The Potency of Cheap Music

Noel Coward’s observation on the potency of cheap music came to mind on Saturday morning.  I’d arrived in the vicinity of my weekend art class half an hour early, so I went into a nearby Starbucks to kill a few moments out of the cold.

When I was in my last job I used to spend an hour or so each morning in one of the chain’s shops, not because I particularly like their coffee, but more because of the convenience of its location and the fact that the tables are the right height for writing to be comfortable.  It was a routine, but for only 10 months of the year.  Only 10 months, because I couldn’t stand to spend any time in the place in November and December when the air was filled with the most egregiously awful Christmas music imaginable.

Red Cup Alert!

I remembered this a few moments too late this weekend.  It was just as I paid for the coffee I didn’t really want, but which felt like the price of renting a table for the time I needed that the music began; something painful and twee about snow and ivy.  Then I noticed the stack of red paper cups, the signal I used to use as the warning to go further afield for sanctuary.  I’ll not make the same mistake again this season.

Music is such a critical element in creating a pleasing a comfortable environment, with both the power to attract and repel.  My aversion to the Starbucks Christmas soundtrack reminded me of how oppressed I felt by not being able to avoid the Muzak pumped into the air when I visited Disneyland a few years ago.  Everywhere we went from the park itself, to the shopping and restaurant area outside, to the bus stop, the bus and the lobby, lifts and corridors of the hotel.  Only in our room  could we enjoy silence.

Silence does seem to be an underrated virtue.  Most people appear to avoid the unpleasant noises in their environment by plugging themselves into their own music systems, unhitching the earphones only when there is no option but to talk to another person.  Some day we may all be deaf to the silences in between all the noise.

It occurs to me I’m not the first to notice the powerful oppression it is possible to exert through the imposition of unwelcome noise: Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-four dreams of being able to turn off the television screen in his flat, while the rules about a child’s place in society are fed to them through attachments to their heads while they sleep in Brave New World.  

But George Orwell had a totalitarian political system in mind…….

Different Shades of Choral Singing – Manipulation or Inspiration?

There seems to be a lot of Choirs out and about in the zeitgeist at the moment.  Maybe it’s just because once I’ve noticed one, I see them everywhere.

Last week I wrote about the impact that the first episode of the new series of ‘The Choir‘ on BBC had on me, and indeed I found the second equally affecting;  there is such a feeling of genuine enthusiasm and belief in the power of singing together.

But just as I am enthused and moved by the stories told in that programme, I am repelled by the attempts to flog me stuff in adverts filled with groups of people singing.  There’s one for a bank, one for IT education; there are car ads, and dairy spreads.  Enough! I shout at the television whenever they appear.

I suppose that’s how advertising works though, isn’t it?  Pick up on something that is happening organically and then exploit it to piggyback on the positive connotations in the hope that we won’t notice that it’s all just junk, and to turn what had once been interesting and inspiring into so much commercial dust.

So let’s enjoy the real thing before it’s degraded beyond repair.

On Saturday evening I went to part of a performance by Edinburgh Academy choir, in which one of the children with whom I’m staying this week participates.  A large number of children, ranging from rather dishevelled little boys, wearing school shirts clearly bought for growth, to young women in eye-liner and carefully styled hair, joined together to give a nuanced and engaging performance of Gershwin songs.  From my vantage point to the side of the choir, in the circular venue, I had a perfect view of the teacher conducting.  So swept along by his energy and focussed control, it was hard to resist the temptation to join in.

I’ve subsequently learned that as well as this full, ‘anyone can join in’ choir, the school also has a smaller selected chamber group, who are the reigning champions of a BBC school choir competition.

Understanding Song Lyrics ……. Or Not

I’ve heard a couple of instances recently of pop song lyrics being compared to poetry.  Firstly, it seems that some of Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics are being published by Faber & Faber.  While I heard him on the radio denying that he would compare his compositions to poetry, publication by such a prominent poetry publisher, suggests something to the contrary.

