I have invented a new game called Buxtehudethunkit that anyone with an internet connection can play. Like Googlewhack, where the purpose is to enter two search terms into Google that would yield only one result, Buxtehudethunkit is a way of interrogating  the BBC’s archive of Desert Island Discs to tell you something of the limits of celebrity taste. Though it might look like it, I did not do this to grandstand on the lesser aesthetics of the great and the good. They’re a mixed bunch, I know. In fact, when reflecting one’s own interests, these programmes can turn into a chastisement, depending on who you happen to share a favourite with. And my own musical taste increasingly turns out to be #nothingtowritehomeabout.

But even if you don’t think much of your own taste, or its past trajectory, there is the quote from Hermann Hesse, for which I’m obliged to the inspirational blog  On an Overgrown Path:-

If you want to know the condition of a nation, then listen to its music.”

The Desert Island Database and the accompanying national poll of favourites ostensibly allow this. Though I’m still not sure. I suppose with my single reference game I’m fishing here in the pool of probability among the Law of Small Numbers. And without a licence. Statisticians can dismiss it as the musical equivalent of homeopathy: so dilute as to be entirely unrepresentative. If the occurrence is singular, that could be entirely random. Furthermore, there is a remote possibility, because Desert Island Disc-ers are allowed eight choices, that the database might contain no reference to a piece of music that absolutely every participant would list as their Number 9, and probably does in some universe somewhere.

Set against any cultural pessimism concerning contemporary tastes, the test of time is said to have some mathematical, evolution-style validity to it. I guess this is because artistic success is a kind of complex system. Over time, it must somehow map to a constantly changing environment, so durability implies fitness. But this can go through some twists and turns. The flame can also go out, or at least appear to. Given his current prominence, how did that happen to Vivaldi? It is often cited that his music was forgotten from his death in poverty in 1741 until his revival in the 1930s, despite the enduring popularity of his pizza recipe.

So, one day I was idly trying to get a feel for the influence on the popular culture of Bill Nelson, or more specifically his 1970s art-rock band Be-Bop Deluxe, and the BBC had just put up its Desert Island Discs database where over 70 years of programmes of interviewees’ choices now lie.  Test-of-time-wise, Desert Island Discs is fit: it is the longest running radio show, ever.

I typed in first “Be-Bop Deluxe” then, less hopefully “Bill Nelson”. Nul points. Both times.  For good measure, but with slightly more expectation of success, I went off at a tangent and tried the recently-departed Gil Scott-Heron, thinking that a man described variously as the black Bob Dylan and godfather of rap/hip-hop might have some famous fans by now.  Encore, nul points.

To repeat: I was not trying to be clever. If there were any accounting for taste, given what has been spent on my musical education I’d be in foreclosure by now.

Be-Bop Deluxe were just a bit before my time, and only came to mind when I was checking  Bill Nelson’s back-story a little while ago. Nelson himself was regarded as one of the best guitarists of the ’70s, and he is now a cult figure, with his own sometimes annual festival, endorsed by major guitar manufacturers. So I thought there was a chance of some rock star acknowledgement somewhere, or perhaps that some baby-boomer film director or head of an arts body (who was a student in the ’70s) would have picked up on him.

After the disbandment of Be-Bop Deluxe, Nelson reappeared in my mid-teens with a song called Do You Dream In Colour? which reached #52 in the UK Singles Chart.  Back then, I occasionally mused on matters of cognition, and colour perception was part of it. I bought the ensuing album Quit Dreaming and Get on the Beam and got my hair cut short, as Bill Nelson’s appeared on the inner sleeve: an action my teachers, not conscious of the causation, considered a mark of maturity. I started sporting my inherited steel-toe-capped work boots, worn for winter paper rounds, as a fashion statement. The paper profits bought the Telecaster, remember.

But I’ve digressed, into overgrown path-dependence.

