Home

Biography

Compositions

Pictures

Reviews

Blog

Contact

1st January 2012, Luzern

I've never quite bought the idea that well-stocked minds are less prone to neurosis.  If that were so, Wittgenstein would have been a terribly well-adjusted chap, so would Wagner. By the same token, my own propensity for derangement would diminish the more books I read whereas of course the reverse is true.  But something must account for the cheerfulness of this place and it can't be the mountains or the chocolate much less the mountains of chocolate.  Certainly people can actually do things, which must exert a calming influence.  I've got used to the girls at the Co-op checkout speaking English to me if I falter in whichever language is in favour today, I am accustomed to the caretaker at the apartment block having trenchant opinions on modern opera and I no longer raise an eyebrow at the sheer levels of interest and competence in life generally. Despite this new year's eve impressed me.

The theatre put on a performance of Im weißen Rößl, a pretty, frightfully German operetta full of the surprises that one encounters in such things: the man and woman who are antagonistic at the beginning get married at the end, the grumpy old "baddy" turns out to have a heart of gold, all the waitresses can dance and most amazing of the lot, they all live happily ever after and sing a song about it.  It was pure pleasure and just about as sweet as the pralines they sell in every third shop that you pass here.

In the interval, copies of a short chorus - words and music - were handed to the audience and it was announced that we would all have to join in at one point in the second half.  The conductor gave an upbeat and the first run-through demonstrated a better standard of vocal accuracy certainly than one ever hears at the last night of the Proms.  I wonder how well the audience at Covent Garden would do in a sight-singing test? 

O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.

And as we filed out they gave us each a free umbrella.  This pleased me more than it had any business to and I was absurdly delighted that a suitably lear-ish  contentious storm was lashing outside.  Of course the gifted umbrella survived it intact: they do things differently here.
30th  December 2011, Luzern

Funny thing, chaos.  In the libretto, after Solomon's perverse judgement that the smell of the bread was indeed stolen, I wrote the unhelpfully vague stage direction general chaos and dismay.  It's the sort of thing bad conductors say when they don't know the score properly and want to impress.  I should have known better.  Of course, when the time came to write the music, it became obvious that just as shock isn't a busy thing but rather an ears-ringing static state, so the music had to slam the brakes on hard.  Exactly Half Tempo is the marking and it signals the quiet start of one more of my pressure cookers: actually the best one in the piece.  Nothing dismayed, D decided we should have some chaos anyway and so an enraged Amina chooses this moment to overturn all the court benches.  Of necessity, a slow but violent gesture and though the noise of it will annoy the NDR sound engineers, it's just right.

But what really stings is that once the mess is made it is Sheherezade, the only brave or insightful character in the piece, who has to right them again.  Once again, Mum clears up the mess, anonymously and unthanked.
28th December 2011, Luzern

Even after a couple of weeks I'm noticing how much more relaxed I am when away from the ugly judgemental spirit of Cameron's UK (except that it isn't Cameron's: he's too pale and phony a spirit to exert influence so I fear it's a nationally created thing).  Neither the Today programme nor The World Tonight are getting a listen and I think I'll keep it that way.

23rd December 2011, Luzern

Another Rubicon has been crossed.; my own piece made me laugh.  The scene in question was  the bonkers massed love-duet in the  Market scene.  The words are (intentionally for once) truly appalling poetry:

Sweet is the morning dew
But not, my love, as sweet as you.
Meet me in the leafy shade
And ev'rything shall be displayed
A thousand ages to adore
Are not enough - I need two more.

Well, as I've said elsewhere, while there is no shortage of wonderful verse in print if you want really bad stuff it is usually quicker to write it yourself.  Of course, the staging had a lot to do with the potency of the piece: men and women on opposite sides of the stage, antagonising each other like Italian teenagers outside the Duomo in Ferrara - and the Japanese tenor entrusted with these dreadful lines stuck up a ladder looking as if he will burst with passion.  All that's missing is a couple of Vespas buzzing around the stage (or even better a beloved Ape, the three-wheeled farm scooter of my dreams): I'd suggest getting some in but I expect Swiss Health And Safety would raise objections.  Still, this was a nice way to end work before the horrors of Yuletide and even as I prepare for the short hop home via Geneva I find myself having to stifle small green shoots of optimism about the piece. 

A merry Christmas to all our readers.
22nd December 2011, Luzern

Musically I seem to think in terms of pressure cookers.  Though there's only one moment when the sort of person who listens to music in that curiously inept way beloved of academics might point a stubby digit and cry O look a Rossini crescendo (and even there it isn't really anything like one, being short, interrupted and occurring at a point where war has already broken out) the Italian fondness for a musical landscape that consists of escalating temperatures followed by a minor explosion and quiescence is there in every scene.  Oddly, in orchestral music I tend to do it the other way round - starting with a bang and then subsiding into calm.  I'm not exactly sure why, but I certainly do think of stage and concert music as unrelated animals, whatever elements they may share.

