Dealing with a dilemma: focus and concision in art

I have a dilemma. I find that Downton Abbey gets on my nerves, yet I love The Paradise. The operas of Wagner drive me mad, yet Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande is one of my favourite pieces. Mahler drives me mad, but Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians remains the sole piece I would pluck from a blazing conflagration of classical music.

Image credit: BBC

As I assess my lists of likes and can’t-stands, trying to work out why I both love and loathe examples of period drama, opera and music, I have come to realise that, for me, it’s a question of scale, of concision in utterance and narrative focus.

The overblown hyperbole that is opera, where it can take anywhere between two and five tiresome hours for consumptive maidens to expire, giants and demons to fight over treasure or someone’s soul, and for jealous lovers to work their revenge, means that generally, the genre has few recordings in my listening library. But Pelléas, and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges are present in more than one recorded incarnation and appear on my Recently Played lists quite often. How can this be, when normally opera sends me screaming into the comfort of John Adams or Nico Muhly ? Similarly, how can the yawn-inducing tedium of Downton Abbey be equated with my sheer and utter delight in the story of the evolution of England’s first department store that is The Paradise ? How can I rationalise both standpoints ?

As I said before, it’s a question of scope, of scale. Titanic myth-making in Wagner calls for similarly titanic music, and grand time-scale, the sort where the opera is so long that you have to have dinner in between acts simply to fortify yourself for what is still to come. But Pelléas concentrates instead on the dynamic between three characters wrapped in a love-triangle – Goloud, Pelléas and the object of their affections, Melisande – and is set often in small-scale situations: a room, a secluded garden, a cave, settings which are a geographical manifestation of the claustrophobic romantic tangle in which the three characters are entwined. Likewise, Ravel’s one-act opera is concerned with a single character, the mischievous child, whose wayward misbehaviour sparks off the magical episodes which follow, and which is similarly set in a room in the first half and a garden in the second.

And while Mahler’s view of the symphony was that it should ’embrace the world,’ (his first symphonic outing is called ‘The Titan,’ which should give you some idea of its lofty ambitions), this also requires musical gestures built on a grand scale, sustained by a musical architecture that needs to be epic in size. The music of someone like Reich, for instance, and to a certain extent the early works of John Adams and recent pieces by Nico Muhly, is much more about concise musical gestures, small-scale motivic thinking that may yield a piece lasting near to an hour (in the case of Music for Eighteen Musicians), but sustains its large-scale forms through the gradual unfolding of initially small ideas, into which can be condensed a range of harmonic and rhythmic expression.

Image credit: BBC

The epic narrative sweep in Downton takes on such themes as social hierarchy and the re-defining of class divisions in the wake of the First World War, the troubles in Ireland, and the minutiae of upstairs/downstairs relationships in the Grantham household with plodding tedium and lashings of cliche, painted in great swathes of block colour that don’t require the viewer to have to think too much for themselves about what’s going on, or what’s coming next. In contrast, The Paradise concentrates on a particular stretch of street, on one store in particular, and the characters within both; the focus is on a smaller scale, and as such it doesn’t need to make glib, sweeping gestures to allow large themes to be depicted in a small amount of on-screen time.

In his second volume of autobiography, ‘The Fry Chronicles,’ Stephen Fry recognises his own penchant for verbosity, for taking one hundred words to write what could be said in ten. But the book reads like an effortless conversation with Fry, and pages turn almost of themselves before you realise that many hours have gone by and you’ve read more than you intended, your wife and children have moved out and the dog is starving. Whilst the object of Fry’s book may be the re-telling of thirty year’s worth of life, the focus is again small-scale; himself, and what makes him tick.

So I have no compunction about dismissing endless hours of operatic bilge whilst secretly loving some examples of it, of casually being scathing about the tedium of Downton Abbey whilst revelling in the puff-pastry delight of The Paradise, and no sense of self-contradiction in writing off epic symphonic yawnathons whilst delighting in works of Minimalism that may last just as long as a piece by Mahler or Beethoven. It’s simply a question of focus.

Pot luck: music education funding ring-fenced

As reported over on The Guardian’s classical music blog, the culture minister Ed Vaizey reveals that there will continue to be a pot of money allocated to music education next year.

The previous government had set up a Music Standards Fund, dedicated to music provision, which is due to end next year. Vaizey declares that a ring-fenced amount of funding will replace it.

Music provision in primary education is a matter of hit and miss, dependent on local variables: it depends on whether the school values the arts generally and music in particular, whether it has a dedicated music specialist teaching a focused music curriculum; sometimes, it’s just a matter of whether a member of staff happens a) to have an interest or a facility in a particular musical discipline and b) to be sufficiently motivated to run such classess off their own bat.

