Monday 26 October 2015

Haiku Music

No one travels
Along this way but I,
This autumn evening.
- Matsuo Bashō

They say that an artist should not release his ideas and creative processes into the world until they are fully fledged and ready to go. I'm going to write a piece of music and see what it's like to do the opposite. So, this blog and possibly others if it comes to anything, are the jottings of ideas as they come to me and a record of the music as it comes into being. Usually, I spend time with half-formed ideas in the background; get tired of waiting for them to form properly, sit down and begin to write almost at random. You have to start somewhere and see what happens. I'm often struck by how this seemingly random process yields up a piece of music that, without too much trouble, takes on a form and life of its own.

However, this time, I'd like to be more prescriptive, clearer about what the aims are. So, here is what I have so far. I thought of using poetry as a means for defining a narrative about facets of life: birth, youth, work, relationships, old age, death - that sort of thing. That might be too big a brief for a single piece of music - unless you are a Gustav Mahler and about to write another symphony, which I'm not. Instead, I said to myself, how about using the brevity of the haiku and applying its principle in the music: three lines of five, seven and five syllables. The haiku has a stable pattern and applying this to some music could be a means of organising it, for example in phrases of 5, 7 and 5 bars.  It could also suggest a rhythmic pattern or even a chordal structure.  Hmm, that seems to be a good start to me.

Scenes from a life or a journey in haiku form might introduce equally concise musical sections.  Those scenes could be philosophical (about life and death), practical (about getting a job, marriage, divorce), chance (events, discoveries, illness, accident), turning points (birthdays, moving home, meetings).  The list could go on. I'll put together a rough programme based on this and post again.

Monday 21 September 2015

How To Increase Audience Numbers

This is part of some research into the direction of music education, the mysteries of its funding and the associated role of community music-making. Contact me to contribute your opinion.

A constant complaint from music societies and promoters alike is the problem of audience numbers. I'm not well-enough informed to know if audience numbers in the classical music field are dwindling in general but I have some experience with certain aspects of it. It's a multi-fold subject and can't be considered as a whole to arrive at any useful conclusions. For example, classical music encompasses a whole range of genres, from early music and Baroque, to early 20th-century and contemporary, each genre with overlapping, but different audiences.

There are also different types of division to be recognised. For example, the division between those who know about music, who are versed in its esoteric jargon of cadences, codas, sonata forms and suspensions, and those who love listening to and playing music, know what they love, but don't know why and don't understand the jargon. Narrowing this gap would be a big help.

Age is a factor. At one end of the spectrum, the traditional classical program audiences, particularly for chamber music and music festivals, are aging and conservative in their taste. At the other end, the youthful end, potential audiences find it difficult to find a way in, discover only institutionalised pomposity and lack of visceral pleasure in concert going. It's the conservatism that is the barrier. Informality may be a key here to combating this.

I'm generalising, but whichever aspect of this problem you consider, the solution seems to lead back to music education and the relationship of grass-roots music making to this. The heart of music education is in our schools and colleges, but it should also be considered further afield. Music societies, for example, have a role to play in not only presenting music but, through education - presenting workshop programs, say - encouraging new members and involving audiences in the process of making music.

This has come into focus because of severe funding pressures on music education in schools, where everyone seems to recognise the benefits of learning about and participating in music but places too low a monetary value on it. Consequently, there is a void in music education opening up that can be filled by music societies of all kinds.

In terms of the practicalities of how to increase audience numbers, well, imagine concerts that are not based on 'them and us', not based on audiences down here and musicians up there, but which aim to make connections between the them and the us. We need a new word to describe the audience plus musicians symbiosis: the living together of two dissimilar organisms. The musience?

Monday 7 September 2015

Musical Graffiti

Here's a potted portrait of a modern composer, compared with the moody creature who used to sit down with a quill pen and scratch inky marks on some parchment paper, balanced precariously on the top of a piano or harpsichord (the parchment not the composer). This new being uses a digital audio work station, patches and loops, samples and special effects, ready loaded into his mixing desk. Then, on stage, in front of a shouting, jumping audience, he starts with a bass line and synthesised drums. After that the remixes flow of prerecorded music. This is where the composition factor kicks in, for our composer can now be as creative as he can or wants, mixing in, mixing out. The audience love it and will groove along for hours. The place is jumping and our composer is having a great time, too. Oh, yep, and don't forget the syncronised light show, the laser beams and disco lights, the backdrop film that turns the whole set into a spaceship or a volcano, a journey through mountains or a trip to the bottom of the sea. That's a face of contemporary composition, a skilful scribbling with sound.

Monday 13 July 2015

A Little History of Clapping

There are other ways of expressing appreciation in public than by slapping your hands together but I can't think of a better one. It is the obvious thing to do at the end of a performance or speech. Is it as simple as that? Is it worth a second thought? Humans must have the clapping instinct for babies do it spontaneously to express delight. Clapping, however, is not always a sign of appreciation. Slow hand claps express impatience and it is possible to clap ironically, too:  yeah, yeah, you think you are so great... Clapping is expressive: the louder and the longer, the more is the sign of approval.