I am utterly unqualified to comment on either Jarvis Cocker or poetry, but there was a striking synchronicity in that news on the one hand, and a segment in the recent Stephen Fry programme about language ‘Fry’s Planet World‘.  The series in itself was an interesting one, looking at the development of language and the way it is used, and in the final episode, among other people, he spoke to Richard Curtis who commented on how powerful he found many popular song lyrics; they say things simply and effectively.  Part of his argument about their strength was the idea that we share the experience of them and the accompanying music with thousands of other people and that increases their power.

That assertion is somewhat mysterious to me.   I’m not sure I could even tell you what the words in most of my favourite songs actually are.  I hear some of the words, or more specifically I hear some of the vowel sounds and make assumptions about what the words are; I rarely hear a coherent idea, or more than three words in a row.

As a teenager in the age of the LP, part of the whole experience was to play the vinyl on my record player and lie on my bed with the album cover propped on my stomach reading the lyrics off the back of the sleeve.  I think that probably means that the last time I paid any particular attention to song lyrics was before I left university.  Given the number of tracks I now have on my iPod, that’s an awful lot of words that have totally passed me by.

Interestingly, though, I do notice if the lyrics are simple-minded and repetitive, and switch those songs off.  Otherwise, I think it is the combination of the music, the shapes of the sounds and the timbre of the performer’s voice that appeal to me; I’d listen to Michael Stipe sing pretty much anything, but couldn’t be persuaded to sit through a single minute of Celine Dion do the least thing.

Richard Curtis’s comments about the shared experience of listening to pop songs reminded me of possibly one of the most ludicrous experiences of my working life.  I was invited to partake of corporate hospitality at a U2 concert at Earls Court in London by a firm of accounting advisors.  I accepted because, when I can close my eyes and ears to their self obsessed pretentiousness, I’m a fan.  It was somewhat disconcerting to be in  group of accountants dressed in their office wear, standing, waving their arms in the air, bellowing along to the chorus of ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’.  I felt utterly displaced, as if I was having an experience which would be categorised as the polar opposite of a ‘shared’ one.

But here’s one song in which I can hear all the words, and which appeals to me, probably because of the fantastically economical way it tells a whole life story.  I also like the, possibly apocryphal, story that Mary Chapin Carpenter was inspired to write it after seeing a tremendously patronising advertisement for Geritol, a US multi vitamin, which was, at the time, directed at women.

A Song For Every Occasion?

There’s a song for every occasion, isn’t there?  There are the melodies that evoke a particular time and place; the ones that were played at the school disco, or the ones that accompanied revision or a particular holiday on the beach.

But there are also those other ones; those that have stuck in your head, even though they were awful at the time and have certainly not improved with age.  Somehow, though, they’ve something inescapably catchy about them, and, no matter how you try to suppress them, they arrive unbidden at the smallest of prompts.

Recently a friend’s child was telling me about her first trip to an American summer camp, and I simply couldn’t resist the first lines of  ‘Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda’, evoking my own memories of that radio stalwart of ‘Two Way Family Favourites’ …..indelibly marking me out as from a different generation from both parent and child because I had to explain the programme to both of them.

We moved on from that to a quick solo on a newly acquired ukulele, in response to which I enquired about the chances of hearing a rendition of ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’.  Youtube came to the rescue again; that source of even the most arcane things, including a little photo montage of George Formby.

So to explain a potential bumpiness in the blog over the next couple of days, I offer up this oddity, for which I’m embarrassed to admit I could remember nearly all the lyrics even before I located this rendition…..

At the Proms – No 44

Two concerts in a week: it must be the Proms season.

There must be many people like me who don’t often attend classical concerts, but always try to make it to the Albert Hall in August.  Many of the concerts are sold out, and even the standing room is jammed with enthusiasts; well you’d have to be to enthusiastic to stand, wouldn’t you?

