Thursday, 5 March 2015

Philip Glass, going through a red light and Geoffrey Boycott's granny

Many years ago I had a very distressing experience.  I was living in London and had formed the habit of going to the Coliseum to watch English National Opera.  This was in the glory days of Elder and Pountney, when there was a management team that knew what it was doing most of the time.  One of the productions I went to was Philip Glass's Akhnaten.  I think this ticket must have been free, because I have never much liked Glass.  At any rate, the curtain rose to show a stage filled with sand, which I guess must have represented the desert, and the violas began what I remember to have been an A minor arpeggio.

Akhnaten entered, naked except for a prosthetic penis (if I've done this blog before, apologies; I do get to a new bit in a minute).  The penis apparently cost several thousand pounds.  Anyway, 15 minutes later the arpeggio was still going on, and Akhnaten was still running round the stage trailing a long streamer of pink cloth.  In that era Andrex had a series of adverts in which a labrador puppy ran around trailing loo roll with the strapline, "soft, strong and very long". It was hard not to associate the two cultural phenomena.

I can't remember if there was any advance on A minor, but Glass's opera was boring beyond belief, and, in much the same way that when I am confronted with terrible wine I push it discreetly away reflecting that I am not going to waste my 21 units a week on such rubbish, I and my companion left at the first interval.  Life is very short.

I was reminded of this tonight by a friend who showed me some of Glass's piano pieces.  Of these more in a minute.  I told him about going to see Akhnaten, or at least some of it, and whilst trying to think of a way to explain how boring it was a memory suddenly sprang to mind of the time when I ran a red light and had subsequently to go on a naughty-boy driving course near Warrington.  The reason why the course was so much more effective than 3 points and 60 quid, which you soon forget, is that you had to suffer a whole morning's boredom.  This was the real punishment.  It was a lovely spring day, and a dozen of us laboured in some soulless hotel or office block conference suite for hour upon hour we would never get back.  That was the painful thing.  It was time unrecoverable.

That's how I felt watching Akhnaten.  You felt your life slipping away.  Unlike, for example, the first two and a half hours of Gotterdammerung, which seem to go by in about twenty minutes. And something perhaps even more awful to contemplate was the thought that somewhere some committee of well-paid, well-fed, well-educated people had sat round a table and one of them had said, "I know, why don't we do Akhhaten", and the others had said, "Yes, that sounds like a really good idea. Let's".

What on earth were they thinking of?  Couldn't one of them read a score?

Anyway, to the Glass piano pieces.  Did I like them?  No.  I thought they were quite extraordinarily bad and lazy.  There was an E minor arpeggio (can anyone spot the theme emerging here?) in the left hand and some soothing minims high in the right. Then four or five chords, the same in each hand. The chords descended into a pit of banality with a really wretchedly weedy fourth chord the apotheosis.  Then there was some more E minor nurdling. Presently there were not four but five chords, culminating in a wretched whole tone clinch. In despair I turned the page. Here were approximately the same musical gestures, but starting with an A minor arpeggio.  With a sudden awful vision of Akhnaten's wrinkly prosthetic penis, I shut the book.

OK, I kind of get what Glass is trying to do.  Familiar, banal musical objects are presented in a context different from the familiar one.  You hear them in a different way.  But oh Jesus, for a little invention. For some interesting objects presented in a context different from the familiar one instead of something that, to paraphrase Geoffrey Boycott, my granny could have made up (and would have been too embarrassed to present to the paying public).  This is one of the greatest living composers?

From now on, whenever I am feeling bad about my work I will muse upon Sonnet 30.  As Shakespeare nearly said, "But if the while I think on thee, Philip Glass / all losses are restor'd and sorrows end".

Monday, 12 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo and the Mayor of Rotterdam.

Since so much rubbish has been written about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, here's some more.

Demonstrations don't accomplish anything. So what if one and a half million people demonstrated in Paris yesterday?  That won't stop the Islamists. And it won't give us a free press. When a Danish newspaper published anti-Islamist cartoons nearly a decade ago, no British newspaper saw fit to allow its readers to see what the fuss was about. In fact you can now view the cartoons online (just google Danish muslim cartoons). But when people burble "we can't let the Islamists win", they are averting their eyes from the truth. The Islamists have already won.

