Thursday 5th December 2013, Dortmund

Nobody will tell me why the streets here are crowded with half life-size fibreglass rhinoceros; top-hatted in many cases, and all of them sport modest putti wings, but they please me more than they have any business to. Certainly it colours my attitude to a town that is more comfortable than exciting. But it has one of the best modern concert halls that I know, with an acoustic that seems to concentrate everything you write. Last time I was here was for the last performance of the MPO's tour of Malebolge. The scale now is much smaller but the intensity is greater: the piece feels like a new departure and is all the better for being mostly devoid of cleverness. Directness is the hardest thing to achieve because it requires an absence of defences: unlearning every damn thing I learned at university was a tough gig but worth it. In the event the choir sing the best I've ever heard them. What a lucky devil I am.

Wednesday 4th December 2013, Barbican Centre, London

I saw Die Ferne Klang about 900 years ago in the pre-catastrophe Fenice theatre in Venice, but otherwise Schreker was little more than a name to me. Wonderful to play his prelude to Die Gezeichneten; I simply cannot understand why he isn't vastly popular. Tremendous passion, a degree of good old Expressionist barminess and some wonderful performance directions; how nice to be enjoined to play "with brutal passion but secretively".

In the second half we had the Schönberg Op9 in the much later version for large orchestra. This was quite a lesson in orchestration, for an odd reason. I've conducted the original, for fifteen players, many times and have long loved its unfettered tumult of ideas. Once it gets into a larger space, it gains lushness but the concentration is gone. A single fiddler hacking at impossibilities is exciting: a good violin section playing the same notes together is warm but however well they do it, the real character of the music is different, more diffuse. The apocalyptic bits of the piece sounded merely interesting and the lunacy and fun that are at the heart of Arnie's work were bowdlerised.

I remember an artist telling me he had "a baroque hand" by which he meant that his work might look a bit crude close up but from a distance - as in the case of a painted ceiling - the work acquired a filigree delicacy that it wouldn't have had if he had worked in order to look good from nine inches away. It's the same with orchestral playing: sit next to a great instrumentalist as they play in a large hall and they can sound a little rough, but in the auditorium (where it matters) they are just right. In composition too, you have to imagine the space as well as the performers (never the score). Almost always this leads you to write fewer and fewer but better considered notes: leave the computer software for the copyist to play with and go buy a box of pencils!

Sunday 1st December 2013, Baden-Baden

The Festspielhaus is grafted onto the back of the old railway station, which now serves as a foyer. Rather nice to collect a ticket for my little ditty at the same window where Turgenev and Chekhov might have queued for a day return to Vladivostok via Omsk. There is no shortage of Russians here today and there is even a certain Asian grandeur to the enormous barn of an auditorium: if I were ever to write a concerto for Zeppelin and orchestra there would be ample space left over for the audience! Someone has printed my picture in the programme so I get stared at quite a lot, something I have never really got used to.

It is an inspired programme, a journey through European Christmas with the poor choir negotiating twelve different languages - to say nothing of the Middle English and Hamsphire burr in my piece. They sing without gaps and let the span of ideas flow uninterrupted; my piece ends the first half and I am pleased that the audience sits quietly throughout. Pleased too that T adopts his own tempi and not my rather quicker ones: they work very well. There is an appropriate titter at the childish gasp in the Emily Dickinson setting and a gratifying bewilderment when the men in "O Sally" briefly roar like bulls. Joking aside, the piece is intensely personal and I am assailed by a more than usually strong sense of public undressing as it progresses.

Saturday 30th November 2013, Au

Is there, I wonder, also a village called Breisg? Here we are for a public general rehearsal and an education project for 200 teenagers. I was, frankly, apprehensive about explaining Hoping It Might Be So to such an audience but I needn't have worried. Despite my customary tripping over "den" and "dem" and being incapable of remembering the difference between "fühlen" and "spüren" when under pressure and my suspicion that to Germans I sound like an English Clouseau, they were lively, attentive and when they sang, very good indeed. There was no hand-clapping or pseudo-creative "workshopping", merely an exchange of curiosity and (I hope) explanation. And so far as I could tell, not an iPhone in sight. I like these people.

Friday 29th November 2013, Freiburg im Breisgau

Reeling from the usual effects of hearing a piece outside my head for the first time. The Balthasar Neumann Choir really is the best I have ever heard. The sound is glorious but so is the sound of many choirs. What is different is their openness to the "why" of a piece not just the "what" and the "how". In the third motet, the male and female voices have different texts and are placed in opposition to each other; the men sing a faintly rude secular song while the women have the liturgical Hodie Christus Natus Est. Men represent drunks in the cathedral close, women are bells in the tower (and perhaps angels as well). Once I explained the idea, the two choirs separated mentally and the piece flew. To my surprise, it's now my favourite bit of the work.

