16th July 2012, Hong Kong

The world's a stage. The trifling entrance fee
Is paid (by proxy) to the registrar.
The Orchestra is very loud and free
But plays no music in particular.
They do not print a programme, that I know.
The cast is large. There isn't any plot.
The acting of the piece is far below
The very worst of modernistic rot.
The only part about it I enjoy
Is what was called in English the Foyay.
There will I stand apart awhile and toy
With thought, and set my cigarette alight;
And then - without returning to the play -
On with my coat and out into the night.

Hilaire Belloc

I seem to be in a melancholic frame of mind.  Fatigue may have a hand in it after the slow drag through Chinese immigration, allied with the natural tugs of parting and the slight disappointment that this town tends to provoke.  Is there a more arresting view than the waterfront from Kowloon side?  Certainly none made by man; Manhattan from Staten Island is a pale thing by comparison, Sydney and San Francisco are rather more bay than artifice and though Venice seen from S Giorgio Maggiore is probably the scene I'd take to the desert island if one were offered views rather than discs, the glory of La Serenissima lies in its magnificent intimacies more than in anything that might be captured on a picture postcard.  And yet...

 „Tand, Tand
Ist das Gebilde von Menschenhand!“

When I was composing Die Brück am Tay I was frustrated to find no better equivalent for Tand than the Victorian epithet "trumpery stuff" which really won't do for Fontane's famous malediction.  It suits Hong Kong pretty well, however, and once you get down into the streets and alleys the place leaves a curious impression of emptiness.  This is not an artist decrying commerce (which always strikes me as being like a regiment where the band laughs at the cooks) but, I think, a reaction to what colonisation does to places.  First and foremost, it sends its second-best people who promptly impose their second-bestness locally.  I am not aware of a war of liberation ever having adopted the slogan Out With The Mediocrities but most of them could have done had the fancy taken them.

I felt the need of my own Foyay and so after indulging my fascination with street markets (especially fish ones) for an hour or two and eating a memorably poor dinner, I hit upon a well-tried infantile solution: sit on the top of a tram, at the front with the window open, and potter all the way from Whitty Street to Sai Wan Ho and back.  A prosaic Olympus from which to look down on passing humanity but I didn't care; it really was too hot for exertion.  All those people being busy; I had not known life had done up so many and it is comforting to muse on the smallness and triviality of my own world, which none of them will ever hear of (and most wouldn't even if I was as good as Beethoven).

Time to reflect on an over-eventful season; Stolen Smells, Du Bist Da, the endless shuttling to and from Europe and dipping in and out of the frustrations and rank imbecilities of the opera scene.  Times spent wondering why people don't just get on with the job and others spent wondering at the sheer energy and generosity of spirit that some artists can display.  The paralysing doubts that assail me with every new piece, the common paranoic belief that spite penned by an unwashed illiterate (they even have those on Swiss newspapers) must be true while praise from a deep thinker in a German broadsheet must be mere flattery.  The pain of seeing where you could have done it better and the sheer loneliness of the job which, coming as it does on the heels of the loneliness of writing, I heartily detest.

Running through it all like an ancient tramcar waddling down the skyscraper canyons of HK, this most amiable of orchestras which now I must leave behind.  I am ambushed by sadness: though the M4 is not a thing to be regretted, I am forced to admit that I am at my best when there is stability and routine.  The routine that comes from a band that knows what it's for and just gets on with it is utter delight and I will miss it, as much for the sense of purpose as for the musical benefits.  The missing will be a bigger ache than I expected.  On with my coat and out into the night; how many more times, I wonder? 

Gloomily crossing the harbour on the Star Ferry, the phone rings and a friendly voice says we need someone for Walküre... Life will, for the time being at least, be going on despite the fact - or perhaps because of it - that I have not a compositional idea in my head.

12th July 2012 Shanghai, People's Republic of China

The first time I visited the Kabukiza theatre in Tokyo, the person sitting next to me repeatedly shouted comments at the stage. Sometimes it was a word that he yelled, sometimes a phrase and once he made quite a long speech when a female character appeared. I was surprised that the conventional-minded Japanese made no attempt to stop him and indeed a few of them clucked with approval at his interventions. In the interval, seeing my perplexity, he explained that he was a licensed interrupter of plays, that everything he said was relevant to the action and naturally, what with this being Japan and all, the whole process was enshrined in ritual and tradition. He had passed quite a few exams in order to be allowed to disrupt performances, was mightily pleased with himself and was visibly held in high esteem by the other theatre goers. It was, I concluded, an Asia thing.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at the events at tonight's performance: Tianjian showed us that the Asia thing is alive and well here even if China is more different from Japan than Turkey is From Switzerland. Surprise it was, however, and a pleasant one. The concert had a compere who must have been good at his job since he whipped the popular sentiment into a polite oriental hysteria. The audience were a rowdy lot, something I like in a concert, and they were most certainly out for a good time which is not, I sometimes feel, the whole reason European audiences attend. In this case, a good time meant noise, which was just fine by most of us. It was a feel-good occasion though I found myself wishing that if this audience was never going to switch off its collective mobile phone, it might at least go on Facebook or Twitter and tell its many friends not to call during the gig (then I remembered that neither Facebook nor Twitter exists in China).

At the start of Bolero, there was a burst of applause 2 bars into the flute solo, which other punters shushed. Then, as the solos ended and the tuttis began, a pair of hands behind me and to my left started to mark the beats. Other hands joined in and I have to admit they gauged the crescendo pretty well. As the piece neared its climax, clapping wasn't enough and the entire audience started to cheer. It was a protracted and sustained yell, a continuous explosion of excitement. At the end, hysteria broke out. In his closing remarks the compere singled out the audience member who had started it all - and a rather stout gentleman took a bow with every bit as much pride as my friend in Tokyo might have mustered. A lot of the audience waved at the orchestra instead of clapping and, with a few shouts from the back of smile and wave, that's what you're paid for we waved back.

A certain famous orchestra that I used to belong to had a rather endearing habit of cheering like a football crowd during loud climactic passages; everyone whose job didn't involve blowing would join in, sometimes in concerts and once, memorably, in a recording of Bolero. I doubt very much if they forget their dignity for long enough to do so now; we live not in interesting but in pusillanimous times. The Shanghai chorus brought back happy memories and, not for the first time, I found myself musing on the limitless ways that history finds, if not to repeat itself then at least to rhyme.

7th July 2012 Tianjian, People's Republic of China

From space, this town must look like a hairbrush.  We drove for a couple of hours through suburbs spiked with identical slender tower blocks built, I suppose, to house the 35 million people who are said to live here.  The brand new auditorium is surprisingly small and very lively of sound, the audience unaffected and charming.  They clap between movements (I wish European ones would) seem tickled by the sight of the orchestra and their collective squeal of alarm at the loud first chord of the Danse Infernale in Firebird was true to the spirit of the evening.  Funny thing, quiet (as Mr Cage would agree).  In places like Salzburg and New York, the coughing and grunting of an audience or the restive misery of the corporate guests is an annoyance.  Here, the universal Chinese habit of hoicking and spitting didn't seem to matter a jot.  I felt a little sorry for M, whose opening solo in Bolero was as atmospheric a reading as I shall ever hear. It was delivered with great drama even as gizzards to the right of him, gizzards to the left of him volleyed and chundered.  But it was all part of the occasion; a concert isn't a service, after all, and an audience is more than half of the experience.   A pleasing start to the trip, with the added bonus that we travelled the desolate road back to Beijing in darkness.  I really wouldn't have wanted to see those inhabited bristles a second time.

6th July 2012  Beijing, People's Republic of China

We are now officially sick of Mrs Doyle jokes that involve counting out Chinese money and saying "yuan yuan yuan yuan yuan..." but I fear that isn't going to put an end to the practice.  I did my usual saintly routine for an Asia flight - no booze, no movies, pretend it isn't happening - and in consequence arrived in good shape as far as the body was concerned.  The mind is another matter and whether or not pride goeth before a fall, in my case health very often goeth before a piece of ill-judged physical recklessness.  Of course, the logical thing to do when you've had no decent sleep for three days, are seven hours adrift of your normal time zone and are in a place that is hot and grossly polluted, is to rent a bicycle and see how fast you can get round Tiananmen Square in heavy traffic.  

The unfriendly vastness of the place is daunting; I'm pretty sure I'd think that even if I didn't know about the events of 20 years ago.  A moment's respect for them was somehow vitiated by the impersonal stretch of it; in the present brown smog you can see from one side to the other but not with any great clarity.  Still, if the air quality gets any worse you won't be able to see across the street.  All the Chinese seem to smoke; I suppose they reason that with the atmosphere this bad abstinence would be straining at the proverbial mosquito having downed the proverbial dromedary in a single gulp.  Not that you'll find a mosquito here: the pollution's killed them all and apart from a beetle that provoked minor hysteria in a colleague on the airport bus I haven't seen an insect since I arrived.

There is a discipline of sorts to the Bombay-style hooting traffic and the swarms of bicycles.  As in India, one expects to see an accident every ten seconds but in reality sees none at all.  Nevertheless, a near-death experience with a bendy bus convinced me to seek for quieter amusements (and it's no good shouting at me, buster; do I look as if I speak Mandarin?  Mind you, he didn't look as if he spoke my kind of English either but it didn't stop me having a bloody good yell).  Hutong means "side street" but the translation doesn't do justice to the tranquil single-storey neighbourhoods that fan out from every main thoroughfare.  Built of silver-grey brick to no pattern that I could descry, they have the quality of villages and the same slight mystery that one encounters in Arab countries.  Much of life is lived on the street but the houses turn their back on the alleyways and though half-open doors one can glimpse another, private world.  Children are everywhere; what a magical place to grow up.  I cycled for hours, dodging carts and bicycle pickups, catching cooking smells and the occasional incongruous thumping of an out-of-tune piano and wondering at the incongruity of signs to nuclear shelters.  There is no moon tonight; the streets are blind...

On the way back I spotted a busker halfway down the steps to a tube station.  A blind man, playing something very like a Japanese koto and accompanying himself with the click of a heavy slapstick strapped to one leg.  His audience was a real audience.  None of your European averted eyes and passing by on the other side; he'd attracted a crowd and they listened - and paid.  I reckon he probably makes more money than I do.  Well, good luck to him; his audience is probably more attentive too!   And since I'd enjoyed the show I put a few notes in his tin.  "Yuan yuan yuan yuan yuan..."

15th June 2012, Cardiff

Beware the Ides of June.  Tonight it's the Alpine Symphony at St David's Hall.  I am never quite sure if I like this piece.  The orchestral bruiser in me (something that is there to stay, I realise) enjoys the physicality of playing it, the orchestral colourist enjoys watching and learning but I do sometimes wonder if I am missing the point of the piece.  I revisited Barbara Tuchman's wonderful essay Neroism is in the Air, an account of the artistic contribution to the war psychosis of 1914-18, in which she talks more sense about Strauss than you will hear from any dismal musicologist.  Her subject is Salome but some of her comments about the distortions and perversions of that upsetting work apply equally well to the mountain journey that we shall essay tonight.  Though Strauss brings his sunrise to climax on a reassuringly 19th century 6/4 chord, from then on the scoring and harmony have an astringency and discomfort that sit uncomfortably with the supposed subject matter.  It was conceived as part of a larger work, Antichrist and Alpine Symphony but the first bit never got written, thank goodness.  The Nietzsche is an uncomfortable tract and I cannot mourn its absence from the Strauss canon.  Zarathustra  is quite enough, thank you.

All of which musings may or may not be interesting, but for now the ageing bone player is hoping his bottom lip really is as strong as it feels and thanking Yawahootie or any other passing deity that the "dangerous moments" solo has this evening fallen to a younger and bolder player!

22nd May 2012, Dusseldorf

I can relax, mostly.  A first rehearsal of Du Bist Da reveals that the music works more or less and such tweakings as we need have to do with specifics of voice and, in a couple of places, practicalities of staging.  A working day, two at most, and we'll be there.

I like the cast a lot; a nice mixture of theatre and operatic voices, no sign of any divas and a nice mixture of intelligent professionalism and childish delight at my having driven all the way here with a real English metal dustbin and a green plastic trombone in the boot (I really didn't want to have that check-in conversation and I'm quite sure Ryanair have a special charge for transporting musical eccentricity).  Sure, they sang the music just fine but what they REALLY liked was the lessons in playing the green PBone.  Everybody loves a PBone and I suspect they'll all go out and buy one of their own.  I hope to be the first player to use one in a Prom this season: if I fail in this ambition at least I'll be the first opera composer to write for one on the German stage.

I was enchanted by the set designs and delighted by the regisseur's concept of the piece: it's an extremely strong libretto and we all seemed to have thought in similar directions.  Or so I believed until the post-rehearsal meal.  The designer said "now I have heard the music, I will think again" and explained why. His reasons were clear and musically coherent.  Like most composers, I've suffered a good deal with opera directors who can't read a score (why not?  Are there stage directors who can't read words?) and designers who present pale banalities as though they were tablets come down from Ararat.  How very nice to  be in the hands of people who wouldn't build a Procrustean bed even if IKEA were selling them cheap.

18th April 2012.  Port of Spain, Trinidad

I never lived in the Caribbean, preferring - perhaps unwisely - the rigours of a transatlantic commute.  Despite my being away more than I was there,  the place seems to have seeped into my bones.  The first person I met on my very first visit was a driver.  Let's call him Donald though that is not his name.  At that first meeting, all the qualities  that I love about this part of the world were plain to see in the man: the open heart, the curiosity, the faintly piratical juggling with language that made me wonder if any other dialect has wit rather than sound as its basis (and later on I was to marvel that the language of political life should embody the antithesis of these qualities).