Free speech - already circumscribed by libel laws and public order legislation - has been further diminished by fear. Even those doughty tellers of truth to power, Private Eye, didn't publish the cartoons. They are afraid. Many a journalist came out with the self-exculpatory line about only publishing stuff which was newsworthy.  But what could be more newsworthy than protests in London calling for the beheading of cartoonists?

And I don't blame the hacks. I'd do the same if I were one of them. Perhaps however I might seek a profession in which hypocrisy wasn't quite so inherent. The Guardian's donation of £100,000 to Charlie Hebdo smacks of a guilty conscience. This is the newspaper, remember, that regularly silences comments it doesn't like on its website. For example, it censors references to its use of offshore companies to avoid tax, to Polly Toynbee's second home in Tuscany or to Alan Rusbridger's expensive grand pianos (even when comments are made by its own staff). Comment is not free at the Guardian, and hardly anywhere else either.

I said the Islamists have already won, but it might be more accurate to say they are already winning. There's a lot we can do to fight back. Firstly, Muslims across Europe who deplore the Paris attacks could do a great deal more to make public their revulsion. For details of how one has done so, see below.  They could also help more to expose people preaching hate, in mosques and on the internet. Secondly, being in a hole, we could stop digging.  Since the likes of the Kouachi brothers spring from amongst Muslims, and since Islamist terror is far and away the greatest internal threat to the UK, HMG could stop making matters worse by simply halting all immigration from Muslim countries. Why take the risk?

(A month after I wrote this post the BBC did a survey about British Muslim attitudes.  With characteristic reluctance to face the results squarely it was headlined "Most British Muslims 'oppose Mohammed cartoons reprisals'"; but lower down the story acknowledged that 27% "had some sympathy with the motives behind the attacks".  Extrapolated to the 2.7 million British Muslims, that's a total of rather more than 700,000.  When we already have in excess of half a million Muslims who feel like this, the argument for allowing any more in is not immediately obvious.)

Many Muslims say, "This is nothing to do with us, and nothing to do with Islam". It's certainly true that the killers of Lee Rigby were bad apples. But they were apples falling from a Muslim tree. They weren't stamp collectors, pigeon fanciers, Anglicans, Quakers or lovers of fine wine. They were Muslims.

That says something about Islam. In particular, it says that the religion is absolutist in terms of a division between the faithful and the unbelievers. It has not made the accommodation with relativism which other religions in the West have been doing for centuries. It regards law as God-made, not man-made. Its political history shows it to be impatient of democracy and it has little conception of the Enlightenment idea of free speech.

Outrage, resentment and violence - and the conspiracy theories that inform them - serve as palliatives for an Ummah (or global Muslim community) that reads little, writes even less, has not invented much in recent centuries, is economically less productive than comparable peoples and wields little political or military power in the contemporary world.

OK, I didn't write that last paragraph. Who did? Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.

In case you think this is over the top, and are minded to apply the "R" word (Muslims being a race, right?) the Times today reports two incidents.  In the first, a Saudi Arabian blogger has received 50 lashes in a public square today for a post in which he criticised the link between the Wahabist clerics and the government. Meanwhile in Egypt an engineering student has been sent to prison for three years after announcing that he is an atheist. This is the attitude to free speech which obtains when Islam dominates a country's mind-set. It is an attitude which successive UK governments have imported, despite the protests (some of them undoubtedly motivated by racism) of the generality of the population. As the numbers of Muslims grow, so will their - quite justifiable - demand for representation. In microcosm you can see it in the Trojan Horse schools scandal in Birmingham.

For many Muslims free speech, however qualified, merely means their right to practise their religion. It is, ironically, why many Muslims come to Britain. The wife of Djamel Begha, the jihadist mentor of the Paris killers, is currently living in Leicester. According to the Torygraph she brought her family to England so her children could be brought up "in an Islamic environment" (Incidentally she is living in a four bedroom house rent free and is entitled to about £1,500 per year in child benefit. Oh joy).

The Mayor of Rotterdam had it about right. Interviewed on Dutch TV, he said "It is incomprehensible that you can turn against freedom. But if you do not like freedom, in Heaven's name pack your bag and leave. There may be a place in the world where you can be yourself.  Be honest with yourself and do not go and kill innocent journalists. And if you do not like it here because humorists you do not like make a newspaper, may I then say you can fuck off".

Amen to that. So I am not Charlie Hebdo. I am Ahmed Aboutaleb, the courageous (and Muslim) Mayor of Rotterdam.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

New Year's Eve post

As the end of year approaches, I wave goodbye to my birthday (56, since you ask), then Christmas, then New Year's Eve.  Hello 2015.  The knowledge that I'm almost certainly in the last third of my life requires a certain equanimity of spirit to face down.  I think I'm up to it, but you never know.  At least you can't have a mid-life crisis whilst in the foothills of old age.  It's a conceptual impossibility.

Resolutions for the New Year - spend more time fishing ("God does not deduct from man's allotted span time spent fishing", according to Chekov) and start writing an opera; one should keep challenging oneself after all.

I have spent the last couple of days climbing in Scotland with Prof Mitchell.  Evidently I still have the legs and lungs to do the height gain in six inches of fresh powder snow, and here are a couple of pictures to prove it.

My life situation would appear to be that whilst I can still run up and down stairs, I can't always remember why I'm doing it.  Happy New Year to all.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Labour, the bankers and the Barnett Formula

There is a richly appropriateness to the mess in which Ed Miliband now finds himself.

Think of it this way.

In 2008 the Credit Crunch brought the giddy spending of the Blair / Brown years to an end.  Bankers had found increasingly exotic ways of justifying lending to people who couldn't repay their loans, telling their regulators that they were spreading the risk.  In fact they were spreading uncertainty, and when it emerged that some people really couldn't pay back, the banks drew in their horns like a snail catching the first whiff of salt.  Capital flows dried up and so did economic activity.  This problem, arising first in the US, swiftly spread over here and we saw queues outside Northern Rock.

The obvious conclusion from this - that had the bankers behaved properly the spending spree of the 2000s would have come to an end far sooner - was lost on the Left, which preferred to blame the bankers without asking what it was they had actually been doing (lending us all money).

A further conclusion - that a country which is borrowing £150 billion per year just to stay afloat needs to make some spending cuts - was also fiercely resisted.  It suited Labour to blame George Osborne for austerity (despite the fact that overall government spending was actually still going up) because to acknowledge he might have been right would have been to invite speculation about the future of social democracy itself.

After all, if your raison d'etre is to spend more money to solve society's problems, it is rather awkward if it looks as if you can't even afford the spending you're doing at the moment, let alone the spending you say you'll do once you get re-elected.  So Labour carried on banging away at Osborne, and it went quite well for them until it turned out we hadn't had a double dip recession after all, let alone a triple dip.  The fact that with the economy growing at 3% we are still running a deficit of about £2 bn every week rather bears out Osborne's view of things: even as the good times look like returning we are still running at a massive loss in the UK.

Labour's failure to explain the stark consequences of 2008 to its supporters (and even its most educated supporters can hardly bring themselves to look at the financial pages, feeling that businessmen are on the whole either City fatcats in red braces snorting cocaine, or tedious people with Birmingham accents involved in the manufacture of widgets), has nowhere been more evident than in the West of Scotland.  Finding after the first debate with Alastair Darling that Yes was still way behind in the polls, Alex Salmond tried a new tack - he linked the possibility of iScotland with the creation of a new, fairer progressive society.  This wasn't what Salmond himself wanted, and he knew full well that it wouldn't be affordable, but needs must when the devil drives and Salmond was in a fix.

To give credit to his shameless ingenuity it worked like a dream.  Labour voters in the party's post-industrial heartlands went over to Yes in droves, and the pro-Indepence faction ironically did better in Labour strongholds of the Clyde valley than it did in its own SNP heartlands (which, without exception, voted No).

But the revelation that the massed ranks of Labour supporters in Scotland's most densely populated areas were switching to Yes so panicked the No campaign that they mobilised the Great Clunking Fist of Gordon Brown, brought blinking into the light like a long-interred Golem, bearing his new promises of extra powers plus retention of the Barnett Formula.  And these promises in turn enabled David Cameron to make his own pledge of solving once and for all the West Lothian question, the issue of English votes for English laws.

