Thursday 26th March 2015.  St Albans

I don't quite believe in writer's block; I do, however know that if you are trying to do the wrong thing, it won't work and that can often feel like the same thing.  The imagination is generally an unfettered beast but also a bit like a motorway; if everything trots along at a sensible pace with a sensible distance between ideas, it flows nicely.  The minute some idiot (or idea) tries to rush ahead, the traffic bunches and stops. 

And as usual, the idea wasn't worth the trouble.  Chuck it out, change the ink in the pen and away you go. 

Sunday 15th February 2015. Düsseldorf

The streets are awash with some sort of festival so I flee and take cover in the art gallery.  A particularly good exhibition of old Italian photos is my reward and I am content.  Gedenken schwirren im Kopf as someone sang in Du Bist Da, Du Bist Fort.  And plenty of them are schwirring in my poor old kopf today.  For, gentle reader, I have been hijacked once more and am embroiled not only in another glorious madness with Annette and Frankie but an exploration of the Terpsichorean arts as well.  Life officially out of control until July 2016: and as you may have guessed, that is just how I like it!

Saturday 14th February 2015 Dortmund

At ev'ry turn I always see
Those wingèd rhinos bothering me
Each grinning ungulate that greets
Me on Dortmund's Desolate streets.

I have more interesting things on my mind than the perennial question of the life-sized winged fibreglass rhinos, but they are not something one can ignore. Why did someone think it such a good idea to strew them across the streets of this otherwise amiable but uninteresting town? Well, I have plenty of time to ponder the question; they do not look especially biodegradable and will no doubt be there at the last trumpet. And being an unromantic cove I find their grotesquerie pleasing this draughty Valentine's day.

Dortmund may be short on charm but it has one of the best concert halls in Europe; accordingly the place flits through my life like a ritornello. Tonight, however, it's not the Konzerthaus but the oddly-shaped Theater am Rhein for a ballet premiere. Another chapter begins, and the rhinos are there to see it.

Rhino 1 Rhino 2 Rhino 3 Rhino 4
Friday 6th February 2015 London

An interesting side effect of the ageing process is that you forget having composed pieces.  When E called and announced his intention of programming Aubrey's Maske my first response was to ask what it was.  You composed it, you clot.  He was right, of course and it prompted me to read the score for the first time in twenty years.  The experience was every bit as uncomfortable as reading a teenage diary, with the rather important difference that one's teenage diaries don't as a rule get displayed to several hundred people.  I've been doing this long enough to know that my opinion of my own work isn't worth a row of beans - and sure enough the audience seemed to enjoy it, warts and all.  Maybe I should feed the wastepaper bin less generously.

Wednesday 21st January 2015 London

So far it has taken me longer to correct the proofs of Hoping It Might Be So than it did to compose the damn thing in the first place.  Of course, my excellent editor is simply doing his job properly and it is unprofessional of me to be cross.  nevertheless, I look at the tweakings of semicolons and suchlike, I childishly reflect that no putative former audience will benefit from the fact that every appearance of the word "Blyssyd" is now spelled the same.  Never listen to a composer when he fulminates about such things: if we inkers of the yellow page were put in charge of practical matters then the end of Civilisation would ensue with disconcerting rapidity.

And yet...many, many years ago I played Boris Godunov at Covent Garden with a very famous Russian conducting.  It was Mussorgsky's original score, not the prissy tidied-up version that Rimsky-Korsakov made and the parts were ancient and Russian and probably had stories to tell.  (Why didn't that damned sea captain stick to his own work instead of interfering with others?  The urge to fold things up and put them away in the right drawer is deeply unhealthy, especially in art). Noticing that half the chords in the trombone parts had different note lengths, articulations and sometimes dynamics, I asked the conductor if we should harmonise the markings.  No; you know what Mussorgsky was.  It may be a mess but it is what he wrote.  Let him speak.  Yes, let him speak.  Resist the urge to prettify and accept that however full of vodka and madness Modest Petrovich may have been, he knew stuff that we don't and should be spared the feather duster and Mansion polish of the orthographers.  No Mussorgsky I, but allow me my little imperfections too; and the next time some conductor sticks a gratuitous Fp on one of my tremolandos, I shall march onto the stage and defenestrate him.  You have been warned; stay away from the very small number of concert platforms that have windows.

Saturday 10th January 2015 Frankfurt

An audition is a highly effective way of choosing the wrong candidate.  This is especially true nowadays when orchestras, faced with 150 applications for a single position, tell the candidates in advance exactly what will be required.  This is idiocy verging on genius: you select someone for a job that entails a lot of thinking on your feet by means of a selection process that doesn't assess it.  Duh.  So of course, I scandalised everyone by insisting that we just tell people to show up and see what happens.

It worked, of course, and the best candidates seemed to relish the half-improvised mixture of sight-reading and common sense.  The accompanist's insistence on bringing her dog into the auditions provided exactly the right amount of distraction and contributed to the pleasing atmosphere that surrounded the process.  We got the people we needed.

Some large companies make recruitment decisions after a general melee.  I think music should do the same thing; put them all in a room together and see how they work together when unprepared.  You'd very quickly weed out the nitwit whose boredom threshold is so high he can tolerate playing the same six orchestral excerpts every day for five years, who is favoured by the current system and is a blasted nuisance most of the time.

Sunday 4th January 2015 St Albans

A friend calls to complain that the concert he has just played in attracted next to no audience.  What is surprising is that it was a Strauss evening.  It turns out that instead of the usual eight or nine tired pieces, the conductor had hit upon a rather interesting programme of mostly recondite waltzes and polkas by Strauss and also one or two other people like Julius Fučík (of Entry of the Gladiators fame).  It sounded a delightful evening - but nobody came. 

This illustrates the mess that orchestral music has got into.  Programming is narrower and narrower as audiences are encouraged to believe that what matters is a particular  conductor's interpretation of the piece you heard last week and the week before and the week before that.  Setting aside the practical impossibility of anyone reinventing a musical work whose parameters have been so tightly regulated by its creator, it's boring; dreadfully, anaesthetically, heart-stoppingly boring and there's no need for it.  There are thousands of fabulous works that never get heard: when did you last see Dvorak's 6th symphony advertised?  It's a much better piece than the New World. And there are hundreds of magnificent composers like Schreker and Zemlinsky who have just disappeared.  If we really have reached a nadir of incuriosity where you can't get an audience if you programme slightly unfamiliar pieces by the likes  of Strauss, Lehar and Fučík, the whistle's gone and we're out of injury time.

I wonder if WH Auden was right when he wrote

The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.

If he was, God help us all.

Tuesday 22nd July 2014 London

To St Pancras to renew my British Library reader's pass. As always when I step into this place I feel a visceral tug towards the academic cloister but alas the wonderful Loan 48 and the Smart archive will have to wait; I have more pressing business and have to make a living. I suspect that a lot of what I need as background to the big project of 2016 will not be here but I have to search near to home hard before justifying another trip to Germany.

The last time I was in the renewals office, it was to replace a lost pass. I had been on one of my teaching trips to Kazakhstan and had stayed in a dispiriting Soviet-era bunker of a hotel. In earlier times, each floor of these places had a flinty-faced custodienne installed at a desk by the lifts, positioned so has to command a view of every bedroom door on their manor. Any sign of bed-hopping and they would bark "Nyet" at the hapless philanderer. The desk on my floor was still there, brooding as if awaiting the return of more disciplined times. A bit of me wished for them; all through the night my phone rang at intervals and breathy ladies offered me "sincere company". After the fourth awakening I lost my temper and shouted: five minutes later a rather diffident-sounding pimp rang, apologised and asked if maybe I was looking for a boy. Like a damned fool I said "no, a camel" and spent the minutes before sleep reclaimed me wondering how I would extricate myself if they took me at my word.

Lyudmilla the check-in clerk can only have been a baby when the Soviet empire collapsed but nevertheless she oozed the stolid "computer says no" hostility that in the old days characterised every petty functionary from Bialystock to Nakhodka. Maybe her Mum was one of the old custodiennes of hotel decency; I suppose commissars breed, be they never so puritanical at work. She insisted that my passport must be lodged with her for the duration of my stay. Not on your central Asian nelly my dear; even an EU passport as conspicuously tatty and full of odd visas as mine has a black market value and anyway the Kz cops will impose a fine if you don't carry it with you. Now, Lyudmilla couldn't speak English or German (there are a lot of Germans in Kz so German isn't unusual) and I was pretty sure she couldn't read Roman script either, so rather than start a row I whipped out my green and red BL reader's pass and explained that this was my UK identity card and had the same status as a passport. Lyudmilla was suspicious but acquiesced.

Of course, when I checked out, she swore blind that the document had been returned and must have been surprised at my not having the vapours and calling the police, but people like Lyudmilla don't tire themselves with too much curiosity. Realistically, the petty crooks who paid a few Tengye for my stolen reader's ticket must have twigged the ruse at once, but back in London, as I handed over the £10 fee for replacing my card, I was consoled by the thought of a Tartar Rasputin lookalike presenting my library ticket at Heathrow passport control and insisting that he was me.

Thursday 17th July 2014, London

Ubu is back in business at last. Our first post-resurrection big piece was Hot by Franco Donatoni. All the customary energy was there, even in those places where the composer blithely takes the soprano saxophone and Eb clarinet so high that there is no recognised fingering for the notes requested. It does my irascible old soul good to see that there are still young musicians who eschew pallid error-avoidance and prettiness.

We opened with Kazimierz Serocki's Swinging Music, A rather silly jeu d'esprit whose central conceit is that a jazz combo that has no drummer must find other ways of keeping up a sparky tsh-t-t-tsht-t rhythm, and the composer asks for vocal sounds, thumps, taps, spits and creaks and even a nailbrush rubbed on the piano strings.

Serocki is known in the trombone world for a nice but unadventurous sonatina, a rather clumsy concerto and a charming quartet that for some reason nobody plays, but he is a far more interesting composer than that handful of juvenilia suggests; a strong-minded uncompromising modernist whose bounce and heft shines through every bar he wrote.

Someone has put up a rather good website for the man, and it was interesting to learn how widely respected he was in his relatively short life, that he liked a drink and that the distinctive dent in his forehead was caused by a German bullet during the Warsaw uprising in 1945. That gunshot to the skull is something he shares with Xenakis, except that in the Greek's case the bullet was British. I can't think of another composer who's survived a shooting - though a couple of times in my more exotic travels I've come close to joining that select club. Have I grown up enough to play it safe now? Have I heck.

You can read about Serocki (and see the dent) here:


Thursday 10th July 2014, Westbury upon Severn

This has been a regular stop on the way to Cardiff for as long as I can remember. A magnificent view of the Severn and a tea waggon parked nearby; all an itinerant artist could want. The stallholder makes the best cup of tea and the best bacon and egg roll in the known universe, and he addresses even his greyest-bearded customers as "young Sir" in a Forest of Dean accent that by itself is worth the 120 mile drive. Not a logical place to break the journey, with Cardiff just down the road, but logic is an overrated commodity.

The Severn Bore is due next Monday. I will be coming this way again and would love to see it - but I will make myself late for a recording at the BBC if I do. It irks, but I must be professional and set off for the M4 a mere 35 minutes before the mysterious wave appears. A local fisherman tells me you don't need tide tables to know it's coming; the fish sense it and gather in particular pools by the eastern shore. Herons descend to feast and when you see them in greedy gangs you know the bore is on its way. How much nicer than looking it up on Google. A couple of Herons, a few hidden fishes and rather a lot of mud; a bit like my state of mind at the moment.

Sunday, 6th July 2014, Lübeck

They have proper votive candles here instead of those dreadful coin-in-the-slot electric things that have taken over in Italy and I light one for no better reason than that I always do, and wonder how much consolation there could be even for a sincere believer in posting 50 cents in the slot as though into an ecclesiastical What The Butler Saw machine.

Inside, the Marienkirche is a pale eggshell white decorated with patterns of coloured tiles; the nave will cool you on the hottest day and slow you down even if your brain is racing as much as mine is this afternoon. A morning of gently competitive conversation, too many ideas, too many digressions and as much fun as a man could need has stirred the alluvial mud that my mind so often resembles; and now I am sure that Vitae Summa Brevis has a taker, the piece is yelling at me to sit down and finish putting it on the page. Though it is likely to be a less intellectually rigorous work than Hoping It Might Be So, (having no more challenging a theme than wistfulness at the passing of time) the same strictures of balance and structure that bedevil every song cycle are there. I cannot decide if the addition of a solo cello to the choir helps or hinders. It is a gift for certain kinds of word-painting, of course, and I have decided to make the instrumental interludes a set of variations leapfrogging over the sung sections. That will give me a structural backbone which lets my fancy fly more freely, but will not help with my usual problem, which is that I can't decide on a text for the final number.

As I chew over my lilliputian concerns, I fancy I spy the ghost of young Johann Sebastian Bach, travel stained from a 250-mile walk all the way from Arnstadt. He'd recognise the place, which has hardly changed in all that time. He made the journey to meet Buxtehude and possibly to enquire about being the grand old man's successor. We don't know what happened next except that the visit was a success; Bach overstayed his leave of absence by several months but he never moved to Lübeck. Maybe the requirement to marry the old incumbent's daughter deterred him: whether or not she could pass for forty-three in the dusk with the light behind her, it does seem a hefty price to pay to get the gig. When Bach's employers carpeted him for going AWOL, he blithely explained that he had stayed away in order to learn certain matters pertaining to my craft.

He walked 250 miles there and 250 miles back. We so easily forget the vigour of earlier generations: a composer undertaking that sort of distance nowadays would splash it all over Facebook and probably get sponsorship for the walk as well - and kit himself with Gore-Tex and Heaven knows what else before cheating and taking the bus. Bach just put on his old brown shoes and did it. Is there a connection between that strength of mind and body and the power of his art? Of course there is; what we do proceeds from the life that we live. I took the train to Lübeck, was irritated that I couldn't get a seat - and now I sit fretting about a final two dozen lines; he walked heroic distances and composed so many masterpieces that I couldn't even lift his collected works off the ground.

Chastened, I reflect that truly there were giants in those days.

Sunday 24th May 2014 St Albans

Every man needs a hobby: mine is growing weeds. The studio has disappeared behind wildflowers and thorns, and inside is overrun by questing arachnida of diverse and pleasing shape. They arrange themselves by genus into different corners. The alcove by my composing table is full of fat black ones; they spin dense, shapeless cobwebs, dirty looking things. The round south-facing window houses a cluster of ghost-like apparitions with etiolated long legs; a couple of beefy cardinals scuttle out from behind the bookshelves then dash back, some unexplained mission seemingly accomplished, and everywhere there are alien beings, floating their tick-shaped bodies from filament-thin legs and patrolling all over the place. Already the corners of windowpanes are filling with tufts of silk and I hope I am around for the beautiful moment when millions of hatchlings emerge and shimmer down the glass to freedom.

In the warm weather I compose with the door open and there is ample flying food for my new housemates. Their fastidious, murderous antics are more interesting than the current score which is proceeding with the grace and purpose of a wonky Tesco trolley. With about five minutes of music composed I became sick of Theodor Däubler and binned the lot. Robert Frost told young poets to pay detailed attention to every colour, sound and nuance in the language. It's good advice for a composer too, whether he's setting a text or listening to his instrumental inner voice. I think this is why I so often get stuck when setting foreign words. Understanding the meaning and knowing how to pronounce them are such crude skills compared with the instinct that accompanies a mother tongue, and it's hardly surprising that the flow stutters. It's not poor old Theodor's fault, it's mine.

Anyway, I'm back among the bookshelves looking for words - English ones this time - and forgetting about the discarded music. Any of it that's worth salvaging will sit in my head and re-emerge in another form; it took me a long time to realise that the brain has a perfectly good filing system and for years I hung onto piles of blistered paper "just in case". To the landfill with them, says I, otherwise a hundred years from now some twerp in pursuit of a Phd will find them and draw fatuous conclusions about a long-forgotten grumpy composer of the early 21st century. Vex not my dust, if you please; I have ideas, I go off them, that's all. As with most things to do with this trade, there is less to an abandoned score than meets the eye.

Friday 9th May 2014

To Covent Garden for a rehearsal of Dialogues des Carmelites. A pleasant afternoon with no stresses and very little to play beyond punctuation. There have been too many big lonely things in the diary of late and it is nice to revert to one's natural obscurity. I am foolishly surprised that Simon Rattle is no longer young: I wonder what the same perception about myself will do to me, if I ever quit my state of denial about it.

Poulenc isn't a big hitter: no orchestral heft nor vocal blaze like Strauss or Verdi. Each instrument is clear, purposeful but he eschews the mixtures that build orchestral mass. The result is brittle, almost Klee-ish. Is that because he thought pianistically? Maybe, but it is more a matter of temperament I am sure; his art is always bien soigné and precise. Whence, then, comes the eviscerating power of the piece? The story is Greek in its cruelty, the final theatrical device almost unbearable but I think the impact is a product of the very smallness of the writing, sensuous and - in the composer's words - du banlieu. The tension between the intimacy and gentleness of the music and the external political gestures is unsettling. This is a human piece with as much to say about Putin and Stalin and Bashir-al-Assad as it has about Paris in 1791. Imagine what Strauss and von Hofmansthal would have done with such a story! Ich möchte das Kopf der Klösterfrau... plenty of shouting and horror, exciting but also creating distance from the humanity of what is happening on stage. Poulenc's Carmelites are real people like us, not huge mythical beasts like Salome and - as we sang at the end of The Secret Agent - theirs are little lives extinguished by a game.

On the train home I spot an article about Titus Andronicus at the Globe. I had thought that before I die I would see everything Shakespeare wrote there, staged as he intended, but I shan't be going to this one. There is a little too much spotty glee going on at the number of faintings in the audience at the horror of the staging. Oh dear. Does WS really need this sort of help? Is the horror on the page really so feeble that it needs the Tarantino treatment? (indeed would Tarantino need the Tarantino treatment if he knew how to invent a believable character?) I find myself wondering what Poulenc might have done with such a story as Titus. The tender understatement of his art would, I suspect, have had more potency than any amount of stage blood and guts - or shouting.

Monday 5th May 2014 Cardiff

Perhaps my admiring aversion to Dylan Thomas is no more than a repudiation of the adolescent me who devoured his work; that and a dislike of the overblown way in which he read. It was of its time, I suppose. Even worse, the camp kitsch style of Emlyn Williams has clung to him like bits of old tinsel to a rug and obscured the muscularity of the poetry. As in most art forms, we need a good deal less Performance with a capital P.

Returning to Stravinsky's In Memoriam Dylan Thomas after an interval of ten years, I am struck by the favour done to the text by the austere serial setting. Shorn of bombast, the words have great clarity and litheness and it is good to hear them sung by a tenor who really engages with them. The setting is sensitive to the text, confining itself to minor inflection of string texture to colour the words. The narrowing of the sound at the poet's first mention of his father is breathtaking once you are on the right wavelength: that's a Mozart trick and a lot harder than it looks. The opera Thomas and Stravinsky never wrote together would have been extraordinary, but Dylan's alcoholic insult to the brain supervened. I was avoiding DT even in the centenary year, but maybe the chilly world of my Adam Lay Ibowndyn could yield something.

In the 1920s Stravinsky explained his preference for wind instruments by saying they were more "objective", a curious word to use but I can sort of see what he means. His use of my own instrument is often cold and ritualistic and it can be uncomfortable to play the canons that begin and end the piece. The answer, I think, is to respond to them after the manner of those shaded string textures: vary the temperature within the "objective" articulations. What a strange piece, and what a silence in the hall as we played. That grip on an audience is something you have or you don't, and is magic of a kind.

Home     earlier blogs   later blogs   back