Archive for the 'work-life balance' Category

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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Since I heard about social proof, and more specifically Joshua Bell’s famous busking experiment, I’ve wondered what in fact determines my own musical taste: how independent is it of others?  Like anyone, I want to think I’m a free spirit.

This may not be helpful, but the only sure example I have where I responded independently to a piece of music was Michael Jackson‘s Billie Jean.  I really did not like his music in the period up to 1983 for very particular reasons: Off the Wall had been played in our house for several years till it drove me up the wall.

From what may have been the very first UK airplay of Billie Jean, I immediately went out and ordered the 12″ version, making the record an outlier in an LP collection of otherwise orthodox neurotic-boy-outsider (NBO) teenage angst music. That’s if you exclude the bootleg Buddy Guy album that found its way to small-town Lincolnshire by some miracle or another.  Much is made of the revolutionary impact the accompanying video had on the success of Billie Jean, and that may all be true, but I know that did not influence me.

It didn’t stop there.  Soon after, and in a similar fashion, I heard the roughly contemporaneous Walk Right Now, penned and performed by Jackson and brothers.

Walk Right Now certainly does illustrate my early experiences of social proof in action.  I upset and embarrassed a good many of my adolescent chums with this one, particularly one who was a dyed-in-the-wool Joy Division and Morrissey fan. He loathed it, until his big brother (whom he worshipped) returned from Cambridge porting it in his own diminutive singles collection.  Things were crossing over fast in 1983 for those of us with parochial musical tastes and where the only good record shop occupied the tiniest of former corner stores.  Within a few months of Billie Jean’s release, my friend found his erstwhile NBOs, New Order, going all techno-dance on him, creating a yet more legendary 12-inch.

It seems impossible to know the truth about Michael Jackson.  Maybe, with Billie Jean, he flew too close to the sun.  I understand New Order, meanwhile, retired and went yachting.

And here, as promised, we cross over from maudlin to up-tempo.

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I don’t know much about Lévy flights, and I don’t know much about Artie Shaw.  While I don’t have any Artie Shaw recordings (yet) he is a little bit of a hero of mine.

The standard biographical narrative of Shaw was that his performing career — which experienced some of the highest peaks in 20th century commercial musical achievement — was punctuated by periods of creative and physical exhaustion, including revulsion toward his popular success.  So, not many similarities to the Knackered Hack’s experience, except the downside elements, I admit.

In one of his later periods of retreat, it seems that Shaw was preoccupied with studying high-level mathematics.  I wonder if his creativity could perhaps be defined by the concept of Lévy flights?  Now, if you think I’m talking Jackson Pollocks here, you might indeed be right. For the distribution of paint by the very same may have been following some form of fractal pattern:-

There are two revolutionary aspects to Pollock’s application of paint and both have potential to introduce chaos. The first is his motion around the canvas. In contrast to traditional brush-canvas contact techniques, where the artist’s motions are limited to hand and arm movements, Pollock used his whole body to introduce a wide range of length scales into his painting motion. In doing so, Pollock’s dashes around the canvas possibly followed Levy flights: a special distribution of movements, first investigated by Paul Levy in 1936, which has recently been used to describe the statistics of chaotic systems.

I understand there is a risk of seeing heavy-tailed distributions everywhere, particularly to my untrained eye.  But with the creative arts — the clustering of success — it does seem to follow.

I wonder too if it explains, at a very banal level, the frequency of my blog posting, about which I know a few of you are concerned.  To illustrate the two extremes of recent Knackered Hack experience, some Artie Shaw to entertain you.  In the meantime, I will be trying to produce a cluster of posts.  Shaw fans can correct me, but the first piece below reflected the essence of the man, while the second was what people liked him for.  The titles will amuse Mandelbrotian students of markets.  And Shaw’s exuberant swing music flourished in the depression.

At the end of this one, Artie Shaw and sidekicks explore bounded rationality and sum up the perennial challenge for all businesses.

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A recent controversial report from the University of Buckingham found that UK schools specialising in music produce better physics results than those specialising in science. And then education watchdog Ofsted reported that half of the schools it had inspected lacked adequate provision for music education, that music teachers felt marginalized or isolated and did not receive the developmental opportunities they needed.

A couple of years ago Howard Goodall — who in this country is fast becoming to music what David Attenborough is to natural history — was given £10 million to expand the use of singing across the curriculum in primary schools. It was highlighted then that singing could be instrumental in the learning of a variety of subjects but that many teachers lacked confidence to deliver any musical experience at all for their students. A further £40 million or so seems now to have gone into the Sing-Up campaign.

Where teacher confidence is absent, I understand there are cascading techniques to spread music from older to younger children. Perhaps the Sing-Up promotional video hints at that:-

When something’s not working, or some kind of competitive differentiation is needed, there is a strategy (described by Scott Page) called “do the opposite“. So here’s a wild idea. Why don’t we give Howard Goodall the entire national education budget, not just £50 million, and then see what happens? I’d bet things would not get worse. And there’s an outside chance we’d solve many more of our educational difficulties than our current pragmatic approach, in particular the social problems that arise from the inability of barely literate children to take their proper place in an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy.

A whole chapter in a book of knackeredness could be devoted to the brokenness of modern musical experience. Music tends these days to be consumed rather than practised. The neat thing about Sing-Up is that it seems to be using technology to reverse this.

The institutions for participation in music are rightly or wrongly mostly organized by the classical music tradition, because that is where the majority of skills to perform and teach resides. But there exists now a kind of philistinism that has separated this world from the bulk of the population, as parents (and I suspect many teachers) prefer something more familiar and accessible (to them) from the world of pop. But in the past, whether it was colliery bands, or church choirs, quite serious music could be a source of social cohesion and, for the able person, a technology for social mobility.

Teaching children songs is a gift they keep for a lifetime, but the repertoire on offer seems to be diminishing. Sing-Up has its own Song Bank of high quality musical assets, which parents as well as schools can draw on. No matter how much music of whatever genre gets played at home, when a child really learns a song so that they can sing it out loud, and with others,  something more than just notes and words are rehearsed: a whole neurological, physiological and social complex gets activated. (Don’t tell anyone, but computer games, even I suspect Guitar Hero, don’t do that.)

When I was in primary school, the very flamboyant cathedral organist cruised in once a week in his rather incongruous metallic lime green Ford Mustang Mach I complete with thunderous tailpipes. We crowded his arrival, and believed, apocryphally, that this exotic vehicle (for small-town Yorkshire c1972) contained its very own mobile phone. He taught us folk songs from across the centuries, and from a standard school songbook. What a breath of fresh air if every child these days could sing the following paean to human fragility; it was my favourite.You wouldn’t catch a self-respecting pop musician touching that material these days, now would you?

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