Ed Miliband's opportunist criticism of George Osborne's economic policy together with his failure to educate his own supporters of the new realities of life post-2008 has in fact come round in a great arc and struck him on the head. It will now be a miracle if Labour can escape the consequences of its own short-termism.  What goes around comes around.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland says Nae

I must have cared deeply about the Scottish referendum, because I dreamed about it twice last night, each time thinking the result had been No, and each time waking to the disquieting realisation that a Yes vote was still possible.

But here we are in Glad Confident Morning and the Scots really have voted No.

Some observations at random.

1. The Nationalists will never have a better chance of winning.  They only needed 51% of votes, and they were led by a man who could sell snow to the Eskimos.  If there's another referendum - and there surely will be, the Scottish psyche being as it is - the UK prime minister would be perfectly justified in demanding a two-thirds majority for a change so fundamental. The next time Alex Salmond will be an old man, if the West of Scotland diet doesn't get him first.   If Salmond had led the No campaign, Yes would have suffered a humiliating defeat rather than a decisive one.

2. Geographical distribution of the votes shows that Yes voters were disproportionately young working class, and No voters disproportionately middle-aged or elderly middle-class.  The Yes voters, more likely to be badly educated, inexperienced and badly informed, voted for a case that was emotional, nationalistic and utterly threadbare intellectually.  The Noes voted for one which made pragmatic common sense. I heard a man say, "This was a cry for help from Scotland's disadvantaged".  More accurate to call it a cry for more generous - and unfunded - welfarism.

3. The pollsters overestimated the Yes vote and underestimated the No vote.  This ties in with the many stories of intimidation by the Yes campaign.  The Noes were nervous at speaking out, even to pollsters.

4.  Simpson's law applied.  This principle, first posited in the beige heat of the AV referendum, proposes that whichever side has the most artistic Luvvies is not only wrong but will lose.  So here, when most Scottish Luvvies supported independence.

5. This is a disastrous day for Labour in England. In the wake of promises by Westminster party leaders that Scotland must have more powers, the notion that England must also have more powers has gained what seems like irresistible traction (though this may of course fade). If, as is long overdue, Scottish Westminster MPs are barred somehow from voting on English matters, that should put an end to Labour government in England for a long time.

6. I've already heard several English Labour politicians temporising hilariously on the prospects of a solution to the West Lothian question. Translated, their obfuscation means, "Please let our Scots colleagues keep on voting.  If you don't we'll never be in a majority and enjoy ministerial office again".  Self-determination is apparently only the Celtic nations, not for the English.

7. There are enormous problems inherent in working out new constitutional and tax arrangements. It's going to be hard to combine a UK-wide distribution from central funds with the idea of locally variable tax rates.  How will English politicians explain to their electorate that their taxes should be used to prop up the (over-generous) Barnett Formula to Scotland when the Scots are sucking in investment by undercutting English taxes?  But if all four countries start raising all their own tax and stop getting a central Westminster grant, those differing tax rates will lead to flows of businesses and populations as it becomes apparent that not all four countries are equally prosperous.  Is that really what we want? Ultimately there will have to be some sort of carry over from the richer countries (ie England) to the others.

8. Timing is everything.  Cameron promised the Scots it would be done quickly, and he'll have to keep to that at the same time as keeping the English onside.  There'll be a general election next year, and you'd imagine he'd be able to present a plan to the English electorate which would get a ringing endorsement. In the constitutional deliberations which will follow in the next few months I expect Labour to peel off pretty quickly, realising that English votes on English matters will assuredly mean electoral doom. Cameron had better get it right, but it isn't impossible.  (I wrote this post a few hours after the No declaration; in fact Ed Miliband by tea-time the same day was already babbling about a Constitutional Commission and English regional assemblies; translation - in which direction is the long grass?)

Still and all, although I'm not a flag-waving jingoist I think that willingness to change just enough to prevent upheaval reflects a good deal of credit on Britain.  I'm glad Britain still exists this morning and tonight I'll be cracking open a bottle of Aldi champage to celebrate.

Neither may be Great, but they're still probably better than some of the alternatives.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Things can only get better in Scotland

It has long been my contention that the Nationalists have been offering Scottish voters a false prospectus, and so on this momentous day I offer some extracts from Alex Salmond's Bumper Book of Lies - 

(1) We own the pound and currency union is inevitable.
(2) Even if there’s no currency union that doesn’t matter.

