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Simon
Friday 16th October 2015.  BBC Studios, Maida Vale

I had to come in early and be interviewed about Empress of Blandings.  I talked a lot of jocular nonsense as usual - not very Radio 3 of me but there it is - and now I have sequestered myself in one of the many cosy corners that this huge, charmless but historic building offers to the fugitive in need of quiet.  A couple of hours to the concert and I have my mug of BBC coffee; what more could a man ask?

You expect to be apprehensive at the first rehearsal of a new piece; there'd be something wrong if you weren't.  But Blandings  is a much performed and broadcast trinket and I know it works. Moreover we have a conductor that I trust completely and the quickest-witted, most professional orchestra that I know.  So relax already why don't you.   I couldn't, of course; the old sweaty palms broke out just the same and I was genuinely amazed when the orchestra seemed to like it.  I don't really understand the mixture of shame and embarrassment that comes over me when a piece is played; I suppose I am a rather private creature and any composition, however slight, is effectively a public undressing. There really is no need for such nonsense even at the worst of times and it was certainly out of place this week.  In 35 years of coming here, do not think I have enjoyed a week at the BBC so much. 

I long ago evolved a theory that composers are best known for the work that least typifies them.  It doesn't quite fit but the idea possesses some merit; think of the introverted Holst and The Planets, complex, contradictory Shostakovich and the tub-thumping 5th, even Beethoven is better known for An Die Freude than the transcendence of his less gaudy works.  It seems even weeny scribblers like me are prone to it, and I am sure the exuberant idiocy of Blandings will be far more popular than all those hours of murder and horror in my operas or the eschatological brooding of Malebolge.  Am I complaining?  Don't be daft.

I found myself reflecting on the differences between German and English orchestras.  The NDR orchestra, who gave the first couple of performances, delivered the piece with panache and grace; so did the Beeb, but there was something very different in the latter reading.  The nearest I can come to a description is to say that they found the bits of inner chatter in the score, the prosody of the lines, an understanding that comes, I suppose, from sharing a mother tongue with the composer.  I have often bewailed the loss of national difference in orchestral playing: maybe my reports of its demise have been exaggerated. 

Monday 7th September 2015.  Mönchengladbach, Germany

I pause at a Rasthof near Stuttgart this morning and the beastly phone twitters at me.  The message isn't beastly at all; it is Annette wondering when we might talk the script over...so I get back in the car, turn northwards, passing Naurod on my way, and in no time (I do like autobahns) am in that familiar sitting room going through 1816.  It's another lovely piece of work from her (I'm saying no more now; come to the UA on June 3rd) and though it is a much bigger piece than Du Bist Da, the larger forces make it less technically troublesome than our beloved little triptych was.  I'm going to have fun with this, even though two of the texts are by that egregious oaf Lord Byron. Then it's downstairs to ye olde Sicilian pizza place (the patrone knows the street where I lived in Palermo) and halfway through far too much food Frankie causes me to have such a good idea for another show that I shall have to write it down soon or it will get in the way of my life.

Not surprisingly, I run out of brain 30 miles down the Autobahn and here I am in the most anonymous hotel of a career than has contained far too many of them.  Gendenken schwirren im Kopf once more.

Monday 31st August 2015, Ferrara, Italy

Home.  Why is this ordinary little town the only place on Earth where I feel truly settled?  Do I need to know?  No - and in this heat I do not propose to add another word to this catalogue of foolish wanderings!

Saturday 29th August 2015.  Feldkirch, Austria

...and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Criminals always revisit the scene of the crime.  In this case, the crime was suicide bombing, for in the last scene of The Secret Agent a character steps into the audience, reveals his dynamite waistcoat and sets it off - thereby securing for all time the Guinness world record for the most deaths in an opera.  The first performance, in this sleepy little Vorarlburg town, was the single most stressful experience of my working life; I am probably not the only person involved who would say that.  I sent a picture of the venue to M, who managed the production; his instant response was a simple O Boy...