It’s always fascinating to observe the audience; from the moment you arrive in the vicinity of the Albert Hall, it’s clear who the regulars are: they’ve got their folding chairs and picnics in plastic boxes, and a bottle of wine to share with the people they met in the queue ten years ago and now catch up with regularly.  And then there’s the beard club; they meet on the steps in the square in front of the box office entrance and compare the waxing of their moustaches.   Or is that just me making up a story about strangers again?

Concert 44 was an all Russian programme of Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky played by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Peka Salonen.  The soloist in the Shostakovitch No 1 Violin Concerto was Georgian, Lisa Batiashvili.

It all started very well.  I love watching an orchestra; all that organised concentration; all those people all sitting close together with just enough room not to trip each other up.  I always check out the percussion section first.  How many of them are there?  How are the instruments allocated amongst them?

Shostakovitch’s The Age of Gold is full of percussion; there were seven in the section, sitting arms folded for most of the piece.  What do they think about, in a twilight of half attention waiting for their cue to hit the the drum, or clash the cymbals, maybe only once?  How awful it would be to miss their moment.   I loved the fun of the piece with its variety of dance and jazz rhythms; it could almost be a pastiche, and was, I think, written for a Soviet ballet designed to show the virtues of Communism compared to the the loose morals of capitalism, and something about that amuses me.

The Violin Concerto required fewer percussionists, so a couple of them left, their evening’s work complete.  One of them must have got dressed up in his tails and showed up to play the triangle for one piece, maybe hitting the thing no more than a dozen times.  What does the job description look like for ‘freelance triangle player’, I wonder?

The Concerto is not a piece I’d heard before, and I could see it was very tricky and difficult, and it was truly remarkable how silent and rapt the audience were when the solo violin was playing softly, but it didn’t really speak to me, and I did grow a little impatient with all the musical showing off.

Stravinsky’s Petrushka is another piece originally written as a ballet, first incarnated by Nijinsky and the Ballet Russes, and it’s the melodic rhythmic passages which involved me, but then I wandered off  during the bits in between and started watching the timpanist again, anticipating when he would burst into action.

But that’s all part of the show too, isn’t it?

At the Proms – No 37

Waiting for the concert to start

Sitting at the Albert Hall looking at the full ranks and rows of seats, of people sitting in silence, waiting for the first notes from the orchestra, it was unavoidable to think about the nature of crowds.

Recent evidence on the television news would suggest that even otherwise generally law abiding individuals can, at the sight of a broken shop window and other people staggering away weighed down by boxes of consumer durables, lose their moral compass and join in to take advantage to pick up their own new HD ready flat screen TV.  The plate glass was already all over the street, everyone was had nicked something, so why not?

What makes one collection of people behave violently and another congregate quietly?  Surely it’s not that we just copy what everyone around us is doing?  I have no idea; but recently it does feel as if there is a perilously narrow line between a frightening crowd and the enjoyment of an experience shared with a group of strangers.

Last week at the Albert Hall we were gathered to listen to the BBC Philharmonic conducted by Vassily Sinaisky play Bridge, Brahms, Holst and Elgar.

Being largely musically uneducated I have the advantage of arriving to listen to a concert with few preconceived notions; I’m unlikely to be comparing this performance/orchestra/soloist with any other.  I sit and watch the musicians and listen to the music.  It either speaks to me or it doesn’t.  It sticks in my head, hummable on the walk back to Knightsbridge tube station, or it doesn’t.

It was only when I searched online to check the spelling of the pianist’s name that I realised how controversial to the purists the programme had been.  Evidently the Brahms piano concerto was written for the violin (No3 in D major), and the transposition by Dejan Lazic, the Croatian composer and soloist, is not widely welcomed.