(3) We can join the EU without having our own currency or central bank.
(4) The EU will accept us with open arms without being obliged to sign away our sovereignty and adopt the Euro.
(5) Significant Scottish businesses are largely pro-separation. 
(6) Our financial services industry won’t melt away south of the border.
(7) We will keep all the oil revenues.
(8) Oil revenues are not falling and can only increase. 
(9) The NHS is at risk if we stay in the Union.
(10) Taxes will not increase in iScotland.
(11) Jobs will not be at risk in iScotland.
(12) Mortgage rates won’t increase.
(13) Interest rates on government borrowing won’t increase.
(14) rUK will accede to all of our negotiation demands.
(15) Pensions will be safe and affordable in iScotland
(16) The separation on offer is true independence.
(17) We will be immune from the budgetary pressures which force the UK to borrow about £2 bn a week just to stay afloat.
(18) We can walk away from the UK’s national debt without consequences.
(19) We can defend ourselves just as well on our own.
(20) English banks will be happy to make home loans to us in sterling even though there’s a risk that we might set up our own currency later.

And the biggest lie of all perhaps – 

(21) In iScotland “Things can only get better”! 

Some editions of Mr Salmond's book include another - 
(22) If we're wrong about the above we can always go and work in England

"Things Can Only Get Better"?  A more apposite anthem might actually be Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades”

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The decline of classical music - other people are noticing shock

An article in the Times breaks the news that, according to the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the number of pupils learning to play the electric guitar "has overtaken those learning the violin for the first time".

In October 2009 I wrote a post entitled "Barry Manilow and the decline of classical music" which sums up my attitude to guitar lessons.  Part of it read: "hardly had I got into double figures when I realised that girls had an irrational weakness for boys who could play the electric guitar. So the violin was a chore (enjoyed playing, hated practising), whereas the guitar was a pleasure to be indulged whenever there was a free moment. The school had a visiting guitar teacher, but the kids who had lessons were universally useless at rock and roll. That's because you cannot teach someone to play it. You have to work it out for yourself. Classical music requires technique, and if you can acquire one it will take you almost to the highest level, where only the last few percentage points of musicality marks the difference between Alfred Brendel and a journeyman. But rock and roll is not like that. In a discipline which prizes above all else the ability to improvise, every player has to find their own way: after all, the great masters of the electric guitar, from Hendrix to Richard Thompson to Tom Verlaine, have styles so divergent they might be playing different instruments. Not only were lessons useless, but they were given by adults. Pop music was ours, the music of the young, and we would no more have let them teach us about it than they would have known how."

But not only are electric guitar lessons pointless.  The fact that so many kids want to have them is symptomatic of classical music's loss of prestige and relevance.  Jonathan Vaughan, director of music at the Guildhall School is quoted as saying "Classical music is being sidelined in every possible area. We are sleepwalking into a crisis and no one seems to be acknowledging it."  Vaughan has noticed a distinct falling off in the quality of home-grown students.  Actually I would argue that the crisis goes back a long way and that we are already well into it.

The rise of pop music is partly responsible.  So is the "call-me-Kevin" school of child-centred education, where anything that might be "difficult" is avoided (as if we would teach Harry Potter rather than Shakespeare . . . oh, wait).  So also is the old-school nature of acoustic instruments, particularly in times when every teenager has access to a computer on which the most amazing digital signal processing technology is readily available, often for nothing.  So also however is the determined effort by the gatekeepers of performance time to keep out new classical music which might be popular with audiences in favour of stuff which they themselves think might be edgy and impressive.

There is a very simple lesson here.  If you take an artistic medium with a sizeable audience base and by a series of choices over many years manoeuvre it away from the tastes and interests of that audience, firstly the audience will tend to dry up, and secondly the audience's children will be less likely to want to engage with that artistic medium themselves, whether as consumers or performers. Thirdly, as interest wanes the provision made for that artistic medium in schools declines.  After all, if no one cares about it, why should we teach it?

Why are we surprised that kids don't want to learn a classical instrument?

I have an interest to declare of course, in that I am myself a writer of classical music that on the whole audiences quite like.  I once had a piece performed by an ensemble with a reputation for its interest in the edgy and impressive.  Afterwards one of the administrators told me that she had never received so many expressions of interest in and admiration for a new work.

I never heard from them again.