We've been through a lot over the years; he it was who drove me to ever more stressful meetings as the project unfolded, his red pickup first transported me to see the hole in the ground that was to become the National Academy for Performing Arts and it was the ever-patient Donald who fished me out of a storm drain when a violin teacher I was visiting had been over-generous with the rum.

This evening after work, we climbed the hill to Donald's remote village on the north coast of the island.  The gradients here feel vertical and my borrowed Ford Focus wouldn't stand a chance on them.  The shacks and homesteads nestle close together like a family sharing a meal.  After dark the old people sit and talk in soft, lilting voices, watching as insects play around the gaslamps.  Outside the rum shop, we sat beneath a cashew tree and as the lights of Port of Spain glittered far below like stars in a bucket, we pulled at Carib and caught up with all the stories of my absence from this place.

A small twinkling man quizzed me closely about food in Europe.  He didn't much like the sound of most of the dishes; they eat like that?  What for? and then introduced himself as the leading cook in Trinidad and, far more important, the champion armadillo shooter of the North Coast.  I wondered if armadillos were a pest in those parts and was rewarded with a chorus of falsetto laughter at my ignorance.  Good eatin'; cook they slow with coconut.

A few more Carib and a deal was struck: next time I come, I'll supply a bottle of Irish whiskey and he'll provide the armadillo cooked slow in coconut.  Donald will arrange transport.

I'll keep my side of the bargain and I'm pretty sure he will too. 

14th April 2012, Port of Spain, Trinidad

Charlotte Street market on a Saturday morning is one of my most favourite places in the known universe.  I'm not sure why: it's a tatty, down-at-heel sort of a place, drowned in Reggae beats and an endless procession of slow, bad-tempered traffic.  Vegetables are offered for sale at $10 a pile, nameless fruits and rich red sorrel flowers jostle with bananas and the noble soursop, nuts men whip the tops off coconuts with a blade that flashes a tenth of an inch from their fingertips - and they never seem to look as they do it.  I took my breakfast doubles at the stand by the Maxi Taxi rank: at the start of the credit crunch there was a huge poster here proclaiming "piss on idiot bankers" which is probably as much commentary as we need.

Finishing what must be the messiest form of nourishment ever conceived by the mind of man, I fell in with the easy lilting swagger that is the Trini gait of young and old, thinking wistfully of Hughbert, the crazy man who lived on a patch of waste ground near the distillery and who was (so he said) alerted of my imminent arrivals by a vision of  the Virgin Mary clad in a short red frock.  On the first day of every trip here, he would give me a nervous "shubh Divali" whatever the season and then relieve me of ten dollars for his breakfast fund.  He was a troubled, joyful creature, sometimes seeing fairies and rainbows, other times pursued by the CIA, from whom he hid on distant planets.  So he said, and I saw no reason to disbelieve him.  Nomads like me tend to create routines in their wanderings and making Hughbert's breakfast donation was one that always made me smile.  One January I couldn't find him; I wandered up to Independence Square and lost a game of chess against one of the old greybeards who hang around the boards all day.  I asked after my lost friend and the old timer said, with soft finality he gone and checkmated me.

It was to Independence that my steps took me now.  It is an uninspiring patch of ground with a faintly improbable cathedral at one end, but the noise and happy heckling of the locals give it a life that you won't see in a European square be it never so pretty.  When I worked for UTT, my good natured employers suffered agonies of worry over my wanderings round the mean streets of Port of Spain, but I could never see the threat in so friendly a place, and still I can't.  As I passed Yee's Dragon Boys Bar, (you went WHERE? I hear them ask) a big fellow with a vaguely familiar face stepped out, gave me a high five, grinned "welcome back" then disappeared back into the Reggae-booming stygian gloom, leaving me speechless, surrounded by puncheon fumes and a sense of homecoming.

13th April 2012.  Port of Spain, Trinidad

It doesn't feel as if I've been away.  It is two years since I was last here and the increased energy and growth of the place in that time is startling.  The Port of Spain venture started not long after my last foray into Central Asia and this evening I find myself comparing Kazakhstan to Trinidad.  This is a fractionally less bizarre thing to do than might at first appear: though Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country on Earth and TT an  island that you can drive round in a relaxed day, there are many similarities: great wealth from natural resources, small populations (though TT's is 659 per square mile against a paltry 15 in Kazakhstan) and both have indigenous cultures of tremendous vitality.  The two nations are also diverse ethnically - in both cases because of colonial barbarism and slavery - and both are recently independent.  Not for the first time, I find myself musing that though history seldom repeats itself, it is surprising how often it rhymes.

Home     earlier blogs  later blogs    back