Clapping at classical music concerts has become a sign of sophistication: clap in the wrong place or at the wrong time and you are surely an ignoramous. At the end of an unfamiliar piece when no-one is quite sure if it has finished, the ensuing second or two's silence contains slight universal embarrassment for no-one wants to make a fool of themselves by clapping out of place, yet everyone wants to show appreciation. It would be so much more embarrassing if no-one clapped at all. As leader of my orchestra, I sometimes walk in to take a bow before a concert starts. At my approach, a single preordained clapper starts clapping. Instinctively, the rest of the audience can't help it; they join in with the ritual.

Where does it come from? No-one knows. The ancient Romans had a set ritual of applause for public performances, expressing degrees of approval: snapping the finger and thumb, clapping with the flat or hollow palm, waving the flap of the toga. Wiki says, that a claque (French for 'clapping') was an organised body of professional applauders in French theatres and opera houses who were paid by the performers to create the illusion of an increased level of approval by the audience.

In Christianity, customs of the theatre were adopted by the churches and in the 4th and 5th centuries applause of the rhetoric of popular preachers had become an established custom. Applause in church eventually fell out of fashion, however, and partly through the influence of the quasi-religious atmosphere of the performances of Richard Wagner's operas at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus the reverential spirit that inspired this soon extended back to the theatre and the concert hall.

That reverence in the concert hall has a stifling effect and may be a reason why audiences for classical music are harder and harder to come by; may be a reason why the young, i.e., those lacking reverence, are unsupportive. My contention is, remove the sense of reverence for the performer and the relationship between audience and performer intensifies. They can each then play their respective roles with more freedom and enjoyment. Ergo, audience numbers increase.  Perhaps get the audience clapping over with at the beginning of an event and then forget it. Heckle and clap as an individual any time you feel like it, though. And show appreciation by coming again. Diminishing the sense of reverence won't diminish respect for a great performance. I don't hear clapping for my wise words. Is that because you have a sandwich in one hand?

Tuesday 30 June 2015

About Music

I have been playing in a trio at one or two local homes for the elderly and disabled, learning a lot from this, particularly in gaining performance experience. To be able to play for an entirely uncritical audience removes a lot of the pressure that creates nerves and enables focusing on playing and communicating. Conversely, however, when you perform it is essential to feel that an audience is responding and in a classical environment this usually means that they sit quietly while you play, then applaud, at least politely, when you finish. For the trio neither of these necessarily applies and that can be disconcerting.

In these circumstances, you learn that even to evoke a small response from a person suffering from dementia can be an indication of the effect that music has. Quite literally it has the ability to take a fractured personality and make it whole again. Listeners with quite advanced stages of mental degeneration can become animated, self aware and can remember the music we are playing that they may have heard many years before. We've played sessions that we call 'Memory Music' to great effect.


This experience, amongst others, was why a couple of years ago I set off on a musical expedition to find out more about the way classical music is appreciated. This has changed over the years, particularly in recent times, coinciding with discoveries about how the brain responds to music. This project became a bit of an obsession and has resulted in a book, Ramblings About Music and the Mind, or, simply, About Music. It's an exploration of the borders between the art and science of music.

I'd like your help with the next stage: if you think you might be interested in the content, which ranges free and wide from music and Pythagoras in Ancient Greece to the contemporary music technologies of today, there is a synopsis at There is also a short questionnaire with the synopsis which will provide me with some valuable feedback. I'd be grateful if you can take a few minutes to have your say and email this to me.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Contemporary Music Project

The Contemporary Music Project (CMP) website was becoming a collection of items of general interest, news items and reviews, confused and mixed up with my personal stuff, teaching work, compositions and writings. As each of these areas has become quite substantial in its own right and to avoid confusion between the two, they are now separated. The CMP has become an independent magazine-style website, and my personal work has been removed to a new domain,

The CMP is soon to be relaunched under its new brief, so if any of my friends and contacts in the music biz. would like to send me your news items, events and suggestions for features relevant to new music, I'd be happy to help with publicising them for you.  Watch this space for further developments.

On a personal level, the Ramblings About Music (and the Brain) project has been a preoccupation for some time and I now have a manuscript ready for publication, so if you are a commissioning editor and would like first dibs on this, let me know and I can send some samples to you. Basically, it is a collection of all the musical trivia that has interested my over the years, formed into a cohesive whole seeking out the spirit of music and set against the background of a long-distance walk along the Welsh-English border. There is a fuller description on my website.

Friday 24 April 2015

Comedy Cuts

I wasn't back home quite as late as expected from the KOKO and the Bonzo's gig last Friday, but it was still pretty late, especially considering I had to be up for conducting our local orchestra first thing in the morning. The lack of sleep did not, to quote Wooster, make me exactly disgruntled in the morning but I was far from gruntled.  Worth it, though.

I described the venue in my last blog and I can add a little to this now. When you enter through the foyer of the KOKO, you find yourself not in the theatre pit but straight onto the upper balcony, a disorienting experience. In other words the stage is buried well below ground level. It's a proper 'Muppet' theatre with its rows of ornate boxes adorning the walls layered right up into the gods. The Bonzos were accompanied by their own version of Statler and Waldorf. At this gig the odd couple of disagreeable old men were more akin to a tribute act for the surrealist duo Gilbert and George, making their weird artistic comedy contributions throughout the show.