O Boy is about right.  We had assembled a wonderful cast, our second go at finding a regisseur (I will pass over the first) produced the next best thing to perfection and the whole company coalesced into a sort of barmy army in its little industrial space by the river.  Across in the main theatre, Don Giovanni was taking shape and the two companies would meet each evening and compare notes as to how things were going.  Let's face it, they had the better opera but I think we had more fun - and more pain.  Something about Conrad's ineffably wicked story or perhaps my treatment of it seeped into all of us. It was a personal heart of darkness and it made me ill; but it also made for burning intensity in the theatre.  It is the one piece of mine that I really want to see produced again, whatever I have to do to get it put on.

Today, pottering around the quiet, picturesque streets, I feel no echo of it calling to me from the stones. The people who made the piece are all dispersed, the Altes Hallenbad is just a prosaic building in a meadow and whatever may be in my head, this town has things to do and sails calmly on.

Friday 28th August 2015.  Brauneberg, Germany

The plan was for me and the ophicleide to head due south this morning. After an hour on the autobahn it becomes clear that I am too tired to drive safely so I swerve towards the Mösel and check into a random Gasthof. After a few hours rest, I open a window to reveal a rather interesting view of vines and water. It turns out that these admirable slopes belong to the hotel and at the suggestion of Mein Host I pluck a bottle from the fridge and head for the river. 

A fish jumps, mayflies dance and as I watch the sun go down, I drink a toast to CuE and to all who sailed in her these past two weeks. And meditate on what I already knew, that life really isn't all that bad.

Sunday 16th August 2015.  Somewhere in Europe

The Cat thing is finished at last.  It put up a hell of a fight and I will no doubt want to revise it before I let it out of its orchestral cat flap and into the world.  I don't mind; it has got me up to speed for Anita and 1816 and there is something very satisfying about completing a work and immediately beginning a journey.  In this case, the voyage is a drive across Europe to a village east of Wiesbaden for the next part of the Cuba project. In the back of the car is a celestial junkpile of old instruments (including my trusty Halary ophicleide) for the Historical Performance part of the course. 

Such a trip is fun but routine for me; as I totter down the Autobahn in filthy weather I find myself thinking what a shock it will be for our 35 Cubans, arriving at the space age Frankfurt airport later on today.

Saturday 6th June 2015.  Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

How many times have I played Traviata?  How many times, indeed, has it been played?  Everywhere I go on this planet, the blessed thing seems to be on somewhere; it was being performed in Astana and Almaty last month.  Other Verdi operas are available but you could be forgiven for not realising this was so.  I am not sure I need to open the copy but I do, just for the sake of form.  Ci risiamo...and then Uncle Joe works his magic and for the hundredth time I am captivated.  I admire Berg, of course, but to do what Verdi did, and create this amount of elemental feeling from what amounts to the music of the street corner requires an understanding of human nature that is rarer than any amount of intellectualism, expressionism or any other -ism you care to name.  Who can claim a dramatic sense equal to that of Verdi?  Shakespeare?  Maybe.  Aeschyus?  For sure.  Certainly not that little beast Wagner, born the same year.  I wouldn't trade you the last half hour of Traviata for the whole of the Ring, even if you threw in Parsifal to make up the weight and popped Lulu into the bag to make up the weight.

Thursday 29th May 2015.  Almaty, Kazakhstan

Truancy.  I have an important meeting at Kurmangazy at the end of the day and dare not exhaust myself with another five hours of trombone teaching.  So off I goes in the sunlight to Panfilov park to visit one of my favourite cathedrals, a survival from the 19th century, as brightly coloured as the trifle that it resembles and exuberant in this light.  The locals will proudly tell you that every single part of it, even the nails, is made of wood.  Maybe that is why it has survived since Tsarist times in the tectonically unstable region. 

An old man plays "Yesterday" on the accordion, terrifying babushkas sell you ice cream at ten Tengye a pop and horse-drawn carriages dart along the lanes.  One of these nearly fells me as I admire the cathedral, and the driver and I exchange esoterica of vocabulary in our respective mother tongues. There is a sideshow, where for a couple of coppers you may throw darts at a balloon: if you succeed in popping it, you get to throw three more darts at another balloon.  I am put in mind of the Craggy Island funfair in an episode of Father Ted; there is no Tunnel of Goats here but maybe by the time I return in November there will be.

