Saturday, 19 July 2014

The last post

It having been pointed out to me that spending an hour or so each week writing this blog might not be the best use of a busy composer / conductor / househusband's time (something of which I was in any event subliminally aware), I've decided to pack in blogging.  So this will be my last entry.

I've posted here for nearly four hundred times in five and a half years, my first attempt being in February 2009, generating a readership that's grown from nothing to about 50 hits a day, a tiny figure in web terms but not bad for a small-timer.  I haven't re-read my collected blogging works in full, but looking back over the entries I see I've had certain recurring preoccupations, and it's instructive to consider to what extent events have borne out the views I had at the beginning.

Starting with the issue on which I've been most egregiously wrong, namely the Eurozone. I thought that after the financial crisis the Euro would implode under the weight of its own contradictions. In the first place I underestimated the extent to which those at the top would be willing to bend the rules to keep the party going - the famous Draghi put was almost certainly illegal under EU law, but the mere fact of Draghi's "whatever it takes" utterance was enough to quiet the panicking money markets. Secondly I had not appreciated the extent to which the free movement of labour laws would enable Mediterranean states to export their impoverished and angry unemployed youth (largely to Britain). This game is not over yet, but it's amazing that we're still playing at all.

Elsewhere I've done a bit better.

It remains true that the Left has not on the whole understood that the massive hole in Britain's budget (we're still borrowing more than £2 billion every week) cannot be filled merely by taxing the rich more. The contradictions this exposes in the Social Democratic programme (whose raison d'etre is to provide an expensive social safety net) have not even been addressed, let alone solved. This doesn't mean Labour won't win in 2015 however.

The dangers of excessive immigration, in terms of the environment, the economy, the strain on public services and on social cohesion have if anything become even more obvious, most recently with the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools. Race doesn't matter much; culture assuredly does. How Britain is going to absorb an awful lot of people who regard its social mores with contempt is a problem for the future.

In an allied issue, it has become even more apparent that Britain is overpopulated. Bar Hong Kong and Bangladesh, we are one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Partly because of immigration, partly because immigrants tend to have a higher birth rate, we don't have enough houses. In the year to 2013 the population increased by 400,000. Yet paradoxically the more we try and build the more we build on farmland (that's not to say that all new housing is or must be built there). A recent Cambridge University study shows that we already have a massive food import problem; and our capacity to grow our own is diminishing all the time the demand for it is going up. Something has got to give.

My contention that the police are on the whole absolutely rubbish rather than insitutionally racist has been borne out by event after event. In fact in the last five and a half years the only story out of dozens I can think of which suggests that the police really are "institutionally racist" rather than incompetent, corrupt, lazy and sometimes racist (on an individual level) was the recent one about references to racism being removed from disciplinary reports. Everything else has been about mediocre or dishonest people doing a mediocre job.

Next, that hoary old chestnut - BBC bias. No-one of course can prove that the BBC is biased, although the Corporation has sometimes seemed to be acknowledging every other week that it is. I prefer to look at the long list of senior figures, most recently Jeremy Paxman, who agree (shame Jeremy that you couldn't bring yourself to say so while you were still in the job). You only have to ask what the opposite of a liberal bias might be to see that the BBC is effectively admitting an anti-conservative bias. I have no objection to that. I only object to having to pay for it. If the BBC wants to carry on taxing us to pay for services other people get for nothing, it needs to put its recruitment policy in order.

Tony Blair is a much reviled figure these days, and even I - a former admirer - concede that he has much to answer for, not the least the baleful consequences of allowing market forces into the university system on the coat-tails of an unjustifiably expanded student intake. But Blair was right that there was a cost in failing to intervene in Iraq which his opponents are reluctant to acknowledge, let alone discuss. We are seeing this cost now with Syria and Ukraine; indeed, I sometimes think that the greatest benefit to black Americans of President Obama's election might be the revelation that one of their chaps could become the most powerful man in the world and still be just as rubbish as Bush, Carter, Reagan and all the other duffers. "There is a red line", says Obama. If so, I haven't seen any evidence of it. A very talented public speaker who will no doubt do very well as the new Nelson Mandela after his presidency is over.

The other area in which I have consistently felt we are sleep-walking into trouble is that of freedom of speech. There is no right not to be offended, nor should there be, and nowadays people are being prosecuted (under legislation like the Telecommunications Act, intended for other purposes) merely for saying things that the CPS thinks some people won't like. Ultimately there are no objective ways of determining what is offensive and what isn't. The true civil libertarian should acknowledge this reality and come down in favour of individual freedom wherever possible. It seems to me a tragedy that the liberal Left - the sector of society which fought so hard for freedom of speech - should have instigated these sorts of restrictions and that the unreflective Right in Britain should have gone along with it.