This creates widespread inequality in provision at primary level across schools, quite apart from the LEA-allocation model that existed under the Conservatives in the mid-80’s. Hopefully, music education and county music provision will continue to be funded under the Coalition, although with arts funding cuts announced earlier this week, whether there will be musical opportunities for the current generation of primary school children when they come to the employment market as adults remains to be seen…

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

How does music mean ?

Picasso Three Musicians
'Three Musicians,' Picasso

How does music mean ? Indeed, can it mean anything at all ? Does its meaning derive from its internal sequence of events, or is part of its secret its ability to resonate with a listener’s wealth of previous experiences ?

Thoughts on these, and a short video of the great Leonard Bernstein lecturing at Harvard on this very issue, over on Music Matters: click here to read.

Posted by Dan Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent. Click here to read his music blog, ‘Music Matters.’

Lounge debrief #2: Television Personalities in the Cowshed

One of the more intriguing acts to appear at this year’s Lounge on the Farm was the Television Personalities. Led by sole surviving original member Dan Treacy, the nearest the Television Personalities got to fame was the 1978 song ‘Part Time Punks’, which gently poked fun at the suburban and provincial punks who walked down the King’s Road where they ‘try and look trendy’ but ‘all look the same’. The part time punks are funny because they get being cool wrong.

They go to Rough Trade because ‘They wanna buy the O-Level single/ or “Read About Seymour”’, but end up buying a Lurkers record instead because it’s pressed in red vinyl. To translate, the O-Level were an obscure independent label punk band (which, amusingly enough, also featured Dan Treacy) and ‘Read About Seymour’ was a single by the then super-cool art-punk heroes Swell Maps – both of which were far cooler and more exclusive than the gumbie-punk band The Lurkers, who were kind of what The Ramones might have been like had they come from, er, Uxbridge.

32 years later, the Television Personalities are playing the Cowshed, the biggest stage at Lounge on the Farm, in an unpopular afternoon slot. The name of the stage is quite literal – it’s called ‘the Cowshed’ because it’s in a cavernous cowshed, which could comfortably fit two or three thousand people in to the see the band. Sadly, no more than about thirty have turned up to see Dan Treacy’s crew, including me, my wife, and my two sons. There’s a thin crust of us lining up along the barrier at the front of the stage, most of us with fond memories of ‘Part Time Punks’, and a few random punters who hang back from the stage, watching the band out of idle curiosity.

My wife Jacqui leaves after a few numbers, later describing it as ‘a bit of a car crash’, and takes our younger son, Tom, with her to find more suitable entertainment elsewhere. I stay to watch with our older one, Joe, who’s 13. I suspect he’s held more by loyalty to me than by the music.

At least one of the two guitars has at least one string out of tune, but that’s the least of the problems. Treacy looks simply bewildered on stage, confused but amused at being there. Wearing a faded shirt and a beanie hat, he gives the impression that he’s been living rough for the last decade or so, although the current bands he references in his between-songs banter suggests he’s at least been in a homeless shelter with internet access. It’s not so much that his voice is out of tune, it’s more that it’s not aware that there was a tune there in the first place. In their one almost-famous song, ‘Part Time Punks’, he forgets the words in the third verse and repeats some lines from an earlier one.

But there’s something curiously moving about hearing him sing a song based on an idea of cool that dates from a period of maybe two weeks in 1978. And there’s something curiously entertaining about Treacy’s bewilderment. He just seems to say whatever comes into his head. He notices one of the mechanised moving spotlights on the stage. ‘What’s that?’ he asks, grinning. ‘It looks like a monkey!’ Later, he goes up to it and holds the microphone up to it, as if expecting it to sing.

On closer inspection, the other three musicians in the band are extremely good, constantly watching him and timing what they do to accommodate his spontaneity and eccentricity. Treacy’s definitely singing to the desultory crowd semi-gathered in front of him. It’s unnerving when he catches your eye, because you can see he’s really looking at you with his hooded eyes, taking you in, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s real contempt that he’s radiating with his stare. Like Billy Childish, he seems entirely unselfconscious about the experience of being on stage under the gaze of a bunch of strangers.

Jacqui’s right about it being a car crash, but I’d modify her assessment and say it’s an entertaining car crash. At one point, Treacy breaks his plectrum, and throws it out for a lucky punter to keep as a memento. Fittingly, it falls short of the, for want of a better word, crowd, and lands behind the barrier. I wonder whether it’s just my prior knowledge of the band that’s making this entertaining, but at the end, Joe asks me to get the one bouncer assigned to the gig to retrieve the plectrum for his collection of special things, and when we get back from the festival he gets me to load ‘Part Time Punks’ onto his iPod.