Then I stride off to the museum of folklore, a beautiful wooden ziggurat whose collection of instruments always arouses my latent kleptomania.  It's my lucky day and a young man is giving a recital on the Kubyz, the twin-chambered bowed fiddle.  It is such a plangent, sinister sound and I find myself wondering if Stravinsky ever visited this part of the world.  Most likely he did not, but perhaps someone played a Kubyz to him in his youth; listen to the way he writes for strings and central Asia is never far away.

fiddle    fiddle2    Museum
Tuesday 27th May 2015. Almaty, Kazakhstan

Up betimes and off to the Conservatory.  The energy and spontaneity of the players here always takes my breath away.  Thus far, they have avoided the deterministic, over-descriptive and fundamentally ineffective American way of teaching brass and I hope it stays that way. The simple commonsense approach to not trying too hard works a treat with these lively souls, and a good time is (I hope) had by all.

There is a hole in my brain that the simple Russian word for "heavy" (tyazhyollui) falls through.  Not for the first time, my Cold War-era lessons in the language come to the rescue with the magnificent and otherwise useless word for "agricultural", which is Syelskokhozyaistvyennui; everyone seems to get what I mean.  I very much doubt these day if such a roccoco adjective would stick in my ancient head, but being fourteen is a different matter.  Heigh ho.

Monday 26th May.  Almaty, Kazakhstan

Almaty is green, humane and warm.  I do not know why I love this city quite as much as I do, but I do.  It can be a bit grim in winter, when temperatures occasionally fall below -30, but at this time of year it is green and gorgeous - and you can see the snow covered mountains of Krgyzstan from the centre of town.  I know you have the same effect in Luzern but, well, it's Switzerland and however much you like chocolate (I don't) Switzerland is just not as much fun.

Arrival at Alma-ata 2 was tumultuous and half the trombone players in town seem to have turned out to meet and celebrate.  I have a feeling they're going to keep me very busy even though this is more a diplomatic mission than a teaching trip.  That's just fine: I let them sweep me along on a wave of Tartar delight.

After the obligatory shashlik and storytelling, we cannot locate my hotel.  Undeterred, my companions conduct a house-to-house search of the neighbourhood until it is found.  Once checked in, I collapse in a thankful heap.

Sunday 25th May 2015.  Shiu, Kazakhstan

Shui is a railway station with no town attached. After so many hours crossing the featureless steppe at a steady 50mph this is no surprise.  So far as I can tell, this halt along the way is the exact middle of Kazakhstan. It is a relief to escape the train for a while and walk in the fresh air; well fresh-ish since to my amazement the habit of smoking Makhorka, the evil black Soviet-era tobacco, is still widespread.  They don't seem to roll it in strips torn from Pravda any more but the smell is the same.  Pestering from hawkers is of Indian proportions; I wonder where they come from?  You seldom see a foreigner on this, the slow train so I am a bit of a target. 

My travelling companions are amiable enough, the compartment is full of onions, dried fish and howls of laughter at jokes (mostly, I suspect, at my expense) whose comprehension would require a deeper grasp of the language than mine.  For a couple of hours this morning I was ordered out of the compartment so that they could try on a rail of dresses that some enterprising vendor had brought along the corridor.

The last overnight train trip I took was the Shosholoza Meyl from Johannesburg to Cape Town, the very train that Gandhi was put off in 1893, an incident that helped to spark his later beliefs and actions.  That was about the same length of journey as this, though one that I passed in solitude.  I sat and marvelled at the landscape evolving outside my window, the townships, the farms and the extraordinary cloud patterns.  The journey stays in my mind like a dream.  This one will too, for different reasons; the sky is blue, the earth is brown, it is flat and unchanging and the air is full of cackling and the smell of fish and onions.

I am, by some divine oversight, happy.