20th December 2011, Luzern

This morning two clichés are in operation: pretty Swiss snow and a middle aged man who doesn't understand the bloody washing machine.  Growl: not just Art is a bugger sometimes.  Speaking of fashion, I am enchanted by Sue Boner's costume designs for this smelly tale.  Naturally, they are as different as can possibly be from the endless pen-and-ink drawings of characters that I did as a prelude to composition but Amina's flounces and angry sticky-out hair, Sheherezade's bulbous pencil skirt and the sartorial catastrophe that is Djemaal (by what alchemy does a silly red hat and unsuitable glasses turn a sparky intelligent guy like Carlo into an instant pillock?) are perfect expressions of the characters in question.  Interesting to note that she does what I do: write things down, amass quotes and generally get to know the character.  On the bus back to town from Sudpol, Todd and I discussed the advisability of requesting bulbous prosthetic buttocks for Mukhtada, giving him the figure of one of those junk-food victims that you see in places like Arkansas - skinny body except for a vast Wagnerian backside big enough for seven or eight normal people.  We decided against it and in fact it's not needed: the clothes and body language of the Best baker in Baghdad have made him into the kind of strutting, cocky small man one encounters from time to time in real life: the sort who always has the trophy wife, the excessive self-regard of the truly mediocre, backed up with a nice dose of brittle weakling spite.  Todd plays this alien creature wonderfully - so much so that I wanted to go and punch him during the trial.  It is always a good sign when the suspension of disbelief prompts so lurid a reaction, though of course such things are generally beneath one's conductorial dignity...

19th December 2011, Luzern

Well here I am conducting the LSO!  Except that the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester is a relaxed, cheerful bunch of musicians and the rehearsal was the most heartening three hours of the year so far.   They work very fast and we managed to play everything in the score except the Judgement scene.  Such a contrast with some other places where I have shaken a stick - talking briefly about character was as useful with these players as it has been with singers.  The orchestra is a big personality in the piece and until today it was the only one I hadn't met in the flesh.  At the time of composing, I was sure of my decision to omit violins and generally bias the scoring towards darker colours.  After days of hearing the vocal music sung, however, I was fearful that I might have miscalculated; I always imagine darker voices than the reality delivers and a disconnect between weight of voice and orchestra is irreparable unless you're prepared to start again from first sketches.  But no, it was fine and another piece of this jigsaw falls into place.  The high violas at moments of stress manage to imbue the texture with acid without squealing and that more than any desire for creamy string sounds was my reason for scoring as I did.  All we have to do now is find the right metallic percussion noises for the arrest and I find myself wondering if the aluminium dustbin for which I wrote a whole entr'acte in Secret Agent is still resident in Feldkirch.  Maybe I should pop over the Austrian border and see if Wolfgang is willing to lend it...

15th December 2011, Luzern

How agreeable to start the project with a chorus rehearsal.  It's a smaller group than the one that was in my head as I composed, but a lovely choir.  About half of them have to do cameo roles as well and it was a relief to realise in the first minute that whatever else this group of singers may be, dull they ain't. 

Chorus mastering is a strange job, requiring a love of precision and a strange balance of ego (sufficient to hold out for what one wants) and self-effacement (which makes tolerable the fact that some other guy conducts the gig).  I am sure they are routinely driven insane by conductors, more so by composers and when the man at the front is both it must on occasions be hell.  Especially if the man at the front happens to be me.   Fortunately this particular practitioner of the art is a calm, ironic soul who is as far in nature from my own volatile temperament as it is possible to be.  It's a combination that I enjoyed from the first meeting, though I cannot say if he does!  Certainly the choir know the piece already and I am free to obsess about the sweep and flow of the piece which, with scenes as architectural as the Market Place and the Trial is a vast help, not only to the project but my mental health, such of it as remains.

12th December 2011, Luzern, Switzerland

People often ask me why I won't use a computer when I write.  Setting aside the practical issues - they slow you down, constipate the thought processes and anyway I don't understand the horrid things - there is a danger that, by doing too much for you, they'll make you inattentive to detail.  The copyists, players and singers who realise your work have no choice but to be absolutely faithful to every mark that they see on the page and the least one can do as a writer is repay the attention in kind. This was nicely illustrated at  a production meeting this morning for the creative team and soloists. Werner showed his simple and brilliant design - a pierced wall that is a bit like the front of  a doll's house, a bit like a traditional Arabian house and a bit like neither.  It moves to and fro and rotates and is a bit of a character in itself.  At the end of his exposition, Domo said "don't do that" and indicated a pencil that W had dropped into the model.  It turns out that many years ago, a designer was similarly careless with a mockup for a German production of Lohengrin: on the day the set was first erected four earnest-looking stage hands arrived with a six metre long Staedtler pencil and asked "where does this go?"

