The Guitar and the Conceptual Penis

I have just finished reading this impeccable paper on the conceptual penis. The penis, it is argued, is ‘better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity’.

plain-guitarNow, I am a guitarist. And as a guitarist I have had to battle against the inherent hypermasculine violence of the instrument. The guitar’s shape was purposely designed to be suggestive of the phallus, the chief symbol of the patriarchy. Even the strings are suggestive of the frenulum.

I suggest we adopt a new guitar shape to counter the phallic toxicity represented by the instrument. And furthermore, we can do this while also promoting a body positive image — as opposed to the covert sexist symbolism promoted through the guitar’s hour-glass body shape:


And those strings damn well better be vegan friendly.

[Note: the paper is a hoax, as most will already know.]


It’s not always easy being a music listener

There are pieces of music I barely understand, even after serious attempts to do so. And it can make me slightly anxious wondering why. Sometimes I imagine it is because they are sublime, so brilliant that they almost blind you — this has been my experience with a lot of Bach. Other times I wonder why on earth I bother — is there actually anything to be gained by repeated, concentrated listening to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, say? And then there are those total blind spots, mine being Mahler. His bloated works seem to me like the allure of the planet jupiter: an awesome, intimidating planet that’s really just a gas giant.

As a listener, one has to train oneself. You have to have a good musical memory. All music is remembering what came before, enjoying the note or chord of the moment, and anticipating the direction of travel. If you are genuinely just letting it ‘wash over you’, as so many people say, you might as well be given an automated machine that plucks random notes of a scale. Music only works when the listener observes and remembers the patterns of the music, or else phrasing and surprise and development is meaningless to them.

New musical styles will obviously mean new demands on the listener. I am least acquainted with late romanticism, perhaps, so it takes many more listens before I can step back and perceive the music’s architecture. There is something mathematical about music in this sense. Music is an unanswered question, but pieces of music are attempts at answers — the working out when one tries to solve an equation. A listener has to follow the logic of that working out, and that should be an interesting and revelatory thing, but not necessarily easy until it is learned.

There are too many instances to count where a work was utterly incomprehensible to me — then a month later I’d be listening to it with such understanding that I would feel as if I were inside the music itself. I’m never exactly sure what I did to get from A to B, except listen a lot, nor am I sure why certain works can seem so abstruse at first. But that process is among the most exciting things about music, like shaking and feeling and eventually ripping open a Christmas present. I’ll end with Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, just one recent instance of this:

How many writers does it take to make a hit single?

To the extent that this question sounds like the start of a joke, it’s a tragic one. The BBC reports that ‘a new study by Music Week magazine shows it now takes an average of 4.53 writers to create a hit single.’ That’s up over one person from ten years ago.

Record labels put pressure on songwriters to release more material at a faster pace, so ‘professional’ songwriters are employed (in contrast, one reasons, to the ‘amateur’ songwriters who actually perform the song). Moreover, producers have an unprecedented level of influence. Everyone wants in on the latest synthesised squelchings or claustrophobic compression, with pop music being more technology-dependent than ever.

mr-burns-monkeys-typewriters1-640x381-600x357The most amusing aspect is writing camps. The article describes them as ‘where the music industry puts the infinite monkey theorem to the test, detaining dozens of producers, musicians and “top-liners” (melody writers) and forcing them to create an endless array of songs, usually for a specific artist.’

Well, that explains a lot: why modern pop music is so homogeneous, why the stars themselves seem such lazy and musically unadventurous people. It really is, to coin a phrase, a culture industry.

I think it’s very obvious that this trend is ruinous. Their music globalises and helps eviscerate local cultures. The ‘elites’ in society, for want of a better word, all swear allegiance to it where once they would have been the patrons of high culture. Politicians become too scared to be seen at the opera. Society becomes more musically illiterate as people’s musical imagination is severely restricted by the homogeneity of omnipresent pop music, and people struggle to find ‘relevance’ in serious music. Music literacy will then genuinely become the preserve of the privileged. People lose a source of profound beauty and, in the case of pop music especially, of social and communal bonds, and are given a miserable opioid substitute.

And it’s one concocted by a small set of technicians, their scope totally dictated by market values. Entry into this industry seems to be at the whim of label companies who are the only ones with the economic means now required to produce the hit songs the public demand. Yet classical music is elitist.

Unlike pop stars (and it must be said, modern classical composers), Bach would have to compose weekly on top of his duties as organist. Here’s his cantata ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis’:

The Secret Life of Opera Prompters

‘The opening of San Francisco’s opera season was an hour away when disaster struck. The lead tenor, about to sing the demanding role in Verdi’s Othello, lost his voice. A worldwide search began to see if one of a half dozen tenors knowing the role could come and save opening night.