All this passed me by. Instead, I watched the performance.  My seat was at an angle and level that really only allowed me to see the heads of the musicians, so it was their faces on which I concentrated.  And what a theatrical performer Lazic is: hands flourishing high above his shoulders both before and after each great run at the keyboard, eyebrows raising and lowering as the pace accelerated and slowed down, and his mouth moving in time, dooby dooby do-ing along with the melody.

His energy and enthusiasm was infectious, so in the face of the purists disapproval, I would say that I enjoyed it.  I can’t really say the same about Julian Lloyd Webber’s contribution to the evening.  ‘Invocation’ by Holst is a 10 minute piece and the main question for me is why did he bother showing up, for just that.  The same thought must have occurred to him as he hadn’t bothered to change out of his jeans for the occasion.  I had no particular interest in seeing him; but as the dominant publicity for the evening was about him there may well have been others there disappointed by his fleeting appearance.

The final piece was Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’, music so profoundly enmeshed in our national sensibility that it feels like I have known it forever.  When the Albert Hall organ joined in for the final crescendo I could feel the music resonating in the floor under my feet, a strangely visceral experience.

But meanwhile I couldn’t stop myself wondering about the story of the soloist who has a 10 minute gig.  What does he do for the rest of the evening?  Does he get paid by the minute, or per performance?  Does he have to keep it short because he’s now passed playing anything longer?  Why, when his little encore piece was played exclusively by plucking at the strings of the cello did he hold the bow all the time?  Why did he bring the cello back on stage for his curtain call, clumsily batting it around the heads of the orchestra members in his path, when he had no intention of playing it?

There’s always a story…..

Jupiter Quartet at Wigmore Hall

Looking at it a bit differently

Classical music is one of the many things I know very little about, but about which I wish I understood more.  I’m part of that section of the population who would really only think of going to a classical concert as part of the annual Proms season in London; and then I go to the concerts my friend S chooses for us, as she’s the one who knows about music.

Last week I had the opportunity of tickets to go to the Wigmore Hall, and in the spirit of trying new things, I went to a recital by the Jupiter Quartet.  The programme included Bartok, Beethoven, Webern and Kurtag; but that was the extent of my understanding of what I was to hear.

I didn’t buy a programme and, if I am to be truthful, I had no idea which piece was by which composer; I simply watched and listened.

I wonder what a regular concert goer seeks at such events.  Is it the special tone produced by live performance in a particular venue?  Or is it the witnessing of a live performance, to see the energy and concentration of the musician?  Or knowing that it is the real unmediated sound that they are hearing?  Or have they come to see how these particular artists will interpret the piece?

For me, it is definitely the performance element that is the draw; watching people perform, doing something that I know is very difficult, but which they do well.  The Jupiter Quartet were splendid to watch, and for the first time I really had an appreciation of what a physical activity the playing of a string instrument might be.

They adopt the same wide footed posture, spines straight and far away from the seat back, breathing in sync, raising and lowering themselves with the cadence of the music, inclining towards each other, first this way then that, always on the watch to keep time with each other.  Their eyebrows raise and lower, their mouths purse and relax, jaws clench and release in apparent unison.

K, the friend with me commented that they way the violins and viola were held by the musicians it looked like they could be cradling babies in the slow melodic phases, and then vigorously brushing their teeth in the more energetic moments.

As I luxuriated in the music, I couldn’t help but make up the story for which each piece would provide the soundtrack.  I imagined romance and moonlit walks in the first piece, and then horror as the frantic sounds in the second piece generated intense anxiety, and then sparking electrons in the odd little snippets of the third piece.

And of course, I couldn’t stop wondering about the quartet themselves.  Was their unity solely for the purposes of the performance; is it an ‘act’, or is it a microcosm of their life, on display for us all to see?

Imagine my satisfaction when I discovered their website.  They’re related.  Two sisters, a husband and a contemporary at the Conservatory; a little unit, living and working together.  And now I’m off making up stories about them, about the alliances within such a group, the potential fallings out and makings up.  Can they still work together and smile across the music stands after they’ve been arguing about whose turn it is to do the washing up?

