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Archives for August 2008


BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra | 19:43 UK time, Thursday, 28 August 2008


I bet you've no idea how brilliant your hearing is! Wonder lugs! (But before I continue, and just to confuse the issue, please remember that there are some very famous deaf musicians - Evelyn Glennie and Beethoven for starters - and that there are different ways of hearing. Body language 'speaks' louder than words - and then there's the whole mystery of thought proprioception, which I'll come back to if someone doesn't shoot me first.) What's going on between your ear, your brain, and the rest of your body, is awe inspiring - that's if you're inclined to get awe inspired. The little bits of sounds that make up a word are called phonemes; when you hear a simple sentence you sort out and identify dozens of them every millisecond. You pick out important fragments, and jumble them together into sense - a lot better than those awful predictive text gizmos in mobile phones. Chinese is reckoned to be a difficult language to learn; it can't be just 'picked up by ear' in the way European languages can. They have fewer syllables, but in Chinese, a word changes its meaning if you change its musical shape. This led to so many Europeans being so embarrassing that for years the emperor banned them from even trying.

Grief.... what's he on about now? I'm on about Speakings, by Jonathon Harvey, wot we're playing at the Proms. Part of a whole, brilliant, modern music programme at 19:00 prime time - not ghettoised to late evening. Along with IRCAM, from Paris, he (and his computer) has picked out a number of sounds from natural speaking voices, and put those sounds into 'envelopes'. Then, in Speakings, a group of soloists have microphones stuck embarrassingly close to where their noise comes out, and, as they play, the computer picks up their sound, matches it to the speech sounds in the envelopes, removes the musical sounds, and then echoes just the remaining speechy bits of it out into the hall through speakers. This is not some pre-recorded soundtrack bolted onto the live music, but a real interplay - sparked by each player at each performance. Around these solo lines the whole orchestra is already playing music that has been speechified - the notes are virtually never 'straight', they bend, flutter, mutter and splutter - like speech - and these sounds are also picked up and thrown in the mix. The Albert Hall will be wired as never before - 93 microphones, and still counting. It's radical. Don't be put off. After all, if you are open to the idea that absolutely any sound can be raw material for music, you won't be shocked. Even better, you might find yourself wondering about the very Big Interesting Question: just when and why did random sounds, and primitive speech, begin to coalesce into what we now call music? (This week, scientists are announcing that the putative 'speech gene' actually evolved long before we humans split off. We share it with Neanderthals, other mammals, crocodiles, birds - and it seems to be associated with singing and learning, particularly the learning of complex physical actions. Speech is a secondary benefit of the gene; like flight was a secondary benefit after feathers evolved.) Listen to leaves rustling in the breeze - really listen. Listen to busy traffic, a busy railway station, a crowed pub, a waterfall. Listen to the silence on a hill top on a still day - a silence that is actually a myriad of tiny sounds. Speakings starts with a cheeky whistling call from the first violin, it journeys through a soundscape of mutterings, and gradually coalesces into a chorale-like theme ......our chaotic mumblings are purified into music. I'm enthusing about all this, but I'm not going as far as to comment on how 'good' the music is (whatever that means); that's your job - you decide about that from your own standpoint - only you can say if Jonathon communicated anything. He has been our composer in residence for a few years. I have found his music fascinating, stimulating and illuminating.

We're in the middle of our silly season summer fest, of major concerts for Edinburgh and the Proms. Joint funding means huge orchestras, and playing stuff that would be out of reach in our normal routine. We had to decamp to the GRCH to rehearse Messiaen's Eclairs sur L'au-dela - the biggest orchestra ever. The massive platform built for this in the choir stalls of the Usher Hall was woefully inadequate; it nearly collapsed during the rehearsal, which meant that the percussion players weren't able to rehearse Ades' Tivot, another big and challenging piece. The supremely shy contra-bass clarinet made an appearance, and broke a world record - being required twice in one programme and then in the next as well. It'll be glad to get back in its cupboard for a few months. (Actually, it makes such a wonderful sound, like the rare corncrake, that I think someone should score it into all the Mozart symphonies.) This concert felt great, a bit like sailing in a gale - securely skippered by Ilan, and being stretched full out to do what we do best. Plenty of players feel bamboozled (and worse) by some of this music - but there's a palpable elation from the sheer tension, concentration and adrenaline that it generates. Music magic. More Messiaen in the Harvey concert: Concert à Quatre, that he never finished because he was so busy writing the piece that we played last week. On Monday, the UK premiere of Carter's Soundings (he's 99, and still at it) - a short muttering sort of witty meditation for piano and orchestra, skittering snippets thrown around the orchestra - written for Barenboim to play and conduct. Also, the Prokofiev Symphony Concerto for cello. Now you're talking. For cellists, this is a whole venison, spit roast - epic music, epic cello part, and epic playing from Alban Gerhard. I can't believe that this is its Proms premiere. I've spent more hours of my life battering the neighbours with this piece, than with any other.

Mixed into this fest was the chance to see the TV relay from the Proms of Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan band. For a fusty old know-it-all like me, this was a blood transfusion. Brahms 4 delivered with high octane emotion and temperament - I loved it. But the Schoenberg Variations.......? This was how it should be. A huge orchestra, including many kids, giving everything. They were beefed up in the brass by some players from the Simon Bolivar band of Venezuela - the Ferrari of all orchestras - not that they seemed to need much help. Schoenberg....edge of the seat stuff....? This brings me back to my modern music beef......

If you were a time traveller, and you landed from another epoch at the start of piece by Harvey, or a play by Beckett, or Schoenberg's Variations, what impression would you get? How much do we need to know about a piece before we can get into it? If we go to a play by Beckett, or a concert of Stockhausen's music, we will have already been told, 'this is great'. Does that adjust our perception - does it then change how we 'hear'? There's plenty of music out there which will catch the floating voter - approachable, easy listening, familiar; but what about the stuff that seems designed to put you off? At best, it seems to say, 'I'm going to make you work very hard before you get anything out of me'. I'm OK with that, but with a couple of provisos. First, if I make the effort to be open to and interested in your composition, and it doesn't deliver, then I reserve the right to be grumpy (even more than normal) - especially if you don't seem to be making much effort to come towards me. Second, we all have to accept that openness is a conscious act of will towards the composer and the performers - exactly like the feeling of goodwill and hospitality that the huge London Prom audience glows with. I'm banging my drum again - stay with me. Our lives are saturated with disposable music - radio, CDs, muzak, film music. The theme of Barenboim's Reith lectures last year was that we have lost (if we ever had it) the ability to listen 'in' to music. I sometimes feel that we've even lost touch with the fact that music is a group experience, a two way sharing, about human beings relating - considerably more important than just the text. Players and audience alike have to bring something important to share with each other; otherwise you might just as well put a tape recorder on the stage and a load of microphones in the seats - and then get a record reviewer to analyse what was great, or not, about the performance. I sometimes hear music (a performance) being talked about as if it was a new model of car. A car is toxic junk, even a Ferrari, until it is put to good balanced use. See useful....see the Divan Band....brrrrrmm, brrrrrmm!


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