so keen for aggro it might trip over itself - and as such makes it the perfect curtain-raiser for 'Blood and Chocolate'.

Talking Heads - 'Thank You for Sending Me an Angel' (Live)

'Stop Making Sense', quite probably the best concert film of all time, opens with the members of Talking Heads taking the stage one by one with each song. So David Byrne begins with a solo 'Psycho Killer' and Tina Weymouth on bass joins him for 'Heaven'. Then, drummer Chris Frantz is wheeled on, and - after a lending a quick ear to (presumably) a click track - launches into this. I find it amazing to this day, that such a manic drum part - let alone the sudden changes in volume (0:53) and showmanship with the cymbals (you'll particularly enjoy 1:53) - is his first onstage task of the evening. A joy to watch.

Cut Hands - 'The Claw'
Steve Reich's 'Drumming' - performed by Portland Percussion Group

And what happens when we just have the drums, with no other distractions? Well, Cut Hands (a.k.a. William Bennett, formerly of extreme noise artists Whitehouse) is a slight cheat here, as Bennett - heavily influenced by both Haitian and African ritual drumming - samples a wide range of percussion from those cultures, and makes terrifying yet exhilarating new polyrhythmic collages. Live it's an unforgettable experience - while he projects visuals, Bennett is there alone with machinery (no-one is actually drumming) so there is nothing to stop you submitting to an almost trance-like state. A hypnosis of the body more than the mind. And finally, as if to bring this trip full circle, we arrive at contemporary classical, with this inspiringly disciplined band tackling 16 minutes' worth of Reich's epic suite for percussion only. What looks a bit like some relaxation at wrist level may give some clue to how they make this look so easy (watch the marvellously fluid movement of the chap on the right around the two-minute mark), but it's the precision that makes the piece soar.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Lieder column 1: 'Auflösung'

And now... *places fingertips together in manner of Bond villain* ... an experiment. As someone whose obsession with the voice in classical music has only intensified (first choral, then opera...), it's no surprise I'm now working my way through song. The worlds of opera and song clearly collide - and with many performers happy to sing both in character and in recital, it's a great opportunity for someone like me - cheerfully but almost inevitably rooted at the back of the opera house - to hear singers I admire at formidably close range. (Yet again, I realise how lucky I am to have venues like Wigmore Hall and Cadogan Hall more or less on the doorstep.)

Pop and rock is where my listening really started, of course, and I can't help but wonder if one of the attractions of classical song for me is sensing the composers (who, after all, were providing the 'popular' music of the time) trying to distil everything they wanted to say or achieve into a few minutes. The most powerful lied has to do exactly what a great 7" would do, hundreds of years later: grip the listener in the first few seconds, and take them to a different place as fast as a teleport. The famous story told about Schubert's 'Winterreise' feels so modern to me: the composer enthusiastically performed his freshly-written mood piece / song cycle (fast-forward: concept album) to his friends, to their utter bafflement. It just makes me think of an artist playing something 'in their new direction' to their inner circle or management, then hearing: "But there are no hits, Franz. Go away and write a single!"

The more songs I listen to, the more knock me for six and I found myself wanting to just share some of them, one at a time, in occasional posts. A chance to compare (and indulge in) a few versions and interpretations, YouTube etc permitting, and generally build up a very leisurely 'greatest hits'. Strictly speaking, 'lieder' are of course, the German variety of classical songs, but I wasn't going to let that get in the way of a daft pun. I will be sure to include French 'melodies' too (by the likes of Poulenc, Debussy and so on), British, Russian, Scandinavian....And I would *love* to receive suggestions for songs to include. If that's your inclination, don't be shy. I learn far more in cyberspace than I impart.

Today's song is by Schubert, who - I'm going to guess - is the undisputed master of lieder, in terms of maintaining such high quality over such a prolific output. (Hyperion Records have released a majestic complete set, which I really covet - so vast is its appearance, it looks possible to dwell in it for a short period. It runs to some 40 CDs.) The title, 'Auflösung', means 'Dissolution' - it's Schubert's setting of a short poem by Mayrhofer, and as song lyrics go, it's extraordinarily intense. The poet begins by banishing the light and sounds of spring ("Verbirg dich, Sonne") because, we find out, music is literally streaming ("Quillen") from his inner being. However, this could be an unsettling joyful acceptance of death: these are heavenly voices ("Himmlisch singen") bursting forth, and the world must end or vanish ("Geh' unter, Welt") leaving him to the sweet, unearthly choir ("die süßen, ätherischen Chöre").

Here from the 50s is the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with pianist Gerald Moore: a partnership that managed to record most of Schubert song's for male voice.

The piano's task, it seems, is to simmer - the arpeggios bubble under the singer's declaration of intent, and in only the second line there's an irresistible crescendo on the rising notes (the text here is about a blissful glow). Schubert's astonishing music makes piano and voice such equal partners, with the main tune veering from high-pitched rapture to rumbling oblivion, exactly in line with the poet's mood swings. A winningly downbeat idea is to close the song not with the last line of the poem - that is, the choir - but with a repeat of the dismissal of the world.

While DFD doesn't stint on the drama, his performance has a rock solid gentility to it, almost caressing the cyclic, swaying notes for the sweet, heavenly voices until he takes control with the "Chöre" at the end. Listen out for a breathy dismissal of one of the "Geh' unter"s - a characterful touch for the protagonist's frustration.

It's interesting to hear the same pianist accompany Janet Baker on a slightly slower version. Baker seems to detect the beautiful apocalypse in the song, and luxuriates in its extremes (loud and soft as well as up and down)... Brace yourself at 0:38 for "laß mich allein" ("leave me alone").

Although the "Snakes alive! Is that possible?" prize should probably go to Jessye Norman (apologies - I could only find this on Spotify so you will need to log in yourself for this to work...)

The tenor Christoph Pregardien has championed the song at least twice. His older recording is with Andreas Staier on fortepiano. As the instrument has less sustain, they go much faster and the tumult Staier manages to generate as note piles upon note is impressive, urging Pregardien into a deliberately agitated, but superbly controlled rendition.

Re-recording it some years later, I believe, with pianist Michael Gees, CP seems to take a more reflective view of the song, allowing the piano to assert itself gradually more forcefully, until the singer really is taken over - the "Chöre" receding back into the mix as though he was stepping away from the microphone. Then his final dismissal of the world is closely recorded, not wracked, but resolute.

Speaking of 'wracked', I could only finish with one man: Ian Bostridge. I am completely in awe of what Bostridge does. When you think of 'rich' tenor voices like Pregardien's, or one of the real megastars, Jonas Kaufmann - that's not what Bostridge was put on the earth to do. His voice is an extraordinary instrument - as powerful and accurate as anyone but somehow narrow, angular, the emotion potentially forcing splits at the edges that never break. He can go from tender fragility one minute to howling anguish the next, and in performance uses his body knowingly, too: tall, slim and pale, he can seem almost bent double, grasping the piano for support at moments of extreme tension.

I remember seeing him in a Schumann recital, motioning with eyebrows only at a surprised Julius Drake to start playing. Bostridge was still seated. As we would find out, the song began with voice and piano simultaneously. Still a little doubtful, it seemed (although they must have rehearsed - surely), Drake touched the keys and Bostridge launched to his feet with the opening line. The note hit us from behind the piano lid like an ambush.

Here Drake - who I think is like a true telepath when accompanying singers - supports Bostridge in their studio recording of 'Auflösung'. It has a relatively measured pace, but nothing timid about the performance. Drake ups the bass on the piano part, with the audible crunch of the low notes at 1.22, for example, propelling the voice to dismiss the world - and no-one sings "Welt" like IB...

Again, sometime later, Bostridge and Drake revisited the song live at the Wigmore Hall. Again, this will only work if you have Spotify, but if you can hear this performance, I urge you to do so. Drake sets a frantic pace this time, and Bostridge is with him every step of the way. It's as if the two of them decided that at the end of 'Auflösung', the piano - streaming up and over the poet - drives the voice, rather than the other way round, and Bostridge rages against the coming of the light. Two minutes of this audio file is the track; the other minute is applause. No wonder.

Monday 3 November 2014

Horse opera: ENO's 'Girl of the Golden West'

Another relatively last-minute decision to break free of the military-campaign precision of my Royal Opera House bookings (involving the Mrs, a group of friends, and several illegible diagrams) and grab a single seat - just to treat myself - at the Coliseum.

I've written before that I don't automatically gravitate towards the English National Opera - only because they present all the operas in translation and I tend to prefer hearing the original language. But I found a couple of productions irresistible - and to a certain extent they've confirmed my misgivings: the new opera 'Thebans', by Julian Anderson with English libretto by playwright Frank McGuinness sounded perfectly natural and involving, while Handel's 'Xerxes' - though beautifully sung - rather wore me down with its endless repetition.

Visit number 3 was to Puccini's 'The Girl of the Golden West' ('La Fanciulla del West'). My main motivation was sheer curiosity: obviously, more or less all opera demands some suspension of disbelief, but a western - can it really work? I also wondered if this was a last-chance saloon situation - no sign of the Royal Opera House production (staged several times and last seen in 2008, I believe) and this was its first appearance at ENO in over FIFTY years. And what finally ended the dithering was the fact that so many people seemed to really love it. So: *click*.

The story takes place in Gold Rush California. Local miners frequent the Polka saloon, where the main focus of their attention (apart from the whisky) is understandably its owner, Minnie. Minnie's view of the miners is essentially maternal - she leads them in bible class and keeps their finds in her safe - although she has her work cut out fending off her most persistent suitor, sheriff Jack Rance.

While the community is distracted in a manhunt for the outlaw Ramerrez, a stranger called Dick Johnson arrives at the Polka. It turns out that he and Minnie have in fact already met and shared a fleeting, romantic encounter. In front of an imploding Rance, the flame between the pair re-ignites in no time, and they agree to spend the evening 'catching up' at Minnie's cabin.

As the net closes in, the alert among you may suspect a connection between Ramerrez and Johnson - and you'd be right. They are one and the same. At the cabin, Minnie and Johnson declare their love. A posse of miners turn up and reveal Johnson's true identity to Minnie - she manages to get rid of them but, betrayed, sends Johnson packing as well. He's shot the second he walks out of the door, so perhaps not 'Grade A' bandit material. Minnie realises she's in love with him come what may, and nurses him in the cabin. When Rance turns up to make an arrest, Minnie counters by challenging him to a card game for Johnson's freedom. With some sleight of hand trickery, she wins and Rance departs, temporarily defeated.

Johnson keeps on the move to evade capture but to Rance's delight, he is taken by the mob eventually. As they are on the point of hanging him, Minnie arrives and challenges the miners to deny her the man she loves after all she has done for them. Gradually, she wins them over, and leaves with Johnson to start afresh.

(The image is by ENO Design Studio.)

I absolutely loved this opera, and it intrigued and delighted me on so many levels. ENO's programme notes are very good on the background to the unusual subject matter. I came away thinking how it seemed to be an opera of the 'common man', with fallible, ordinary people getting drunk, collapsing with homesickness, abusing their limited power and letting their dreams run away with them. The programme explains how 'West' (like 'Madama Butterfly' before it) were both based on modern, naturalistic plays by US writer/impresario David Belasco, giving Puccini a consistent way into these lower-octane scenarios. I can't help thinking that a fascination - however temporary - with America(na) must also have been a factor, enabling him to place these more domestic dramas into a still exotic, otherworldly context.

Richard Jones's production brings this out beautifully, with the three key locations - Act I's Polka saloon, Act II's cabin and Act III's marshal's office - almost suspended against a jet black background, very much scenes of the mind, a fantasised wild west. In a powerful 'coup de theatre' at the opera's close, when Minnie and Johnson prepare to leave, the two lovers remain still, while the office building (containing the rest of the cast on its terrace) recedes further backstage, as if the dream is ending. It's a terrific live equivalent to the end of western films where, as the main character rides away, the camera 'looks back' at the homestead or town receding in the shot.

Making the most of the contrast, the music and acting are affecting and convincing. Puccini himself was on fire, and the ravishing score seems to anticipate and pre-emptively improve on every western soundtrack to come. It's so wonderfully sympathetic to the action: standout moments including Minnie's rapt, lovestruck sighs at the end of Act I and - as anyone else can attest from the edge of their seats - large stretches of Act II, with the hyperactive exchanges in the scrabble to hide Dick from the posse, and in particular the hushed, scratchy pulse underpinning the card game. Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson drew suitably dynamic cries and whispers from the orchestra, expertly balancing tenderness and tension. And the translation really worked: even I would admit that it might've been arguably stranger to hear a saloon full of cowboys conversing in Italian, but Kelley Rourke's version included some US idiom and turns of phrase for an extra dash of authenticity.

The three main performances are all worthy of special mention. I'm still getting used to the Coliseum and I think some singers occasionally lose some syllables beneath the orchestra. (I wonder if this is to do with my sitting in the Upper Circle - as I didn't notice it during 'Thebans' when I was near the front.) Peter Auty as Dick - the tenor role - occasionally fell victim to this, I think - but overall it was no problem, particularly since his physical acting was phenomenal, showing Johnson's desperate efforts while injured to scale the ladder to 'upstairs' in the cabin, and hide himself while being unable to freely move his whole body, thanks to the wound. Baritone Craig Colclough made a superb Rance: nervy, physical, slimy, aggressive.

But the evening belonged to Susan Bullock as Minnie. To begin with, she had seized on perhaps a brave interpretation of the role that allowed Minnie to suggest a jaded resignation, as if her light had slightly dimmed, only for Johnson to rekindle it. Every facial expression communicated the possibility that this was her last chance at real happiness. I had read that Minnie is a demanding role vocally - and now I've heard it, I believe it isn't just a matter of coping with Minnie's sudden outbursts of shrill joy or anguish. It's also the wide variety and quick exchanges between quiet and loud - sometimes even abandoning song altogether with a few extremely powerful uses of speech. Susan B's singing was so flexible that moving between these volume levels, speeds and techniques seemed to come so naturally, they were just part of how the character 'spoke'. In particular, there's a thrilling sequence where Millie is hiding Johnson and offering constant reassurance - "It will be all right, I love you" - repeating in various combinations over and over until suddenly she simply says: "I love you". So genuine and unforced: it was a moment to stop the heart.