I just can’t escape the story imperative.  Do visual artists see shapes and colours when they listen to music?  Do musicians hear music in novels and poetry?

The Jam Generation

The last couple of weeks I’ve heard the closing few minutes of The Jam Generation Takes Power on Radio 4.  Finally, I searched out and listened to the final episode of the series.

The premise of the programme is a discussion of the impact on their youth of the crop of politicians currently leading the parties in Westminster.  Be it Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat they are products of the same cookie cutter: all of an age, from similar backgrounds and education.  They have more in common, it seems, with each other, than with any group of their constituents.

They have reached the leadership of their respective parties at a younger age than in any previous period, when typically a party leader would be one of the more experienced members, rather than the most fresh-faced and photogenic.  One of the consequences of this trend is that they have barely any experience outside of politics other than their youth.

To explore what impact growing up in Britain in the 1980s has had on them is possibly the only analysis it is possible to do.  They have been nicknamed ‘The Jam Generation’ because of the popularity of the group’s songs and Paul Weller’s politically inspired lyrics during that period.

I suppose it comes to us all that moment when we realise that the Prime Minister is younger than us; I must admit I had expected to be a bit older before it happened to me.  But there we are.  I’d thought I was part of the ‘Jam Generation’ myself, having been quite a fan in the early 1980s, but it seems I was a touch superannuated even then, being closer in age to the member of the band themselves than to what must have been a teenage fan base.

And in the appreciation of pop music those decades and half decades are important.

What first piqued my interest in the programme was a vivid memory of an argument between a friend, the same age as me, and a friend of his sister’s, some 5 or 6 years older than us.  It was probably 1982 or ’83, or at least not long after The Jam had broken up.  The point at dispute was which band would be remembered longer: The Beatles or The Jam.

It was one of those typically unresolvable arguments, fuelled by alcohol and righteous indignation on both sides.  The Beatles had broken up before we had reached record buying age, while The Jam was the soundtrack of our first years away from home, echoing the bleakness of the market that we faced when  first looking for jobs.  They felt so much more relevant than what felt like the old fashioned hippydippy ness of the Beatles.

The last fire-fight of the bout resolved into a call and repeat of :

”Smithers-Jones’ is better than ‘Eleanor Rigby’

‘No it’s not.’

‘Yes it is’

‘Eleanor Rigby sets the standard for social realism is pop songs’

‘No it doesn’t’

‘Yes it does.’

Punctuate with pointed fingers stabbing the air and pint glasses banging on the table at awkward angles on a table already swimming in beer.

I’m sure you all have an opinion on this.

Meanwhile, perhaps the best line in the radio programme was:

‘It’s not often you see Paul Weller’s words quoted in the Economist’.

In the meantime, I know it’s not conclusive, but I have frequently played Jam tracks on my iPod, but no Beatles.

Music Nostalgia

1976 was a pivotal year in the cycle of change in popular music; or it is if the television programme I saw at the weekend is to be believed, and if one uses Top of the Pops as the bell weather for the measurement of such things.

At the time TOTP’s policy was to play whatever was at the top of the singles charts, no matter how mediocre and awful it was.   And I was reminded when I watched the retrospective of just how truly dreadful a lot of it was.  But then I can honestly say I thought it was naff at the time.

I could never see the attraction of Shawaddywaddy or the Wurzles; and had thankfully completely wiped from my memory a particularly egregious group of boys with awful haircuts and cheesy grins evidently called ‘Our Kid’.

Watching the programme I finally understood why I felt so misplaced with my musical tastes in that period.  I couldn’t abide the light entertainment flavour of TOTP, with its novelty acts and terrible dancing, (from both acts and audience) but I didn’t get the long haired, beardy droning on The Old Grey Whistle Test, which, anyway, was on after my bed time.