9th November 2011.  Frankfurt Airport

Missed my bloody connection; a highly practical example of Art being a bugger. So comprehensively exhausted was I by the joys of Kz that I couldn't be woken on arrival; a comatose state achieved without the help of alcohol.  I think they were about to call a doctor when I semi-roused and tottered off in the wrong direction.  This place confuses me at the best of times and today isn't the best of times and had I not been scooped up by someone I'd probably have boarded a plane back to central Asia.  Good old Lufthansa took it all in their stride and stuck me on the next flight to LHR without a grumble.  The question is, can I elude the arms of Morpheus long enough to make it home?

8th November 2011.  Almaty, Kazakhstan

When fully awake, I am not good at spotting ambushes.  I am not fully awake.  Sleep deprivation, cultural disorientation and a meltdown in the language centres of my brain have induced a dreamlike state.  Even so, I know Murat well enough to know when he's up to something.  As he shooed me towards his huge dented 4X4 (not a luxury in this land of potholes and floods) he responded to my questions in incomprehensible Kazakh.  It was a kidnapping, not the first he's done on me and I acquiesced.  First, lunch at Zelyonii Markt (camel cheese horsemeat and dried apricots) then a mad dash across town to a familiar unlovely building.

The Kazahs retain the Soviet genius for creating lost looking pointless monuments and the country remains spattered with Stalin-era buildings.  The music school is a perfect example of heartless architecture, but the life of the place sweeps such considerations aside.  Murat is perhaps the best trombone teacher I've ever met.  We first collided in Bombay about 5 years ago and his querulous tenor voice and Tartar solidity are perfectly expressive of this stark, friendly place.  His trombone class in the Almaty special music school is a miracle: every single one of them can play decently; the best of them are brilliant and full of a fire that the etiolated West might envy if it had the sense to do so.  But today it wasn't trombones, it was the wind band, which my friend conducted with magisterial understatement.  The sheer vigour of the thing was arresting; a perfect case of Just Do It in action and further proof of what can be achieved if you don't distract young musicians with outreach, "generating material" and all the other mournful spongiform scleroses of western music education.  And it was fun!

It is hard to think of oneself as exotic, but in these parts a man without Tartar cheekbones, dressed in an ill-fitting Marks and Spencer suit and regrettable tie is as bizarre as sight as a Borneo headhunter on an English village green.  In Kz that means speeches.  God I was bland, but the audience seemed pleased enough.  Then it was dinner, which here means enough food for twenty times the  number of people at table (plenty of horsemeat and honey) , then speeches.  Being timid and linguistically challenged I made the same peroration a second time but once again the company seemed pleased.  Courteous people, these Kazakhs.  Looking round the table, it was easy to see who had grown up under the Soviets and who hadn't.  A certain solidity of manner and dress characterises the ones whose ideas were formed before Mr Gorbachev worked his magic (though we should never forget that it was the permanently plastered, disco dancing Yeltsin who actually gave the coup de grace to the USSR) but behind the Politburo-blank faces there lurks a warmth and diffidence that is utterly disarming.  Goodness knows what they made of their guest from the west: as I get older I look more and more like an ageing hippy despite never having been the real thing and this is not a species that one encounters often in the central Asian education system.  An elderly trombone professor from Samarkand, who must have been about my age and certainly was perplexed by my manic masterclass the previous day, thanked me for "having such love" and diffidently presented me with a small ashtray bearing the image of a famous mausoleum in his home town.  It will find its niche in the Chapel of Unrest alongside the cohorts of other memorabilia from strange encounters.

7th November 2011.  Almaty, Kazakhstan

I am too weary to remember things I already know.  When M asked me to celebrate Eid with him, a distant bell rang but the significance of the feast eluded me until we went round the back of the mosque and encountered a street full of depressed looking sheep for sale.  Murat secured one, haggling in the curious Turkish-sounding language of the place.  The beast was bound and carried indoors and then I remembered that this is the feast commemorating Abraham and Isaac, and in Kz they do things by the book.

It was done with dignity and prayer and a certain amount of kindness.  Yes, I know that is a strange word to use but that is what it was.  I've wandered around the world too much to go weak at the knees at the sight of blood; nevertheless I am a little subdued tonight.

6th November 2011.  Almaty, Kazakhstan

This morning, as I came out of my Mozart rehearsal, I passed a group of dombra players.  The dombra is a fretted, strummed lute played all over central Asia and to hear one rattling on the open steppe is a magical thing.  It was just fine in an echoing Stalin-era corridor too.  One of the students started to sing and play;  I know but a single phrase in Kazakh - ute zhaksa (very good) - and believe me it was.  Half my wind players stayed to listen as well and when we returned to the music of Enlightenment Salzburg I could have sworn it had a certain swagger that the ageing English visitor had hitherto failed to inspire.

The merry Kazakhs keep me busy every day until the caretaker throws us out, and however late we go on, we end with a sense of business unfinished.  I honestly think some of them go home and practice all night because in the morning things are invariably different, always better.  And here am I, dropping from exhaustion yet so wide awake that I eschew the bed in favour of these musings.  A bit of me doesn't want to go home, but another, wiser bit knows that I'd be dead in a month from sheer overwork if I stayed.  Not altogether a bad way to go.

Home     earlier blogs   later blogs  back