Thursday 28th November 2013, Frankfurt Airport

Germany has not learned from the UK's calamitous rail privatisation. Maybe that's why my train was an hour late. I forgot my gloves but not the rum, so I shall survive.

Have I just tweeted? I do hope not.

Saturday 22nd November 2013, Dossow, Brandenburg

This is a place of deep if austere quiet, about two hours northwest of Berlin. I made the journey to see an old friend, recently married, and to celebrate with the planting of fruit trees around his considerable garden. Apart from me, everyone at supper was a former citizen of DDR. That country's disappearance must have been the first time in history that an entire nation ceased to exist without conquest or natural disaster. The Soviet satellites gained independence (of a sort) but DDR softly and silently vanished away and never was heard from again. One day the passports changed, millions were told what went before was wrong, from today all is better and that was that. The difference simply cannot have been that simple. The political system was malignant of course, but listening to the conversation this evening, the recurring theme was the loss of quiet, of concentration and the ever-increasing distractedness of Germany today.

The distractedness chimed strongly with me because on my many ICE journeys this week I learned to tweet. And having learned, I stopped again forever. I toyed briefly with the idea of tweeting every 30 seconds (halfway through my coffee now. There is a sheep in that field. Someone inspected my ticket and now I've finished my coffee) but as ever reality has overtaken satire and there are people doing just that. There are pretentious twerps who talk about Twitter being the new Haiku (O for crying out loud) but it is a fragementer of attention and a dreadful waste, not so much of time but of focus. The people who invented Twitter cannot be blamed for spotting an idiocy and exploiting it but me, I'll take a revised Groucho Marx perspective: I wouldn't want to follow anyone on Twitter who cared whether I followed them or not.

Thursday 21st November 2013, Leipzig

The hippyish developments all along the Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse put me in mind of Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Wall's collapse. Colour and noise, so long suppressed, seemed a virtue in themselves and here they still do - but I resisted the temptation to invest in any Östi dreamcatchers. My customary vague wondering what the hell I am doing in a place is absent. I am a poor networker and find awards ceremonies, conferences and the like a bit of a challenge. But I feel as strongly about Du Bist Da Du Bist Fort as I ever have, and our nomination for the Junge Ohren prize was a good excuse to see Annette and Frankie again - so here I am.

To my great surprise, we won! I was born without much of a worry-gland but even so I felt a small grip of apprehension as they opened the envelope and said "and the winner is..." For all its tricky birth pangs, uncomprehending reviews and other sorrows, this child of ours is finding its way. It was a delight and a headache to write, though with words this good the music just trips along.

Wednesday 20th November 2013, Berlin

Taking the S-Bahn from Zoo to Friedrichstrasse today, I pondered how many grand enterprises end with, if not a whimper, then at least a supermarket and an executive home. In about 1990, some industrious wag buried half a dozen Soviet armoured cars nose-down in the patch of scorched earth that had for so many decades separated west from east. They jutted their graffiti-spattered backsides in the air as though hurled by a petulant giant. They must have lasted about six months, before developers carted them away and began work on the bland but amiable developments that now cover what we used to call the death strip. I sometimes wonder what it feels like to live on such a piece of ground: it must contain as much pain and bone as Stalingrad. Too fanciful of me, I think: they are nice homes and nice lives are lived in them. Things had to move on and though I enjoyed the planted troop carriers at the time, they'd look silly now. I wonder what the people who installed them went on to do with all their energy and rebellion. Did they become polemical artists? Or did they, like Berin itself, simply subside into respectability?

Monday 11th November 2013, St Albans

So beloved Ubu is to continue after all. Surprised and moved to discover how much this rackety enterprise matters to the performers and that places a hefty responsibility on me to make the programmes next year exciting. So far we need a toy piano, mandoline (3 times) singers who are OK with quarter tones, a smash of wineglasses, a rude man on a bicycle, a pop group, a bath full of water, a Mr Punch swizzle, a singing saw, a way for 4 players to negotiate just over 100 percussion instruments in 10 minutes, a cimbalom and people who don't mind playing in a group that is 50 feet away on the other side of the audience. But I did leave out the male striptease (for now) the wedding dress, the large number of radio sets tuned to different stations and the boobytrapped piano (Health and Safety forbade). I reluctantly also omitted the experimental score written by shooting Ms paper with a tommy gun. So never let it be said that I go too far!

Kurtág, Morton Feldman and Miles Davis were all born the same year...


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