Saturday 24th May 2015.  Astana, Kazakhstan

Yes, it probably was a bit eccentric of me to book a 22-hour train journey to Almaty instead of a 45 minute flight, but I like the anonymity and rhythm of impossibly long train journeys. And it only cost me 25 quid for 1000 miles (put that in your pipe and smoke it, First Capital Connect).  A local colleague helped me to book the trip; just as well since the system here is even more complicated than in India and the clerk seemed to speak only Kazakh, of which I have precisely four words none of which are relevant to rail travel.  Probably because of this, I seem to be travelling hard class and have been put in a compartment with an assortment of diminutive babushki and rather a lot of onions.  We leave at 22.00; is  this to be the wagon-lit of dreadful night, I wonder?

Thursday 21st May 2015.  Astana, Kazakhstan

The only way to deal with the scale of this town is surrender.  The scale of it is imperial, as impossible for the pedestrian as Moscow is, but unlike Moscow it has no Metro, just some tired buses and a lot of traffic jams.  It's going to take a long time to get anywhere, whatever you do. Still a little jumpy after yesterday's fracas at the airport (I almost came to blows with a deeply dodgy taxi driver) I have made an alliance with the No 22 bus, which seems to go to every single stop in town if you stay on it for long enough.  You have to stand, but that's fine, and the traffic crawls at the same pace be your vehicle a Trabant or a Bentley.

The National University of the Arts sits in a broad plain of paving, a tilted hollow cone like a blue glass volcano (the locals call it "the dog's bowl") and I cannot for the life of me find the way in.  A friendly horn player comes to the rescue: once inside I am cast among delights as the extraordinary range and beauty of what they do becomes apparent.  What a wonderful people they are, even in these surreal surroundings.  And how fabulous to see visual and performing arts taught under one roof.  That's something we should learn from. What a buzz!

Wednesday 20th May 2015.  Astana, Kazakhstan

This is a most disconcerting place.  A small town that was appointed Capital twenty years ago, it has expanded at inhuman speed.  Though laid out like a modern city, it has a feel of the wild west, is subject to sweltering Summers, murderously cold Winters and feels like what it is; a place called into existence by decree. It was designed by a Japanese architect who seems to have been more interested in symbolism than practicality and who certainly spent far too much time looking at space comics; the resultant architectural style is a sort of psychotic Lego.  Japanese craziness works in Japan because everyone is crazy with it: transplanted, it has all the charm of a Sumo at an English country dance.  Giant telescreens talk to themselves in the deserted downtown district and the whole is presided over by a golden ball atop a tall tower that my jetlagged brain has christened The Central Scrutiniser.  The place looks neither real nor finished, probably because it is neither; an impression added to by the presence of humourless whimsy such as the English quarter, which is designed as a parody of the Palace of Westminster complete with pastiche Big Ben.

I have no meetings today so my first task is to grasp a bit of sanity.  I head for a down-at-heel residential district and find myself among human beings at last.  I doubt if anywhere on Earth there is a more friendly or tolerant nation than the Kazakhs, and after half an hour chatting in the scruffiest bar I have seen in years, my soul is restored.  Not my digestion, though: I will never get used to Khoort, the chalk-hard horse cheese that they serve with the vodka.  I am not even sure if it is a condiment or a food.

I console myself with the thought that at least it isn't that Almaty delicacy, raw horse intestine.

shop street
Friday 27th March 2015.  St Albans

I use a pencil less and less.  No, I haven't taken up the stiff-minded imbecilities of music software, simply drifted into using a fountain pen and writing straight into score.  There is something about the impossibility of rubbing out that focuses the mind - and there is colour.   I draw pictures all over my scores anyway and being able to do so in garish hues is A Good Thing.

I may as well out myself as an ink fetishist; I don't exactly collect them but if I need cheering up, a new bottle of something from Edelstein or Herbin does the trick and is both more enduring and cheaper than a decent claret.  A rather intense emerald has been the pigment of choice so far in the cat piece, but I have been fretting for a while and it hasn't gone well.  So...I washed the pen out and replaced green with Herbin's anniversary scarlet - and the ideas flowed.  No, I can't explain it; we must just ascribe it to the general phenomenon of Art being strange.  Or at least, of me being so.

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