Having so far yielded nothing from the Desert Island Database, I felt obliged for a few minutes to keep hitting it in search of something I naïvely held to be culturally cuspal.  I then went classical and I tried Alkan, as in Charles-Valentin, Chopin‘s neighbour in Paris. Alkan classifies as a broken thing for curious study, which I’ll have to defer to another post; there are myths and facts about him which I have not fully disentangled in the record, so am apt to mislead.  Did he really die because a wall of book-shelving  fell on him, as he reached up high for a copy of the Talmud? Alkan came into the house a year ago via the piano tuner.  On his first visit, he (the tuner that is) pulled three CDs from his knapsack in illicit fashion like some well-tempered tambourine man. The result is that I have been hooked on Steven Osborne’s recording of the Esquisses ever since.  But Alkan also scored nul points from Desert Island Distraction.

So then I tried Buxtehude. For shame, and because of Spotify, I don’t own any Buxtehude, and I could not name a principal work. But my guess from all this was that Buxtehude was closer to the cusp, and may actually be the cusp of modern music itself, classical and popular.  Think bass-lines.  Go figure.

The database yields 649 mentions of Johann Sebastian Bach (compared with 718 for Beethoven, 790 for Mozart, and only 251 for The Beatles). Bach is an important anchor here, and despite those statistics, his stock has been rising over the past 70 years. It seems an increasing number — and especially musicians — regard him as the greatest composer of all time. Prolific in his own output,  he was the can-do cantata-writer, he allegedly nailed modern tuning for us — the art of enharmonic compromise that the piano tuner wields every six months on our own joanna.  He was a man more reliable and mathematical in his music than ever there was.  But he was also a man who went AWOL for three months from his first official post as a young professional, walked 400 kilometers across Germany and then 400km back, to study at the feet of the master. Yes, Buxtehude.  He even wanted to work as Buxtehude’s assistant and eventual successor in Lübeck, but baulked at the surprising condition of having to marry Buxtehude’s unprepossessing daughter. What were they smoking in HR in those days to let that contractual clause through?

That line-in-the-sand detail notwithstanding, to dem Bach himself Buxtehude was the greater man.  So, the composer who so influenced Bach — the man of 649 mentions — and could inspire him to become utterly derelict in his duties, must surely be mentioned in the Desert Island Dispatches somewhere. You would hope. Unless, of course, he was everybody’s ninth choice.

Given that Desert Island Discs was started in 1942, and for the first several decades the guests should have been mainly private-school, university-educated, po-faced establishment types with well-cultivated musical tastes, a great many brought up in the church, schooled in cathedral and Oxbridge choristry — the Buxtehude heartland, you might say — I was ready to see Buxtehude generate several results among 1950s bureaucrats or politicians, lord high chief surgeons/justices/FellowsoftheRoyalSociety, or at least among the major post-war classical musicians themselves, the people the sixties, Peter Cook and Monty Python were supposed to have rid us of, with their bow-ties, bowler hats and silly walks. But no. Buxtehude, he da man. Just one result.

Bingo!  Back of the net! Buxtehudethunkit!

Here’s the thing. Buxtehude, in spite of his massive indirect influence on our culture, is just clinging on for dear life in the celebrity endorsement jungle (from which there is no getting-me-out-of anymore).  And he was a no-show for the past 50 of those 70 years. On this basis, if you’re a pessimist, dumbing down will surely kill him off eventually.

Sadly, I can’t myself recommend any Buxtehude to you. He’s still kinda new to me. Instead, we’re forced to rely on  the comic actor Kenneth Williams. About six years into his fame he appeared on a 1961 Desert Island Discs and chose an organ piece, Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BuxWV 149. Who’da thunk it? Williams was no Edwardian grandee from one of the great universities but the son of a homophobic barber from King’s Cross. He straddled high and low culture, to the extent that it fueled his own self-loathing, leading (they say) to a misadventurous death. Williams was himself a cuspal figure of the 20th century, in comedy at least. So, he carried the cultural torch for Buxtehude, and heaven knows what else.

Here you will see him anticipating Nassim Taleb’s Expert Problem, and beyond that his own seminal contribution to English folk music, which has yet to be requested by any Desert Island Desperado. For shame.

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is it worth it?

11Jan10

Robert Wyatt quit Twickenham when it started to gentrify, he complained.  I feel partly responsible because my moving in coincided with his moving out.  I don’t think it was my fault, although I did arrive with two cars — a cardinal error for a cycling campaigner — but neither was a BMW.

In fact, one was a 1981 Mark V Ford Cortina Estate, beige, purchased specifically for the move.  In subsequent years it didn’t do much: being lent to visiting family and friends, or used occasionally to transport our tandem.  It cost me less than one month’s car allowance. OK,  the car allowance makes me sound yuppie.  I was a 28-year-old bureau chief:  precocious perhaps,  but I think the Cortina shows I was handling it well.  The other car was a Citroen 2CV6 Dolly, cream and maroon, about which there is no denying that it was a convertible.

I’m not an avid Robert Wyatt follower, but he does hold a special place in my musical affections  because when I was about 17 I rushed out to buy Shipbuilding on 12″ vinyl the moment I heard it, even though its melancholy reflection on the Falklands War, if I’m honest, probably did not fully reflect my politics at that time.  The record contained a haunting version of Thelonius Monk’s Round Midnight.

Some of you will know thatWyattingis a verb for entering a pub and playing  weird tracks on its  juke box to upset the regulars.  In response to a Guardian question as to whether he would himself “Wyatt”, the psychedelic jazz-rock guru uttered this immortal line:-

Oh no. I don’t really like disconcerting people. Although often when I try to be normal I disconcert anyway.

On New Year’s Day, Wyatt was the guest editor of BBC Radio 4‘s flagship news programme Today, and he did a bit of disconcerting there too.  Wyatt revealed that, despite having no god, his private passion is to wander up to his local parish church in Louth, Lincolnshire, and listen to the choir — his argument being that amateur choirs, lacking the ticks of professionalism with which he’s all too familiar, are what music is really all about.  How odd.

It’s true enough, the parish choir is about as unsung in our culture now as it’s ever likely to get, unless you think Wyatt’s advocacy is a sign of some incipient church choir revival.  That said, the National Secular Society recently celebrated the forecast that church attendance will fall off a cliff.  So maybe the days of the church choir are truly numbered, Wyatt or no.

And when you think about it, what a peculiar thing the parish choir is.  What motivates people to turn up at least twice a week first to practice then to sing to and with an ever-narrowing community of the faithful?  Surely, these musicians, and especially those with the skill to lead such ensembles, have better things to do with their time?  Why not ply their art on You-tube or Britain’s Got Talent?

For my own part, I hesitate to disconcert those who come here for an intermittent dose of skepticism but, despite a consistent pattern of anti-clericalism since childhood, for the past five years I have been been climbing into a threadbare blue cassock and surplice (which may have already seen in excess of half a century’s service) to supply my inadequate baritone voice to a local church choir. This choir, on some winter nights,  had looked so thin that there were doubts whether it could rally a quorum for the next weekend’s communion service. My own voice — which, from the point of view of the choirmaster, probably shares many of the handling characteristics of a Mark V Cortina Estate  — sometimes feels that it has barely improved despite all the practice; it still struggles over the familiar, and can fall apart when overly exposed. But, like the Cortina did all those years ago, it normally gets me from A to B, and (with a following wind) sometimes other notes in the octave too.

From the choir stalls, a modern congregation can look like a strange perversion of the Pareto principle.  Twenty per cent may be over eighty.  Or is it that eighty per cent is under five? — a function of making church attendance mandatory for entry to any associated faith-controlled school.  All garbed up in an elaborate frock, you might be forgiven for thinking that you are just window-dressing to the young urban-professional parents’ will to secure the best for their little ones in an Ofsted-mediated educational world without having to pay.  They disappear after a while, when the school gate has been opened to them, which is incidentally where you will next see them.

Then there are the times at the weddings of young women, who you might be lucky to have seen three times before,  when you feel you may be not much more than a bridal accessory, helping those among their family and friends who have lost their voices through decades of their own neglect stumble through what were once familiar rousing hymns to some common heritage.  You earn your money by filling the gap while registers are signed and witnessed, money which for some time  in our case has been hypothecated to a fund for new robes.  By the way, I heard tell of one bride (not local) who, when asked why she didn’t have the parish choir sing at her nuptials, replied that it was because they were too ugly.  Nice to know that, for some ladies, the parish choir is  in a category below corsages.

But then, there are the times when you have to contain your own tears at the funeral of a fellow singer whose participation has lasted decades and for whom singing provided a source of sustaining health and inter-generational companionship.  Or the time when you glance up momentarily from your score in a quotidian service to catch the doleful eye of  someone recently bereaved, or otherwise troubled, or the transfixed gaze of a musical toddler, someone who may later be driven to sing too, arm stretched aloft as they are dragged down the aisle to be blessed at the communion rail, perhaps witnessing real music for their very first time.

There is no shortage of music in the world, most of it now free at the point of download, but it sometimes seems that, for the handful of minutes that we pipe up every second Sunday, and perhaps this is what Wyatt is driving at, some power law of love is in operation, disproportionate to the music’s duration and even its absolute quality.

All that said, if we can press the pause-button on self-deprecation for a second or two, it is not always as haphazard or mark-missing as it sounds.  In the week before Christmas in a great many churches, and for as far back as it now matters, secular and liturgical have met as some sort of equals in the traditional carol service, something for which most choirs put in many hours of disciplined practice.  Doubtless, Wyatt was invoking this when he referred to his favourite piece of music as being Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of the Herefordshire carol This is the Truth Sent from Above, a truth he  nevertheless rejects.  As chance would have it, it was part of our candlelit Nine Lessons & Carols this year too. Through little bits of luck that brought in some new voices, our choir finally delivered a performance worthy of its tireless director: better, in his estimation, than any in the previous 20 years.

It’s a little rehearsed fact that English church music is the oldest Western musical tradition, stretching back 1400 years. Is it worth it? Only time will tell.

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overgrown paths

03Dec09

Purely by accident, in the mid 1990s, I bought a CD of Janacek’s Piano Works. It’s just possible that it was playing when I was browsing in the old Music Discount Centre on Ludgate Hill of a lunchtime. For economy, it was packaged in a cardboard sleeve on the Harmonia Mundi label; I associated them with early music and had had a lucky streak of enjoying everything I’d bought from them, sight unseen, as it were. That probably clinched it.

Despite what I now know of its relative lack of grand melodic themes cf. Rachmaninov and relative inaccessibility to early audiences, I soon found I really liked it. I’d dream that if I were to have kids, and they ever played piano, they might play this.

Before I met the Janacek, there were times in my twenties and even thirties when, feeling particularly mortal, I’d console myself that I’d at least played some (if not all) of a Mozart horn concerto. And, to be accurate, the slow movements of a couple without obvious error. I even won that competition in Yorkshire when just 12.

For that momentary brush with the hem of the musical gods’ raiment I always thought that I could count myself blessed: it was not fame nor fortune but it was a quantifiably better condition than most people in human history might have hoped for. Even within my own extended family, the only other person to have reportedly graced the public with musical performance was a bugler in the Northampton Boys Brigade. With my horn I’d somehow defied, if only for a little while, a more philistine destiny.

For reasons that are very complicated, I stopped playing the horn aged 18, two years after the only available teacher in the district moved away. I continue to dwell on this fact because of my faith that it may well illuminate the difficulties we all face in adhering to the protocols necessary to succeed in a complex discipline; we need a better understanding of fallibility if we are to create robustness.

The consequence of my giving up the horn (or was it the horn giving up me?) was that both metaphorically and neurologically some musical pathways became sadly overgrown; I lost that knowledge of music “from the inside”.  More recently, however, when I took the horn out and went through the warm-ups recommended in a manual that I acquired back in 2001 during an earlier attempt to reopen those paths, I reached a top B: that is, the B above third line C. There was even a hint (though not a full tone) of top C itself. Whether it is just over the summer holidays, or a period of 25 years, the extent of that overgrowth will be different: your mileage may vary (or YMMV, as they like to say on Twitter).

As a technology of inspiration for mid-life extension, Janacek would command a five-star review. A spiky character, his career was marked by relative obscurity until he was around 50, whereafter it took off. Unusually for a composer, his work got better and better until he died. I’m just about to start reading his biography, The Lonely Blackbird.

Oh, and before I forget, the music shop called today to say that the sheet music for On An Overgrown Path has just arrived.

Following VIII. Unutterable Anguish, is IX. In Tears.

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I managed to live over 40 years without ever consciously hearing the word “pianism“.  And perhaps that explains why there is no appropriate Wikipedia entry. Then again, maybe this is a genuine example of social media failure.  How can it be that a word that describes the technique of playing one of the most transformative musical inventions of all time has not been covered yet by one of us wisdomofcrowdshivemindtypewritermonkeys?

If I follow the logic of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together, it is actually my fault there is no entry for pianism; being the first person to have discovered the chasm in the wikicrust, I should have done my social media duty and filled it in with what passes for the aggregate of my knowledge so that others following would not stumble into the same psychotic abyss.  Instead, selfishly, I thought I’d share this glaring absence with you my few friends for a bit of a snigger.  But you are probably not sniggering, except perhaps at my archness, which, after all this time, I’m a little disappointed that you’re not accustomed to yet.

In mitigation, social media delivered me a gem just the other day: one of those recycled gems that litter the digital steppe.  Via some path I can’t now recall, I ended up on Amazon reading a DVD review that immediately and uncharacteristically prompted me, Pavlov-canine-like, to click “Add to Shopping Basket“, surreptitiously bypassing the obligatory cooling off period in “Wish List“:

My title [One of the Most Extraordinary Piano Films Ever Made] applies primarily to the 1965 black and white film of Alexis Weissenberg playing Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, amazingly creatively filmed in Stockholm by Åke Falck. I remember seeing this film on TV almost forty years ago and the memory of it has stayed with me ever since. I am so pleased finally to have a copy of that marvellous film. Weissenberg was in his early thirties at the time and at the very height of his considerable form. The views provided by Falck are highly unusual but each has a clear intention of adding to our enjoyment of the music by showing us in closeup both the hands of Weissenberg and the movements of the mechanism of the piano; the camera actually almost climbs inside the piano. The whole thing is filmed with high-key contrast. This is one of the great piano films ever made.

Having confessed to an ignorance of pianism, I am not, however, going to reveal here that I had not heard of Alexis Weissenberg either, nor ever knowingly listened to Petrushka (orchestral or piano version). So don’t ask.

About 18 months ago, I did finally come across this word “pianism”, and on Saturday mornings now I sometimes get to observe it (albeit at my own not inconsiderable expense) being painstakingly transferred from one generation to another.  But I would not dare create a wiki based on these fly-on-the-wall insights.

The other day too, I overheard someone say that, in contrast to the guitar, the piano always sounds like the piano.  Reining in my passion for contradiction I said nothing, even though I was sure that couldn’t be right.  Pianism is about making the instrument sound like all sorts of things that it is not.  A little way in to the Petrushka, the piano does stop sounding like a piano (around 1 minute 35 seconds). In the DVD “extras” Weissenberg too makes an argument that the sounds a piano can make defy the physics of hammer hitting strings. (Ironically, you will find out if you buy it that to film the Petrushka they had to use playback and build a piano without strings).

By other miracles, the copyright owners appear to have provided this enticement for your limbic system. Neurologically speaking, and pace Clay Shirky, the definitive book on pianism might be subtitled How Change Happens When People Spend A lot of Time On Their Own.

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1000 cuts

18Sep09

There seems to be a move to make the Lehman Brothers’ collapse the central turning point in the whole financial and economic crisis.  But this is what Nouriel Roubini thinks:-

Some people suggest that letting Lehman go in this way was a mistake and if we had just bailed out Lehman everything would have been fine. We would have avoided this global meltdown, this global recession. I believe this interpretation of history is totally incorrect, because by the time Lehman had collapsed the housing recession had already started two years ago and was getting worse. So the idea that the crisis started with the collapse of Lehman and if we had only bailed out Lehman everything would have been OK in my view is just total nonsense.  We were already in the middle of a severe economic and financial crisis, and a mortgage problem and a greater credit crunch that had been developing and worsening step by step for almost two years.

Why might it be attractive at this stage in the crisis to draw attention to Lehman as a key turning point? I wonder if such a simplified narrative, and one that hinges on a relatively recent policy error (if that is what Lehman’s collapse was), lets a lot more of us off the hook. If you did not appreciate the enormity of what was happening before Lehman collapsed and weren’t prepared — whether in business, journalism or just in your own household — you can draw a line under your ignorance and apportion blame more specifically. I suspect for journalists, analysts, investors and executives who found themselves adrift as events started turning sour post-February 2007, it allows them to reinvent themselves as more knowledgeable than they in fact were.

It must be some kind of memory bias at work.  But which one to choose?

More from Roubini and the notion that we may still face death by a thousand cuts:-

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