Tony Blackburn and David Hamilton, a couple of former Radio 1 DJ’s from the period were interviewed. ‘We were as big as the acts whose music we were playing’.  Oh dear. They must  have been the glory days indeed.  My reaction was to wonder that they were both still alive, as, at the time, they seemed to me to be so extraordinarily old, and around forever already by 1976.

Both confirmed that they said ‘on air’ at the time they didn’t like the direction music was going when punk began; it was all so noisy and tuneless.  The irony was that they seem not to appreciate even now that that was the moment they should have moved on and away from ‘pop’ front line; but they were so immersed in the middle of the road blandness of ‘Seaside Special’ that they thought their opinions mattered.

And they talked all the time.

I didn’t understand why Radio 1 couldn’t just play music instead of allowing them to witter on so much.  They could have played so many more different things without all that vacuous chat, I thought.  I hadn’t realised that the BBC plays list was as restricted as the 40 tracks they evidently agreed upon at their weekly meeting, attended by a laughably elderly looking group of executives.

What actually made me laugh out loud was the couple from Brotherhood of Man, serious faced and sincere, telling us that we had to remember that they were already number 1 by the time they got to the Eurovision Song Contest.  Such cultural high glory days.

Now that I’m in the danger zone, risking ‘it’s not as good as it was in my day’ rants, it was instructive to revisit the appalling pap that was so prevalent then, to compare it to the over produced, over hyped pap that dominates music on television now, and sigh ’twas ever thus’, and go and find something else to listen to.

Counting the Years

The Helensburgh Barber Shop Singers perform a repertoire of traditional songs wherever they have a willing audience; usually in church halls or nursing homes. They encourage the participation of their listeners, and many join in all the choruses.

They are always smartly turned out in matching blue waistcoats and bow ties and during the winter season they rehearse regularly on Friday evenings.

When asked how long their set is, they will usually reply ‘Until everyone falls asleep.’

I don’t have the full statistics, but it is a fair guess that the average age of the Singers is around the 80 mark.

That of itself is perhaps not that remarkable, even if they are generally older than the ‘old people’ for whom they are singing, because they have been fortunate enough to retain reasonable health and wits.

I don’t generally reflect much about age, but hearing from my Father, one of the Singers, about the vintage of the group, at the same time as reading in the local paper about the delay in the demolition of the secondary school I attended raised a number of questions about things that are made to last, and things that are not.

The site of the ‘old’ Hermitage Academy is a derelict eyesore in a residential area on the east side of Helensburgh.  According to the local reports, there have been two construction companies contracted to finish the demolition which have gone out of business, and now they are seeking further tenders, even though the buildings were last used over two years ago.

The school was two ugly concrete blocks; the local comprehensive, it served both the town itself and also villages along the shore of Loch Lomond and on the Rosneath peninsular, and I was there among about 1200 pupils.  When I was in my first year there, the ‘old’ building was about 5 years old.  The ‘new’ building was erected while I was in my second year.

I cannot quite believe that something which should be as substantial as a school can have been both built and knocked down in my lifetime.

When they built it did they know it would have a useful life of less than 35 years?  Did they intend it that way, built for obsolescence, or was its design and build so shoddy that it just fell apart under the west of Scotland weather?

The house I lived in as a teenager is still there, and its over 150 years old now, as are many of the houses in the town.  Yet the school seems to have been almost disposable.

I shouldn’t imagine there was much grief to see the buildings abandoned as it was an ugly uncomfortable place when I was there; yet it bothers me that instead of improving it, the Council has simply abandoned it.

I must admit that now though the story teller in me is off and running and I am imagining a tale of sweet deals and incentives for the local authority and the ‘public private partnership’ which is behind the shiny new school built a half a mile or so further out of town…..

But I don’t live there any more, so I’ll just hope that the new school lasts long enough to see some of its alumni reach 80 years old.

%d bloggers like this: