Saturday 3rd May 2014 St Albans

I feel the urge to visit Cookham, though alas Sandham Memorial Chapel which lies a little to the south is closed for repairs so the annual pilgrimage will have to be missed this year.  I saw the exhibition of panels from the chapel when they were at Somerset House and rather wished I hadn't.  Miserably hung in too narrow a space.  May the builders work fast so I can revisit them as the man intended (only please God don't let some dunce turn the place into an Interactive Multimedia Heritage Feature).

I think the impulse comes from the way the rough beast Bolondrón seems to be slouching its way to be born as a 60-minute symphony, despite being a complete work that people seem to want to perform as it is.  Spencer never completed Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta the huge canvas that dominates the ground floor of the Cookham gallery, and it is fascinating to see the work in progress, arrested at the moment of the artist's death.  Some sections are complete in every detail and colour, others are barely pencil lines and others inhabit the ground between.  Fascinating for the images it contains, the work is also the best portrait I know of the creative process in process - and a salutary reminder that things will come in the order they want, never asking the artist's permission before they do so.

You can get an idea of the picture here, but nothing replaces seeing it for real.

Spencer Museum

Friday 2nd May 2014 St Albans

What does the jolly bank holiday hold for me on the artistic front? In Memoriam Dylan Thomas down the beastly BBC, that's what. Cheerful little ditty it is, Stravinsky playing at being Webern and being thoroughly charmless with it. Harrumph. Where's Eric Coates when you need him? Still, it gets me away from the Monkey piece, which shows no sign of finishing or growing up; on today's showing the blighters seem to have traded their water pistols for whoopee cushions and bags of custard. I shall call it Symphony No4, "The Sociopathic". Old men should burn and rave at close of day... this old man will do neither but rather put on a red hat that doesn't suit him and wait for Armageddon.

Thursday 1st May 2014 St Albans

Sometimes you have to be very brave and let a piece be what it wants to be.  In the case of the blistered orchestral pages lurking on my table in the Chapel of Unrest, what it wants to be is a large cage full of monkeys armed with water pistols.  I am a vulgar fellow generally, and so it is not to be wondered at.  I think this sort of thing is more likely to happen when gin supplants philosophy and the splendours of Nature as one's chief inspiration.  What is curious is that this is the pearl forming round the grit of Bolondrón.  Though well received in its original form, that piece was clearly the centre of a much larger work: I usually start in the middle and work outwards though have never gone so far as to complete a section in every detail before the process began.   What is emerging is something very substantial and, as is nearly always the way with me, cyclic in structure.  The monkeys in this long first movement are all metamorphoses of the aching melancholy of the Bolondrón themes.  I think this may be the moment to abandon any lingering pretence that I understand the creative process.  It are what it is and isn't going to take any notice of me.

Wednesday 30th April 2014 St Albans

Something about the English language stops it doing expressionist poetry; such attempts as exist always comes over as faintly ludicrous. In German it's fine, can even be great - or is it simply the fact that the gauze of foreign-ness shields me from absurdities that would glare at a native speaker?

Gilbert, my occasional friend, borrower of funds and general wastrel, bearded me in the Blazing Donkey last night, thrust a smudgy picture under my nose and insisted that the image was of my twin brother. Deftly evading a well-aimed blow to the side of the head, he then revealed that the hairy beast whose portrait soiled his sheet of curling A4 was one Theodor Däubler who, in addition to possessing a certain epic hirsuteness, lays claim to the title of Trieste's most important German-speaking poet. I imagine that's a pretty tough field to compete in. Later that evening I wrestled my copy of Conrady from the shelves and tracked down a meagre ration of the man's strophes. I rather liked them, though the prosody does rather feel like the poem belongs in Pierrot Lunaire 2: revenge of the pingpong players.

If I may be permitted a swerve, I rather like the hopeless strings of sequels and prequels that Hollywood dishes out and think we composers should learn from the practice. Symphony No 8A: this time he's going to finish it. Amfortas: just when you thought it was safe to wake up. Symphony No 16: in Shostakovich nobody can hear you scream (or, most of the time, even if you let off a hand grenade).

Where was I? Oh yes, hairy poets from Trieste. Here's a bit.

Die Erde treibt im Norden tausend blaue Feuerblüthen
Und übermittelt ihren Sehnsuchtstraum der Nacht,
Drum soll der Mensch auch seinen Flammenkelch behüten,
Wenn er, durch ihn belebt und lichterfüllt, erwacht...

Really first-rate poetry is generally a nuisance when you are writing songs: think how many Schubert masterpeices are to second-rate verses, and consider how few decent settings there are of Shakespeare. I don't think this Däublish vison of the northern lights is first-rate (good) and it's fun and over the top and later on it gets all worked up and becomes as camp as a KaDeWe Christmas tree, so I may give it a go. There is an unusual choral thing that has to be tackled ere Summer's short lease expires and this might suit it very well. Certainly I shan't be setting any bloody Dylan Thomas, centenary or not - and Hoping It Might be So 2 it most certainly will not be.

Sunday 6th April 2014. Havana, Cuba

I had half a notion to rent a car and revisit the real Bolondrón, but decided that a Havana Sunday would be more interesting. I walked the couple of miles into town, between tenements and tumbledown houses. The street vendors were out in force and their short songs - different for each of the goods on sale - made a pleasing counterpoint to the salsa booming indoors. Cash came down and commodities were winched to higher floors by buckets on ropes. Children clustered round sweet sellers, fish was whirled round on lines, even a man dealing in brass taps found a customer or two. The visual counterpoint made something click in my head and the strands of a piece that have been collecting in a notebook since I got here suddenly told me what they want to be. A direction is all I need, and now I have one.

A small park in a down at heel part of town bore a sign forbidding those not of the Third Age from entering. I heard the horn solo from Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony as I read the notice but by this point my grasp of reality (never good at the best of times) had slipped to the point where I was not in the least surprised. I ventured in, only slightly peeved that the stern custodienne didn't challenge me on grounds of youth, and soon located the source of the sound, an old man sitting by a well-developed banyan tree in the centre of the garden.

I sat some way off and listened. I always think I look like a retired biker but clearly something about me smells of brass, for the man beckoned me over and without any preamble asked me my opinion on the relative merits of breathing through the nose or the mouth. This is a question that obsesses many Cuban brass players and my commonsense reply seemed to surprise him - though he did admit it helped. I must have sat there for a couple of hours, struggling to cope with his very thick accent, fumbling for words that my tired brain seemed to have filed in the wrong place but generally enjoying the bizarreness of the situation. He played, I listened - regretting my own lack of an instrument and in the end we parted on the friendliest of terms. I have a complicated method for finding him if we return, and I hope we do if only to see his face at the sound of the splendid Havana Mozarteum orchestra.

Thursday 3rd April 2014. Havana, Cuba

Pride goeth before a fall. My Spanish is functional rather than elegant; possessing fluent Italian is not only no help, it is a damned nuisance since all the genders of common nouns seem to be different in the two languages. Pablo has been interpreting when I conduct the orchestra but seeing that he was distracted, I decided to launch into the lingua franca. Now, a minim in Spanish is una blanca and a crotchet is una negra. And you must clearly enunciate final consonants even in unstressed syllables or meaning will be compromised. I changed sex for the first rule and forgot the second, in consequence of which my request to start on the upbeat to letter J without percussion came out as a black man without an erection.

People have been kind, but I may just curl up and die.

Monday 31st March 2014. Havana, Cuba

Today was the first rehearsal of Bolondrón. I conducted, which is generally one thing too many with a new piece - for me at least, since I would always rather be listening undistracted by practicalities. Still, it went well: they are very good players and sympathetic to the piece. My European colleagues had misgivings about its melancholy nature, perfectly reasonable given the up-tempo nature of most "Cuban" pieces by outsiders. But the locals seemed to get it: there is a highly developed streak of sadness under all the salsa and colour on this island and though nobody seemed to recognise the half-remembered song on which it is based, I suppose it has enough of a local lilt to strike a chord with them.

In the morning I coached the trumpets and horns in the Eroica. Good players all, full of life and enthusiasm. The trumpets were very stiff at first and their exaggeratedly military posture vitiated all attempts to get them to play in a fluid vocal style. It turned out that they earn their livings playing salsa in a club around the corner from the Mozarteum: guessing that they were on their best behaviour for classical music (so many people think "classical" to be synonymous with "inhibited and miserable) I asked one of them to play his favourite salsa tune. He relaxed, breathed freely and the sound shimmered. I said "hold that position and play me your tune in the Beethoven" and suddenly that too was glorious. As is so often the case, the main job is to convince people that the only two categories of music worth bothering with are Good and Bad. And I'm not even sure we need those.

Sunday, 30th March 2014. Havana, Cuba

However hard the job may be, standing in the hotel's clifftop garden before the dawn and swinging my clubs as the sun comes up is a rare delight. Do not imagine tranquility, however; a cashew tree near my favourite vantage point is the roost of about a dozen choleric peacocks who salute the dawn by heckling in harsh counterpoint, their horrid voices sounding for all the world like a chorus of Mr Punch puppets. This frightens the oversized guinea fowl on the lawns: I suppose they are too stupid to remember that it happens every morning. Fortunately the gabble and carking are shortlived and the diaphanous Caribbean dawn chorus soon holds sway. Just as well, really. Though the clubs are, for a westerner, a meditative source of peace as well as a physical workout it is easy when vexed to remember that they are also fearsome offensive weapons. The temptation to see if I can murder one of those damned birds might be too much for me if they went on with their noise for too long.

Saturday, 29th March 2014. Havana, Cuba

I walked and walked until my feet fell off; my brain fell off some hours ago. It is nearly five years since I was last here and the place has changed. The street hustlers are more importunate and many people seem to have picked up the Moroccan trick of engaging you in conversation, introducing you to their family then trying to hit you for a few dollars. It is exhausting and quickly engenders the sort of paranoia that can easily shut you down and stop you seeing a place. The only escape is to avoid the areas where a tourist might be expected to go. That's fine by me because if my 35 years of relentless globetrotting have taught me anything, it is that seeing the sights in the guidebook is nearly always a dreadful bore (guidebooks are, after all, mostly written by querulous Australians). Better by far to stray into a place that has business of its own, no interest in you and see what happens.

Many years ago I set myself the task of acquiring a mousetrap in every city I visited. I have no particular interest in the things, but it seemed to me that pursuing a banal commodity that is generally not on display in the local supermarket was bound to cause adventures. It did; the quest, often pursued with the aid of little postcards with my requirements written in Japanese or Korean or whatever, unlocked doors to family gatherings, nocturnal journeys by van and the frequent kindness of perplexed strangers. Mousetraps reflect the national character; British ones are brutal, French ones small and elegant, Italian ones look great but don't work, Japanese ones are very complicated and eccentric and the bloke in the hardware shop in Sydney told me I had to buy a dozen or bugger off.

I still have my collection of about 60 of the things, but it is many years since any were added. I realised that the complexity of the ruse was redundant. All you have to do is sit down and wait. Something is bound to happen; I have the scars to prove it.

Friday 25th February 2014, Cardiff

Another immersion in Boulez convinces me that we need to relegate compositional process to the backstage where it belongs. Superb playing, excellent direction and a nice working environment cannot diminish the emptiness of the experience. Berio accused Nono of writing music without becoming personally involved; here I find myself wondering if this arid landscape is something else - personal involvement of an inner world that has bits missing.

Absence is the hardest thing to portray on stage; I am sure that is why there are no serial-killer operas. I am starting to think that absence and detachment are easy enough on the concert platform but not worth the trouble of doing. When Ubu did le marteau sans maître last Summer, I was exercised by the absurdity of deriving a rigid process from a notation designed to be ambiguous. In so objecting, I was playing the Boulez game. Now what strikes me most forcibly is the sheer lack of real imagination and the coldness of a process that allows the incidentals of trying to play the impossible to create such art as is present.

Still, I have at last managed to finish Bolondrón. Whatever else that piece may be, chilly it ain't. The simplicity of it is unnerving; either it is a small gem or the biggest turkey of my career to date. We shall discover which it is in a much warmer place than South Wales. And whether it is good or bad, I shall be involved - personally.

Saturday 22nd February 2014, London

Stendahl tells a story of being stormbound at a mountain inn and falling into conversation with a group of exuberant young men. He seems to have had a strong inclination to the sententious, and launched into a disquisiton on the genius of Rossini. Many pronouncements ensued as to the parlous state of music, from which it could only be rescued by the Swan of Pesaro (why swan, BTW? I thought they were silent birds). At the end of this long and no doubt tiresome peroration, it was revealed that one of the company was in fact Rossini lui-même. There's a fame worth having: reputation and honour but you can still listen to some pompous twit eulogising you without being recognised. I suppose Charlie Chaplin may have been the first person for whom fame meant instant recognition, then for a few decades it destroyed movie and pop stars with the gleeful proficiency of a rat catcher's dog in an old henhouse before the efflorescence of pure celebrity, for which the only sine qua non seems to be a fatuous inability to do anything at all.

I thought about this today, working with the most famous trombone player in the world. I won't give his name, because it is beside the point. You see, his supremacy is demographic and arithmetical, not a matter of vacuous recognition, Twitter followings, hits on YouTube or any of the other false shadows of our marketed age. It is simply because he has played the celebrated offbeats in the James Bond theme for the last umpteen movies, and since it has been discovered that more than half the human beings on Earth have now seen one of these sadism-fests, it is a reasonable bet that my friend's flawlessly produced bottom Fs have been heard by more people than any other trombone notes in history.

I know what he looks like (actually he lives quite near me) but you probably don't. If you don't already know who I'm talking about then you probably aren't a London session musician. He is a fellow of great equanimity and quiet, and if he ever finds himself stormbound in an inn listening to a film music bore ranting about the wonderful crispness of the Bond bass trombone, he may sip his brandy and say not a word, secure in his anonymity. As I said, there's a fame worth having.

Friday 21st February 2014, London

I have almost certainly played the Ring cycle more times than I have performed in Friday Night is Music Night. I could wish it the other way round, for as I get older my deep appreciation of the scale of Wagner's genius is matched by an inescapable revulsion for the man and his art. FNIMN, on the other hand, never fails to delight; I would have loved to work for the old BBC of the 1950s and if I am ruthlessly honest I would rather hear a bit of Eric Coates than any amount of high art and seriousness. For that matter I think Empress of Blandings a much better piece than Malebolge, for reasons of sheer exuberant bad taste. There. I've said it. Outed at my advanced age.

Thursday 30th January 2014, Birmingham

It is disquieting to realise that the last time I played in the CBSO, a good third of the people with me on the platform today hadn't been born. Ouch. But what a delight to do the Organ Symphony once more. Debussy was simperingly rude about Saint Saëns and it may be that the man let more music out into the world than was wise (it's not for me to say, since I probably destroy more than I should). But this is a piece for using your ears like a man; there are longeurs while the man tries to be structurally Germanic and falls on his arse but once the magnificent vulgarity of the finale is unleashed you can only admire a man with the cojones to let rip and to hell with what anybody thinks - including Claude Debussy.

Sunday 26th January 2014. Tromsø, Norway

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
               Why dost thou thus,
Behind the mountains, and foul vapours hide from us?

It ain't half cold, Mum; the sun only makes a brief timid appearance in the middle of the day before scuttling away again.  It was minus 23 last night and being poorly shod for these climes I fell heavily on the frozen street.  Supine and winded, I could not comfort myself with the Aurora Borealis, for there has been thick cloud since we got here.  I now find myself at a brass rehearsal.  The ribs all move, so do the limbs; being a henge-like slab ain't pretty and jackets are tight in the arm -  but it do keep a chap safe. 

This group is excellent and so are all the arrangements it plays.  Audiences like it and despite the cold I have a reasonable lip on this week. All perfectly jolly, and I can't help musing on my nugatory contribution to the medium that should be closest to my heart.  There's Goat! the silly story in sonata form which is really an orchestral piece dressed up in a bandsman's uniform, the little prelude and fugue on Quem Pastores Laudavere which pays for Christmas each year because the Germans like the intellectual puzzle that it presents - but that's about it.  None of my other brass pieces are as good as the least of my other works.  I often dash one off to let off steam or to keep the momentum going, but most of the resultant pieces end up in a drawer where they belong.

Why am I reluctant to compose for the medium?  I recently wrote a querulous article in one of the brass magazines and complained that most brass players ignore any performance instruction that might edge them away from bland euphony.  I still think that's true , but the block may also be a matter of complexity.  Not in musical terms but rather of the texture of the experience.  Composing is a physical and to some extent visual process for me; I have to wait until I can imagine being among the players in a live performance before a piece will take shape in my mind.  In string writing particularly, the experience is so much more than the distilled sounds; there is the movement of body and bow, the extraneous sounds, the sense of a sea of people swimming together.  Brass playing is static and virginal; even in my orchestral works I tend to use the back row in a monumental, rather chilly manner.  Lacking much in the way of non-aural cues, the sound won't come for brass alone.  And there's no denying that my personal voice is one that sits closer to rough carpentry than French polish.  It might be that I would fare better if I wrote for ropey unreliable players instead of the fabulous people here.  Or  maybe I should seek inspiration outside in that damnable cold.


Home     earlier blogs     later blogs