Lounge debrief #1: Normal Service Will Be Resumed

I spent last weekend at Lounge on the Farm, a local festival that’s got bigger in each of the four years I’ve been to it. What I like about going to a festival is that it’s like a kind of alternative reality where everything is done for pure pleasure. Cynics might say that profit plays a role, but although some people undoubtedly make a tidy sum out of it – or given that it’s a festival maybe that should be ‘an extremely untidy, unshaven, smelly sum’ – they’ll only make profit if what they provide is enjoyable.

Thus, you walk about surrounded by happy people, some of them off their faces, while music drifts at you from here, there and everywhere – ska, blues, hillbilly, indie, jazz, prog rock, Motown, dance, reggae, folk, punk, whatever. At Lounge, they make a thing of the food on sale being locally sourced (although this year the presence of Pizza Express was a symptom of just how big this festival is getting). So the hungry festival-goer could enjoy anything from two different brands of locally-made ice cream to an organic falafel wrap, or for the meatily-inclined, a burger made from a cow that lived on the farm where the festival takes place.

Because everybody’s having fun, there’s no violence. There’s certainly some of the idiocy that comes with drunkenness – some sozzled fools broke our plastic picnic table by jumping on it while staggering back to their tent – but I’ve never seen anybody actually get hit. In spite of the fact that some of the punters are staggering drunk by early afternoon, with pickled eyes and bare torsos so sunburnt that they’ll have lost several layers of skin by nightfall, I’ve never even heard anybody issue so much as a threat.

Being a festival, the freaks dominate. Sights which would make you turn your head in the everyday world get no more than a passing glance. Hey, there’s someone dressed as a cow! Hey, there’s a guy with devil-eye contact lenses! Hey, there are eight 20-year-old girls with sombreros and Mexican bandit moustaches carrying inflatable flamingos! Meh.

In fact, as I have no piercings or tattoos, I felt like a bit of an outsider. Like Judge Dredd’s informer, Max Normal, being the one ordinary one in a world of freaks makes you the biggest freak of them all.

Can I Kick It ? Music and the culture of football

(For Ian Swatman)

Every weekend, thousands of devoted worshippers congregate together and lift their voices in communal song. I’m not talking about Sunday services in church: instead, of the thousands of football fans who chant and sing in football stadia across the country.

It’s impossible not to participate in such singing: I’ve stood on the terraces at the Goldstone Ground, Brighton & Hove Albion’s former ground, or gathered with others in front of the television screen or before projector screens in pubs, gripped by World Cup fever. At such times, spontaneous song bursts out – often with lyrics that, alas, I fear I cannot reproduce here – and you find yourself swept along, either by the joyous song greeting passages of play going well for your side, or (more often) to heap scorn and derision on players or, more excitingly, the match referee whose judgement-making (and parentage) gets called into question.

The affinity between music and football appears often: the Laudamus Te of Poulenc’s Gloria from 1959 was apparently inspired by the composer watching Benedictine monks playing the game. More recently, football chanting finds its way into the music of dedicated Arsenal-fan and British composer Mark-Antony Turnage’s Momentum, where the brass section burst forth with a derisive, sneering melody that imitates ‘Olé, olé olé olé!’ Football has also inspired a whole opera from Turnage, The Silver Tassie from 2000, where ace footballer Harry Hegan goes off to the trenches of World War I, is tragically injured, and returns confined to a wheelchair.

Handels’ Zadok the Priest may not have been inspired by football originally, but its presence is obvious in the pastiche theme to ITV’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League.

The minor third interval is prevalent in football chant, perhaps because it’s the easiest interval to pitch instinctively: think of ‘There’s on-ly one, A-lan Shea-rer!’ It features to great effect in the opening of Skinner and Baddiel’s anthemic ‘Football’s Coming Home (Three Lions).’

Music is also used as a motivational tool at football matches: heroic, tub-thumping tunes blare out over the tannoy as the teams stream on to the pitch at the start of a fixture, exhorting players to greater heights and fans to show their support. (At Brighton’s ground, Tina Turner’s Simply The Best greeted the players: although, given the poor form of The Seagulls as they languished in the lower divisions, perhaps it was being used ironically.) It also gives voice to feelings of patriotic pride, as teams and fans unite in singing their national anthems before World Cup games. And say what you like about England’s national anthem, it has a significant advantage over many others: it’s short.

And who can forget football’s own contribution to music, in the World Cup songs that are occasionally thrust into the charts at World Cup time: John Barnes’ rapping in New Order’s  World In Motion from 1990’s World Cup ? Barnes, a footballer possessed of silken skills and touchline trickery of an almost balletic quality, but whose elegant grace on the field deserted him in the recording studio (the full horror starts at 2′ 30″).

With World Cup season nearly upon us, music will appear everywhere, from opening ceremonies to programme closing titles. It’s hard to imagine the world of football without it…

(This post was prompted by a colleague, who commented that he’d registered with this blog and could he please talk about Hull City ? Well, Ian, in the spirit of the title of this piece: yes, you can!)

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.