BBC Proms 2017

Good, the Beeb has finally admitted that populist TV-themed Proms are a total, utter, useless failure. There are still some themed proms, but they’re much less exasperating. I am not wild about the idea of a Scott Walker prom myself, but it is a fine enough tribute to an influential and daring pop artist whose ties to this country are indeed great. And I do tentatively believe that Scott Walker fans are the kind of people who might be brought into the classical music fold. Unlike, say, Doctor Who fans. Still, calling it the ‘Godlike Genius of Scott Walker’ is peak stupidity. He’s a novel cultural artefact. That’s it.

Back in the dark ages [my teenage years] I was a Scott Walker fan. What boy isn’t excited by the sounds of a pig’s corpse being punched, or songs about the execution of Mussolini and his mistress? Now, the music seems repetitive and goes on for too long, filled with a lot of quirkiness while foregoing musical substance, but it can sure be novel and interesting. Here’s the music video for his song ‘Epizootics’:

Overall, this is a conservative proms. Cutting away the excess, focusing on the tried and tested, a moderate sprinkling of new music, generally good but not bold. Some highlights to look forward to (not at all a comprehensive list):

  • Prom 14: Vaughan Williams 9 and Holst’s Planets. I don’t know VW’s ninth, but I’ll be excited to discover it, and the pairing with Holst’s awesome planets seems perfect.
  • Prom 16: Not a big Liszt fan, but with a premiere (Julian Anderson, whose music I’m not familiar with) and, more importantly, the chance to hear pianist Steven Osborne, this might turn out to be very good.
  • Prom 21: James MacMillan UK premier, and of his timely European Requiem. I somehow doubt, as it is James MacMillan, that it will be the remoaning lament one might suspect. Probably a heavily Catholic view of Europe, and I expect and hope it will be brilliant, judging by the small number of (enthusiastic) reviews that followed its premiere in Oregon last year.
  • Prom 28: Thomas Ades conducting his Polaris and then Rite of Spring. Will be thrilling.
  • Prom 39: Mark-Anthony Turnage premiere of his 50-minute Hibiki. Maybe this will be the piece that makes me go from liking Turnage’s music to loving it?
  • Prom 26: Ruttle conducing Schoenberg’s massive Gurrelieder. Bet this’ll sell fast.
  • Prom 50: premiere of Gerald Barry’s Canada. Goodness knows what it will be about. Plus a healthy dosage of Beethoven. (Though surprisingly not Barry’s own clever song Beethoven.)
  • Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad Kind. This is off-site. Shame it opens with the dullest composer alive, John Luther Adams, but it’s worth it to see a live performance is this (in)famous piece.

Really, I look forward to all the premieres, and I’m sure my hopes will lead to great disappointment as the unwelcome clanging and modernist scraping clogs up my ears. But I’m nothing if not a hopeful pessimist. Also some classic stuff like Beethoven 7 and Mahler 2 that I especially want to see live.

There are things, however, that I love but feel are wrong for the Proms, or more specifically the dread Albert Hall. Bach cantatas, say, are but a shy whisper in a venue as big and flawed as the Albert Hall. Song cycles carry badly too, the singer usually submerged by the acoustics.

I was going to end with Barry’s Beethoven to compensate for its absence, but alas it’s not on YouTube. So Ades’ climactic Polaris will more than do:

Revising This Blog

This post is just to clear my conscience as I delete a bunch of old posts. It should be of no interest to anyone but me and that anonymous cyber-stalker from Vietnam (xin chao, whoever you are) who keeps appearing on the blog’s stats.

I’ve purged the blog of all the explicitly political content, which was pretty much half the blog, and am reorienting it towards music. So just because I deleted a post on X doesn’t mean I don’t believe X anymore, and all that. There are also some music posts I would like to delete or heavily edit, as I am writing this blog while my understanding of music is still very much in its formative years. The blog’s utility is in testing out thoughts and practising and discovering how one actually writes about music.

Saying that, according to the sites stats I can’t have been doing especially well at it so far. A significant amount of traffic has come from rather foul search terms invariably containing the word ‘sex’. Apparently I had an article with the word in it, and also the words ‘binge’ and ‘prom’, which gave me a large number of confused visitors that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I assure you the blog post was in fact very innocent: ‘prom’ referred to a BBC Proms concert, ‘binge’ to a complaint about drinking behaviour, and ‘sex’ to a person’s male or female status.

But perhaps the oddest search term that led to this site is, ‘how does a vampire unborn foetus looks like?’ That one, I can’t explain away.

Allan Bloom on Music

By coincidence, I happen to be reading Allan Bloom’s 1987 book criticising the state of education (though primarily higher education) while this musical literacy controversy has unfolded. In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom argues against a creeping moral relativism and an education system that tries to make students not into ‘scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue — openness’. Paradoxically, it is this same ‘openness’ that has closed minds — ‘openness results in American conformism’, Bloom writes. One thinks of the classic G.K. Chesterton line, that ‘the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.’ If you never close your mind on something, you’ll be intolerant of or indifferent to anyone who argues with you — in other words anyone who has themselves sensibly closed their minds. A rejection of certainties and absolutes and truth will limit the extent to which you can meaningfully engage with and interrogate the world. And this idea is of course very popular now on the right and the ‘anti-left’, if you will. (Though I would say the only prominent contemporary public academic who is equally as articulate as Bloom on the matter is Jordan Peterson. Mostly the discourse is pretty lousy, which he kind of predicted; I’m not sure Bloom would have been impressed by the rise of ‘alternative media’, for instance.)

Somewhat unexpectedly, there’s an entire chapter on the state of music education. In it, he argues that rock music in particular ‘ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.’ Bloom follows a long lineage of thinkers who have been suspicious of many aspects of music. With the exception of Lenin, who was only suspicious of music because it encouraged beauty and niceness, most of them were religious: certain early protestants, Islamists, Augustine in his Confessions detailing the seduction of chant, and both Orthodox and Roman Catholic suspicion of musical instruments instead of voice. Bloom goes even further back to Plato who similarly saw music as ‘the barbarous expression of the soul’. ‘Music,’ Bloom writes, ‘is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror’. (That sounds positively Burkean.)

He argues that classical music attempts to tame the soul’s raw passions by forming them into art. It is a civilising process, the application of reason and education to a wild passion. Bloom isn’t arguing that music is any way neutered by this process. Instead, music education should give people the means to extend and manipulate this joy in pursuit of a greater version of themselves. ‘Education is not sermonizing to children against their instincts and pleasures, but providing a natural continuity between what they feel and what they can and should be.’ But what are we to make of works that very skillfully exacerbate the intrinsic barbarism of music? Bloom seem to be suspicious of young people’s fondness for Ravel’s Bolero, for it has ‘the beat of sexual intercourse’. Where did he stand on a deliberately savage work like Rite of Spring? Do works like these discourage ‘cooperation of the sentiments’? Don’t these provide ‘premature ecstasy’? I am somewhat weary of exercising what seems to be a moral judgement on music itself. There are more reliable ways to argue that modern pop music is largely bad music and bad culture. Sure, music definitely needs to be formed into something good and meaningful, but why must the starting point be barbarism and not, say, innocence?

Bloom argues that the lack of talent or virtue in the music makes it it an easy and dangerous drug: ‘it artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavours’.  Those who take drugs and have gotten over it, ‘find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectations’. This extends to those addicted to rock music, whose untamed ecstasy can lead the young to find normalcy — reality — grim and harsh, once they get over rock music. Okay, but considering most people have not gotten over rock music, and that their passion for it has not really subsided, this prognosis hasn’t survived the test of time. What he is right to point out is that ‘as long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its pro-longed use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf’. In that way, it is a numbing drug. And that deafness is very real, and can be difficult to crawl out of, as I can personally attest. The best analogy is sexual, as music is arguably the most sensuous of the arts. Fetish and pornography will dull one to the beauty of sex. You have this exciting, visceral, barbarous music. But without being civilised, it only starves and steals from the soul. Bloom convincingly portrays the resulting musical culture as dystopian:

Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvellous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.

Ouch. Take out ‘Walkman’ and ‘MTV’ and replace them with ‘smartphone’ and ‘YouTube’, and that paragraph sounds truer today than it did in 1987.

And on that bleak note, how about some Elizabethan melancholy? John Dowland’s brilliant chromatic fantasia, Forlorn Hope Fancy:

Is Romanticising Musical Illiteracy Anything New?

There’s been a great and reassuring backlash to Charlotte E. Gill’s piffle suggesting, essentially, that to help students learn music we much teach them less, and to a lower standard. The dissenting letter warns that ‘Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised yet further in state schools.’ I get the impression, however, that this revolution Gill advocates has been underway for some time.

In the UK, children have weekly music lessons for the first three ‘key stages’ (years 5-14). Somewhat understandably, it isn’t a compulsory subject in key stage 4 (14-16) — though quite useless subjects like computing and citizenship are. But neither is music, as often taught in schools, a particularly useful subject. The lessons I had (this is little over half a decade ago) were a great example of the aimless and undisciplined cacophony that comes with profound musical illiteracy. It was rare that students would even get to the stage of bashing out a few notes on a xylophone or flimsy keyboard. Idle chit chat would be interspersed with what resembled a kind of very childish playtime: fiddling with all the amusing sounds on the keyboard, ones that sounded vaguely pornographic or others that were just absurd, such as one key which when pressed would produce an exclamation of ‘dictionary!’. It is a struggle to come up with something we learnt in three years of music lessons (from 11-14).  Being generous, there were a couple of decent lessons on ragas (so much for Gill’s assertion about the hegemony of classical music).

So my experience runs counter to Gill’s impression that ‘for a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement.’ And in my school at least, I and many other progressed just fine with very limited theoretical knowledge, a fact that I don’t celebrate. GCSE curriculum is very accommodating for non-classical music, and except for the Bach chorales, you could get away with very minimal music theory. A Level music can be a lot tougher. You have to have a solid understanding of Western Classical Music and be able to identify styles and periods and instruments by ear, as well as being able to notate musical extracts by ear, and in many cases you have to study — gasp! — entire orchestral works. Now, I just think, So what? But I do remember back when I was sixteen and without any knowledge of classical music that this was indeed a very daunting task. It was, and no doubt still is, quite a jump to that even basic analytical standard. If the idea of musical literacy were better introduced into the key stage 3 lessons in many schools, the numbers doing music later on would grow from their pitiful levels now, and indeed the diversity of music students, as Gill is concerned about, would increase.

However, even at A Level, there are ways to bypass musical literacy. You can study popular music, modern musical theatre or jazz in place of the Western tradition. And again, this betrays the Gill’s ignorance in thinking music education isn’t diverse enough — indeed, it may well be too diverse. I’m not sure, either, that those who actually study classical music at A Level show any great level of understanding — or at least, they are not taught or encouraged to think about music except in lifeless analytical or dubious programmatic terms. Here’s what I mean, in an apparently ‘exemplar’ A Level music essay on ‘How did Baroque composers convey the meaning of the text in their music?’:

Composers often used tonality and harmony to convey the meaning of the text. For
example, in choruses such as Handel’s Hallelujah and Glory to God, both of which are in the oratorio the Messiah, the tonality is D major and although this immediately evokes an emotion of joy because it is major, since they were in D major, the baroque trumpets were able to play and be prominent which is vital for movements with such celebratory libretto such as ‘Lord God omnipotent’ and ‘good will to men’. In fact, the entire of Monteverdi’s Versiculus Responsorium, the first movement of his Vespers is played and sung on a D major chord following the opening chant.

I remember this style of essay well: the regurgitation of ‘analysis’ which was spoon-fed to us and unsurprisingly meant we all wrote pretty much the same thing, unthinkingly. (This is, however, hardly unique to the one subject.) And how one can confidently talk of antiphonal writing or counterpoint, say, in an essay while having little idea what they mean — as well as being encouraged to be unnecessarily detailed in your writing, always including dates of birth and death, and full titles of works even when briefer ones would do, though I’ll admit that may just be personal preference.

Anyway, I’ve not experienced this great tyranny of music theory in schools that Gill describes. But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and I rather wish Gill’s description of an ‘elitist’ music education were closer to the reality. Surely the best schools are the ones with orchestras and high levels of music theory and an ambitious and disciplined approach to music education?

I also wrote an immediate response to the article a few days ago, but it wasn’t especially interesting, which is why I felt compelled to write another.

Whither Music Education in Britain?

Music education is now only for the white and the wealthy, or so Charlotte C. Gill recently wrote in the Guardian. The gist of the article is that music education too inaccessible for most students, and that instead there should be a less formal curriculum that is enjoyable for more students and thus able to breed greater diversity.

Starting off, the author notes research that shows the ‘huge benefits that music brings to children’s happiness and learning’. It’s a good and important point that needn’t have been backed up with scientism. Everyone knows music has many useful functions. But moreover, many people also know that music is wonderful in and of itself. Advocacy for music education should not have to rely on its usefulness in combating mental health.

Music GCSEs did indeed get harder some years ago, which was about the time I took them. They didn’t get harder for snobbish reasons, though. The problem was that GCSE music students would get to A Level and be completely unable to comprehend an orchestral score, let alone analyse it. That gap had to be bridged. As I understand it, the point was to make it so that more students were intellectually able to do music A Level and do it well. And even then, there were people who got through the new GCSE with almost no grasp of music theory. 

Many of us we’re helped along by private lessons and a bit of self-study. She rightly points out such a reliance on private tuition is a problem. This could, however, be alleviated if these tougher academic materials were incorporated into the syllabus. Why not get all students to grade 8 theory standard by the end of the GCSE? It’s far easier than the complex algebra I remember struggling through. And it’s far more interesting.

‘For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way’, she asserts. Who said it was a ‘creative subject’? It’s probably more a discipline than a creative subject. And besides, you’re not going to have much of a creative capacity unless you study harmony, for example. Music is communicative, and to have no understanding of the language is to make yourself dumb and your audience wish they were deaf. Ah, but ‘many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally’!

Music notation, we are told, is a ‘cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people’. Her solution — almost Blairite in its genius — is to make that number even smaller. Relating her personal experience, she says that despite learning Mozart and West Side Story and being able to sing in Latin, German and Italian to grade 8 standard, she still cannot sight read. Somehow, she extracts from this that being able to read music isn’t indicative of talent. I would point out that passing your grade 8 exam does not mean you are or should be a good sight reader. I did grade 8 theory and still couldn’t sight read. I didn’t then deduce from this that I would never be able to sight read. I continue to practise in a disciplined way, and lo and behold, my ability to read music is improving.

The worst is yet to come: ‘sure, we may not be able to tell the difference between the bass and treble clef,’ she concedes,’ but we can play our favourite songs. That is all I ever wanted from music.’ Uh huh. When I was younger all I ever wanted was to play fast, loud guitar solos. But even with my very inadequate music education, quite often autodidactic, new possibilities became apparent to me. (Thank goodness there was no one who took my teenage self too seriously when I thought music theory and classical music was irrelevant.) Now I listen to and study classical music for pleasure, and get a real kick out of learning 16th century lute and vihuela pieces on guitar. How much we limit education if we never push the imagination and ambition and expectations of a child!

And how patronising it is. Which is exactly why 200 musicians just denounced the article in an open letter as ‘simple anti-intellectualism’. The letter also points out that jazz, pop and non-Western traditions now occupy a lot of space in the curriculum. I remember studying ragas and and gamelan and jazz more than we ever did classical music, until A level at least. I also wish we had studied those traditions more rigorously. Instead they were treated as little more than cultural novelties.

I’d just like to point out, though, that the Guardian provide some of the best coverage of classical music in a newspaper. So while I know many will want to have a go at the Guardian and their hatred of Dead White Men, they’d probably be wrong to do so in this case. Many papers and news sites on the opposite side of that culture war contribute much less to high culture.