Lastly Art. I've tried to expand on some of my enthusiasms and dislikes. I don't feel Modernism has really spoken to the human condition in a useful and articulate way. My own somewhat gentler art has been liked by audiences but not by those walk in the corridors of power.

I like the story about Berlioz. When the French musical establishment finally decided he was worth a job in the Paris Conservatoire it was as Assistant Librarian. If this is what the greatest ever French composer had to endure, who am I to complain?

If you have been, thanks for reading.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Why I love . . . #10 Richard Linklater's Boyhood

The other day I went so see Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood.  As readers of the press will know, Boyhood's McGuffin is that it was filmed, a few days at a time, over 12 years, allowing the actors to age, most notably the child leads, who start the film fresh-faced ingenues and end spotty, hairy and sexually active teenagers on the verge of adult life.

Some reviewers have found Boyhood boring, but I found its poignant ordinariness transfixing.  And walking home afterwards I was reminded of Jonathan Franzen's much lauded novel The Corrections. Franzen is a wonderful writer, but the mistakes made by the parents in his family saga were at first repeated by their children but then "corrected", and all three as I recall walked away and lived happily ever after. A let down to end on such a false note.

The greatest merit of Boyhood was that it allowed its participants no such luxury.  The feckless Dad and the Mum who kept ending up with alcoholics were allowed in middle age a degree of resolution to their problems - after all, most of us can learn to avoid repeating our more obvious mistakes given fifteen years to reflect - but there was no sense that Mason and his lovely sister were going to be free of the kind of difficulties which beset their parents.  I found watching these children age and seeing them standing uncertainly on the threshold of adult life touching and uplifting at the same time.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Tony Hall and the curse of our present system

I've written in a previous post about Tony Hall's grilling in front of a Commons committee on the subject of the BBC DG's plan to boost black, Asian and ethnic minority representation in the Corporation's output.

It will be recalled that Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley, berated Hall for the BBC's "racist approach" to diversity, saying that the white working class were being ignored. Davies is wrong because although this may be a bad thing, it's not a racist bad thing: even on his own case it is discrimination on the basis of class rather than race.

Interestingly though the admirably clear-thinking Daniel Hannan has written a wonderful blog in the Torygraph today discussing the meaning of diversity which makes Davies' point much more cogently and forcefully.

I have been saying for years that the BBC's most serious weakness when it comes to bias is that it tends to admit people from a narrow societal and educational base, that's to say metrocentric young university graduates with a humanities degree.

Why, I have written so often that the words are getting worn out, are we surprised that the BBC has, by its own admission, a liberal bias given the nature of the people who work for it?

Here is Hannan, in a different context admittedly, but the read-across is nearly complete:

"How has “diversity” come to mean only headcounts of women and ethnic minorities? When voters complain that the party leaders are similar, they don’t mean that they’re all white, or that they’re all male, or even that they’re all Oxford-educated. They mean that they seem cut off from the concerns of the country at large. Nigel Farage . . . has never tried to pass himself off as anything other than a public-school-educated broker. On duty, he wears pinstripes; off duty, tweed and cords. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because it’s what Nigel is saying that attracts his voters, not where he went to school."

". . . "diversity” has taken on almost the precise opposite of its dictionary definition. [For its advocates it] doesn’t just mean having people with different skin-tones; it means having people with different skin-tones who think in similar ways. . . But being diverse is less important to the diversity-wallahs than holding approved ideas about promoting diversity. . . The last thing its exponents want is actual pluralism. They want more Muslims, but not Muslims who hold Islamic views about, say, the definition of marriage. They want more black people, but not black people who get ideas about prospering outside the EU. They want more women, but not more Margaret Thatchers. . . [True diversity would involve breaking] . . .the attitudinal monotony, what the French call the pensée unique, that is the curse of our present system."

Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and people of colour

I raised a weary eyebrow the other day when Philip Davies, the Tory MP for Shipley, berated various BBC bigwigs, including DG Tony Hall, in a Commons select committee hearing for the Corporation's "racist approach" to diversity.

Hall has apparently planned a boost to black, Asian and ethnic minority representation in the Corporation's output, and Davies' objection is that this is itself racist because it ignores the white working class.

Whilst Davies is clearly wrong - if it's class discrimination it can't have anything to do with race - his argument is slightly more nuanced and interesting than it first appears. "I think the true racist sees everything in terms of race or colour", he said. "Surely what we should be aiming to be is colour blind".

I thought something along these lines a couple of years ago when the Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia said that he intended to cook fried chicken for Tiger Woods. The brilliant American tweeted his displeasure about this apparent piece of racial stereotyping, and Garcia, jumped on by the media, apologised for his remarks. Then the head of the European Golf Tour George O'Grady tried - ineptly - to stand up for Garcia, saying he had "most of his friends are coloured American athletes".

Only someone well out of the metropolitan loop could have made such a schoolboy error.  O'Grady soon found himself up to the nostrils in the media thick and sloppy.

The word "coloured" is now well out of order. As far as I can remember it was replaced by "black" at least twenty years ago, although now, at least in the US, the favoured expression seems to be "people of colour". I have no idea what the correct parlance is and personally use the "black", because that was the inoffensive term amongst "black" people when I was growing up.

We have become such a rainbow nation however that "black" no longer fits the bill accurately, not when latte is a more common colour on Britain's streets. I can't bring myself to use "people of colour" (it is ploddingly over-elaborate). "African-American" and "Afro-Caribbean" are cumbersome, and "coloured" reminds me rather too much of Apartheid South Africa. "Black" people have the right to call themselves whatever they choose, but it is of course patronising in itself to imagine that "black" people are a single homogenous group; the reality is that individuals will have different ideas about how they'd like to be addressed. It can be bafflingly difficult for the average white person to avoid giving offence. Sergio Garcia may be a prick, but he probably isn't a racist prick, and as for Mr O'Grady the words "well-intentioned" and "hapless" spring to mind.

All of which brings us back to Philip Davies MP. And yes, "what we should be aiming to be is colour blind". Absolutely. Britain is not a colour blind country, but it has made such massive strides in that direction that I sometimes wonder whether hyper-sensitivity about race is counter-productive. If we're trying to get to a situation where race doesn't matter, why do people so often make such a fuss about it on such modest pretexts? Of course there are various withering put-downs possible to that question, but are we not at least approaching the point where saying "Oh well, never mind" every now and again might at least be an option worth considering?

If Tiger Woods had simply shrugged and said, "Sergio can cook me fried chicken whenever he likes", he would have emerged from the furore with his reputation (and by association that of his fellow - cringe - people of colour) very much enhanced.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Sir Harrison Birwistle at 80

 Harrison Birtwistle is 80 round about now, and an article appears on the Guardian's leader page praising the old controversialist.  Sir Harrison is a "profoundly British composer" it seems, perhaps even "a natural successor to composers such as Elgar, Holst and Delius . . .as powerfully distinctive as that of any composer alive today".

It won't surprise my friends and enemies to learn that I am not a Birtwistle fan. I tried listening to Earth Dances again this morning, and, after the marvellously effective opening low brass and percussion notes had begun to blend and criss-cross each-other I found myself thinking, "this is actually quite boring". It took about a minute and a half.  I felt as if I were being beaten over the head with a rubber truncheon.  For me, Birtwistle has never learned that it is not what you say - everyone has something interesting to say, and most of us can come up with the profound from time to time - it is how you say it. Art is a mediation of experience, and we won't persist with it if it doesn't mediate in a way which generates pleasure.

But this is of course just a personal view, even if it's one which is widely shared in Britain. The Guardian's comparison with Holst, Elgar, Butterworth, RVW is instructive.  I have been a musician for about fifty years, soberingly, and in truth I have never once heard anyone say, "Did you hear that piece of Birtwistle's on the radio last week?" or "I'm playing some Birtwistle at the moment", or "I really like that piece of Birtwistle's".  And of course I couldn't whistle anything of his, nor have I ever met anyone who could.  Neither have I ever met anyone in all this time in and around the profession who was interested in Birtwistle's music.

What's really striking about Birtwistle is that, notwithstanding that the Guardian's leader writer (probably Andrew Clements) thinks he is of a similar stature to Elgar et al, he is almost totally absent from British musical life. He is our most celebrated composer, but almost no-one involved in the business (whether as a listener, and amateur or a professional player) pays any attention to what he does. And this despite the many hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money that, over the years, has been pushed in his direction (much of it via the Royal Opera House, the biggest recipient of Arts Council money in the UK).

In the year after Elgar's First Symphony was premiered it received over one hundred performances in Britain.  That's because people like Elgar's music and were willing to pay to hear it. Other of his pieces have entered the national consciousness, so that even now most British people will recognise Nimrod or the Pomp and Circumstance marches; and those with an interest in classical music will have listened hundreds of times to or performed the symphonies, the Cello Concerto, Gerontius, the Serenade for Strings and the Introduction and Allegro (I could of course go on).

The same is not quite true of Holst and Delius, but it's much truer of them than it is of Birtwistle.  The Planets is a work which every musician, like it or not, recognises as a ubiquitous part of the cultural fabric of British life. The same goes for the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending with RVW.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, Birtwistle has ever written has come remotely close to entering the consciousness of the British people. His music hasn't even entered the consciousness of those charged professionally with the task of delivering it to the public. I had dinner with a professional orchestral player last night. Had she ever played any Birtwhistle? She thought she must have; after all, she'd been in the business for twenty years. But if so she couldn't remember anything about it.

(Incidentally, it's quite funny to finding the Guardian defining something as British, since the general drift of its comment on recent utterances by David Cameron is loftily sceptical. "So Mr Rusbridger, what did the Guardian mean when it said Birtwistle was a very British composer . . . "  As someone commented on its website, the newspaper is in danger of falling through its own thin ice.)

How then have we got to the stage where, despite this strange absence from British musical life, Birtwistle can merit a leader in the Guardian on his 80th birthday?

The short answer is that the Graun is not short of the kind of people who admire people like Birtwistle; but there's more to it than that.

Birtwistle was very fortunate when, in 1959, William Glock was made controller of Radio 3 and decided that the cow-pat school of British music was outdated.  What the public really needed, Glock thought, was a good dose of European total serialism. This rejection of the politer art of the old school tied in rather well with the working class revivalism which followed Look Back in Anger (1956), and it must have helped that Birtwistle was a Northener from Accrington.

At any rate Birtwistle was taken up by Glock, as was Peter Maxwell Davies, and their two careers flourished accordingly. Birtwistle in particular became a poster boy for the kind of "challenging" and "edgy" art whose advocates felt divided them from the safe and suburban Mr and Mrs Concert Goer, arriving in a coach party from Frodsham. "But it hasn't got a tune", these tedious provincials wailed, bolstering the hipsters' sense (already pretty strong) that they themselves were breathing an altogether more rareified atmosphere.

So Birtwistle over the years came to be not just a purveyor of music that almost no-one wanted to listen to, but a symbol (for both sides of the argument) of the idea that avant gardism was not so much paving the way for the masses to follow as constituting an end in itself, a kind of super-art that only a certain tiny percentage of society was intelligent enough to "get".

Of course the fact that the masses were paying for their pleasure did not trouble the elite (nor, apparently, Sir Harrison).

So actually Birtwistle is really a British composer only in the sense that the British have paid for him to become what he is. He might be more accurately described as a European composer, firstly because his music owes much more to the European influences which took root on the continent and which, pre-Glock, British composers regarded with some suspicion, and secondly because the idea that a self-appointed elite should sit at the apex of a system, political or cultural, is one which has more parallels in recent European history than in Britain, with its long democratic traditions.

Ironically then, Birtwistle's eminence speaks much more eloquently about British cultural life in the second half of the twentieth century than his music ever has to British people.  In this sense, and only this, is Birtwistle "a profoundly British composer". His fame tells us something important about British society.

This is not an argument against public subsidy in art. Still less is it an argument that what the masses like must by definition be good. It involves instead a recognition that between Birtwistle at one end of the continuum and Karl Jenkins at the other there exists a great body of composers whose music the public might have liked if it had had a chance to hear it. It says that while it may be legitimate to use public money to pay for something for a bit to see if it catches on, there comes a point when the public's distaste becomes clear.

That point was reached with Birtwistle many decades ago.  But, as so often, the people who dish our money out knew better.

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Ring of the Nibelung - could have done better?

I have had opera up to the eyeballs. Last week I went with my wife to Glyndebourne to see Rosenkavalier, and on Saturday sat through Opera North's concert performance of Gotterdammerung in Salford.

Salford / Glyndebourne. You choose.

At last I can say I have seen The Ring. The Twilight of the Gods was the last instalment of the Opera North's four-year cycle, and OK it was only semi-staged, but rarely did we think any of it could have been improved by full production.

Is The Ring any good? That's a very large question. In 1990 Radio 3 broadcast it in a sequence of one act per night, and I listened to it religiously in a remote cottage on the island of Lewis in between bouts of reading Anna Karenina and writing a very bad orchestral piece. At the time I wrote in my diary, "A stupid story, but what wonderful music".  Nearly twenty five years later I can't disagree much with that.

It was reassuring to find that enthusiastic Wagnerians like George Bernard Shaw felt Gotterdammerung was the weakest of the four operas. So did we. Oddly, Wagner wrote its libretto first, and The Ring was conceived when Wagner realised that he would have to include a lot of back story for Gotterdammerung to make sense.

If the narration was cut down, it didn't show. The opening scene with the Norns felt like padding, and, even though I love Wagner, Act I, at 2 hours 15 minutes, was interminable. Shaw thought that Gotterdammerung was a reversion to the Grand Opera Wagner had been trying to avoid in the first three parts of The Ring, and whilst this may be true he nevertheless dealt with the grand passions of the characters in a majestic fashion. Brunnhilde's refusal to part with the ring even as Siegfried is unwittingly betraying her was magnificently written.

Nonetheless I felt the overarching dramatic scheme of The Ring would have been improved by a professional dramaturg like Hugo von Hoffmansthal. Hoffmansthal's work with Strauss in Rosenkavalier (and elsewhere) has a roundedness that Wagner's libretto lacks (and probably wouldn't have aspired to). The operas would have been better, shorter and more dramatically effective. Hoffmansthal might have done more with a character like Gutrune, the woman whom Siegfriend, under the influence of a magic potion (stupid story, remember), has betrayed Brunnhilde. Gutrune is thrust in front of us after the prologue and, embroiled in the plot immediately without any opportunity to establish herself as a character, remains an unengaging cipher.

However the character most conspicuously missing from Gotterdammerung is Wotan. He has banished Brunnhilde to the high rock, but Siegfried has rescued her, redeemed her even, with human courage and love. I would have given a good deal to see Wotan walk back on stage at the end. What music Wagner could have summoned up for a confrontation with Brunnhilde! But Wotan should also surely have been present for the fall of Valhalla - in his absence the collapse of the Gods is like Hamlet without the prince. It would have been good to know a little more of why the return of the ring to the Rhinemaidens necessarily meant the end of the old world and beginning of the new. After all, the Rhinemaidens had the ring at the beginning of Rhinegold, and that seemed to work for the Gods. And why should we think that the new world would be any better? Wagner doesn't tell us.

It may seem picky to find fault with The Ring's plotting and pacing, but that is the sort of exacting engagement Wagner would have expected and wanted. It's impossible to imagine his being satisfied with an audience which walked out thinking "Well that was nice", and then went home for tea and toast. We left talking about what we'd seen, and were still talking about it an hour later.

Of course, the heavenly length of The Ring, its unwieldy structure and dramatic raggedness, are part of its peculiar charm. The fact that it could have so easily been better still merely adds to the compelling nature of Wagner's creation.

I haven't mentioned the music. The best bits are amongst the best bits of 19th century Romanticism, and therefore amongst the best in any genre anywhere. In some of it Wagner seems to be treading water slightly, but in an idiom which you have to credit him for inventing, exploiting and finally growing out of. It is an amazing achievement.

On Saturday the Opera North orchestra played mostly well in a desperately unflattering acoustic, and Richard Farnes, who has lovely hands, conducted unflappably. I could have perhaps done with a bit more flapping. It won't be to everyone's taste, but here is George Solti conducting the Vienna Phil with Birgid Nilsson in the Immolation Scene. This gives a sense of the possibility of a no-holds-barred style of Wagner conducting which sometimes The Ring cries out for.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Luis Suarez - biting by accident?

Leaving aside the football itself - and what a gripping struggle last night's Germany -v- Algeria game was - the World Cup continues to provide peerless entertainment off the field.

Trying to explain how an Italian defender ended up with teeth marks in his shoulder, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez claimed, "After the impact . . . I lost my balance, making my body unstable and falling on top of my opponent . . . At that moment I hit my face against the player leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth".

This reminds me rather of the captain of the cruise liner Costa Concordia who, it will be recalled, left his sinking ship by accident when he tripped and fell into the lifeboat.

So far, so implausible. But fervent were the denials from Uruguayan people and press. It was an Italian plot. It was an English plot. It was a European plot. Suarez was innocent.

Except that it now turns out that he wasn't. Writing on Twitter, Suarez said. "I have had the opportunity to regain my calm and reflect on the reality of what occurred . . . the truth is my colleague Giorgio Chiellini suffered the physical result of a bite in the collision he suffered with me. For this I deeply regret what occurred, apologise to Giorgio Chiellini and the entire football family and I vow to the public there will never be another incident like it".

So Suarez did bite Chiellini. Certainly this is what the press is now reporting, although - once a lawyer, always a lawyer - read closely the statement looks more like an acknowledgment of the bite together with the claim that it was an accident.  Chiellini did "suffer the physical result of a bite", even if Suarez didn't mean to do it.

Still, everyone seems to think it is an admission, so perhaps that's what it is.

Suarez is still appealing the four-month ban FIFA handed out. If FIFA think his original denial was a lie, might they not be tempted to increase the ban rather than reduce it?

In Brazil the entertainment goes on and on.