Curtain time was delayed three hours. Rumors were rampant that none other than Placido Domingo was being flown in from New York by private jet. They proved true, and Domingo sang, without rehearsal, an opera he hadn’t sung for a year.

When asked how he did it, he said, “I couldn’t have done it without the help of the prompter.” [source]

I’d never heard of opera prompters before reading this entertaining article on the ROH website. These unsung heroes reside in a cramped little box at the front of the stage with only their heads poking up to the surface. One San Francisco Opera prompter describes it:

‘The prompter’s box is 34 inches from front to back and 45 inches from side to side. I enter from the floor below the stage. The first ladder I climb is 51/2 feet, and from that level, on which the hydraulic lift sits, it’s another 6 feet up to the stage.

I sit in my chair. I put my music on my adjustable music stand. I’ve got two video monitors of the conductor and an audio monitor that’s piped sound from the (orchestra) pit. I have a fan, because it gets hot in here. There’s a lot of dust that comes in. If you’re lucky, there are no props that come in. When people throw swords, I get nervous.’

Here he is at his workplace:


What do prompters do, you ask? Well, they conduct, especially when the singers have a less than perfect view of the conductor himself, and more importantly they cue the text or whatever musical prompt the signers might need. In the olden days they used what were essentially rear-view mirrors so they could see and follow the conductor, but now they a tiny television screen to aid them. Timing is crucial, as their prompts have to precede the conductor, and moreover the orchestra, by a second or so. The prompters will speak lines in a kind of shouted whisper, audible to the singers but not the audience, if all goes to plan. They’ll gesture and give other cues to the singers, with whom they’ve usually built up quite a rapport and know how to communicate with effectively.

The prompter has to be acutely aware and in total control of their every movement so as not to throw singer’s off. One prompter relates such advice:

‘Flaviano Labo once screamed at me,” Miss Dornemann [the opera prompter interviewed] said. ” ‘Sit still! Look happy! Don’t scratch your head, I’ll think it’s a cue. Don’t wiggle!’ I got the idea. Never look disapproving. Singers need all the encouragement they can get.’

The prompter’s job has fallen out of use in the UK apparently. Plus some director’s don’t want a prompters box ruining their set. But it’s still commonly using at the Met, for example. Met prompter Jane Klaviter has amusingly said that being a prompter is like being an air-traffic controller.

Naturally, there are some wonderful stories. In a performance of The Merry Widow the singers forget their lines and the prompter, Frau Knuzel, was so captivated by the performance that she had forgotten her duties. She was instead just sitting there, her arms folded over the score, transfixed by the spectacle. The singers began to improvise text. Eventually, they moved themselves down to the prompter’s box and, continuing to improvise, one of them sang, ‘by the way, have you heard anything lately from Frau Knuzel?’ To which the other responded, ‘No. I wonder how she is.’ Well, this prompted a loud screech from the box and Knuzel frantically recomposed herself and got back to the task at hand.

For all the undoubted stress and poor working conditions the prompter has to endure, I still can’t help but envy them. They have the best seat in the house.


In Praise of Unoriginal Music

Since reading and writing about the lutenist Valentine Bakfark, I’ve been thinking about the strange obsession with originality. At first I thought popular music might be to blame. Copyright law has eroded our sense of healthy musical theft by declaring that people can own a certain series of notes. And this is greatly abused in pop and rock (covering up the fact that much of that music is incredibly homogeneous and regurgitative anyway).

But it clearly also traces back to the Romantic era, where personality and self-expression and individualism were desired above all. This is what M. H. Abrams famously observed, that art had changed from mirror to lamp, from reflecting the world around us to illuminating the mind and soul of its creators.

Richard Taruskin in his Danger of Music cites unfavourably Paul Griffiths, the music critic, who in one of his reviews criticised a ‘populist’ work for not adding ‘to the universe of musical possibility’. What an incredible statement! Rules and limitations are the foundation of music, surely. It’s what differentiates it from spontaneous noise. When innovations come, they tend to come in the form of new rules, not new possibilities. The only exception to this I can think of is chance music, possibly the freest of all music — that is, the music itself is free; the musician is gagged and bound, his autonomy ripped from him as he’s left to watch in horror the sounds unfold. When music’s left to chance, the distillation of sound into music form is given up on, and so it’s improbable that anything recognisably musical will happen. The only probability left is that it will be original. And by that point, who cares?

At one time, Taruskin notes, ‘mastery, rather than originality, was the objective all artists strove to achieve’. There is a temptation to ask whether classical music would be much more interesting and much better received if this were again the case.

Speaking of the brilliantly unoriginal, what type of music did Beethoven write most of? No, not the piano sonatas. It was folksongs. Nearly 200 of them. Here’s Sunset, from his 25 Scottish Songs. Hardly original, but masterly crafted.