There is a long line of comedy acts leading to the Bonzos beginning in the days of old-time music hall and threading its way through to the Temperance Seven, the New Vaudeville Band and on to the Beatles pastiche band, the Rutles, created by Eric Idle and Neil Innes in the 1970s, who were supporting.

While driving home afterwards and reflecting on the great show I'd witnessed, I was reminded of a couple of acts whose memory is worth resurrecting. The first of these is Spike Jones (1911-1965) whose band of musicians were, like the Bonzos, highly skilled, unruly and rebellious but, perhaps unlike the Bonzos, were rehearsed down to the finest detail of comedy timing, the whole show being well supported by the USA TV networks. Spike's madcap musical comedy is well worth taking on board and you won't have heard Tchaikovsky like this before.

The other comic musician was a household celebrity still remembered by many but who may now not recall the reason for recognising his name. The Danish Victor Borge (1909-2000) achieved widespread fame in the USA and Europe as a classical pianist who single-handed took the pomposity and elitism of classical music and reduced it to tatters. Musical skill and comedy timing are used by Victor Borge as the blade that slashes at the classical bubble and boy does it let rip. He clearly provided inspiration for Morecambe and Wise's musical sketches, including the one with Andre Preview, and made his own notorious appearance on the infamous Muppet Show. But then which celebrity of any note didn't.

Monday 16 March 2015

KOKO The Club

Remember Coco the Clown?  I wonder if he ever performed at Camden's KOKO Club. Actually, the KOKO is in Mornington Crescent and when chatting about this amazing venue with one of my friends he exclaimed, "Is Mornington Crescent a real place? I thought it was made up as part of that pointless game in 'I Haven't A Clue'".  Well, yes, it's a real place with shops, a London tube station all of its very own and the KOKO Club. I've been there before for Wilko Johnson's so-called last tour, a great night and there's another coming up with the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, or what's left of them. What's left includes Bob Kerr of Woopee Band fame who I used to love hearing and watching in the '70s, complete with mad-cap instruments and magic tricks on stage.

There's a long long tradition of comedy popular and rock music and the Bonzos were a major part of it. Remember before them the New Vaudeville Band?; remember Vivien Stanshall's Kenny-Everett-forerunner radio show? Rember the Urban Spaceman (baby, I've got speed)? Anyway, the sun had got his hat on when I visited the KOKO last week just to reconnoitre and solve parking problems, getting to and from the venue and out of London again, etc., when the Bonzo's anniversary gig happens in April.

What an appropriate place for this event. The KOKO, now a venue showcasing live modern music, used to be Camden Palace, a variety theatre that was one of the largest such venues in London, opening over a hundred years ago in 1900 and even hosting operatic performances. Now it is one of the few remaining relatively independent music venues, which are becoming rare throughout the country. So, if you can do anything to support such places as the KOKO, there may be a venue near you, then please do so. Look at the fab architecture in the pic. The dark grey bit at the front has just been bolted on to the main building behind.

Friday 9 January 2015

The Way In

Looking for something outside the box of classical music? Bored with recycled soothing background music? Want to find out what's hip and happening in today's progressive music world?  Start here.

Contemporary music can be considered as music composed post World War II, that is, from the end of the 1940s on. This covers a period which could be described as a time of permanent revolution in music and includes such extremes as total serialism (Boulez), experimental (Cage), abstract expressionism (Feldman), minimalism (Glass), tintinnabuli (Part), uncomfortable (Crumb, Ligeti), mystical (Tavener), ambient (Eno), landscape (Luther Adams). There is so much, it's difficult to know where to start but rest assured there will be music that you will hate and much that you will love.

In the UK, we are blessed with some great modern composers and their works. One is Howard Skempton, expert at the miniature, given particular mention here because his work is disarmingly undemanding, despite his somewhat unorthodox personal musical history going back via Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra. Another is the recently deceased Jonathan Harvey who has left a legacy of great contemporary music, particularly his larger scale works. The UK is also the proud possessor of BBC Radio 3 with its contemporary music programming ('Here and Now') and the annual Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music, spearheading live events.

At this point, check out my Timeline of 20th century composers and events to start building a picture of how rich and diverse contemporary music is.
Here are ten suggestions for you to listen to. It's not a 'top ten' in any sense, but a play-list cross-section of styles, so you'll get a feel for the diversity of contemporary music and maybe find something you really respond to. You can stream these pieces from Soundcloud or Grooveshark.

Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel
Terry Riley, In C
George Crumb, Black Angels
John Luther Adams, Become Ocean
Howard Skempton, Lento
Jonathan Harvey, Speakings
John Coolidge Adams, Shaker Loops
Krzysztof Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
Michael Nyman, Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds
Toru Takemitsu, How Slow the Wind

Like to explore more? I've recently converted my website into amagazine format and it's all about contemporary music. It has a new address, too, and is the Contemporary Music Project.