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When it was suggested that Indonesian gamelan music, with its endless flow of repetitious pattern, accompany Hans Namuth’s film of Pollock painting, the artist protested. “I’m an American painter,” he said, and the American composer Morton Feldman was commissioned to supply a score.

(Carter Ratcliff, Jackson Pollock’s American Sublime)

I was just talking about Jackson Pollock (Jack the Dripper) with my young friend Melissa not long ago, when she and I saw some of his work. One of her first comments was, “Oh, now I get it. You really have to see these in person!”, and although that’s true of pretty much any artist, it’s even more so with Pollock.

What doesn’t come through in reproductions is the size of most of his paintings, which are extremely large, and the texture of the paint, which in many of his works looks to be almost one inch thick. All of which is lost in translation to the printed page. But when you see them in person, there is something really magical going on.

So, OK, everyone could drizzle paint on a canvas and create abstract art like this, but there are two problems. First, you could do it, but you’re not going to achieve the same results (and really, you couldn’t do it with the same technique. It takes skill to achieve interesting patterns and textures in an abstract work, look at Mondrian’s work for example). And second, you’d be about 60 years too late to splatter paint on a canvas and call it art. In art, much like music, originality is highly prized. If you want to be a famous artist, you’d better be the first person to do something … or raise the bar on something that’s been done before. How many composers living today write music like Beethoven’s? His piano music led to developments in the technology of the instrument that have hardly been improved in almost two centuries since his death.

The horror! The horror!

(Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness)

The original title of this post was going to be “Stella McCartney feels a right tit”. My PA, Miss McKenzie, whose powers of observation are greater than mine, pointed out that in fact Stella McCartney is groping Tracey Emin’s left tit, which is slightly larger than the right one.

Looking closely again at the pic, I notice what big hands Stella McCartney has.

Some more Polish jollity. Zimerman famously refused to play in the United States because the authorities took away his piano and destroyed it. He was also less than happy about the US using Poland as a launching pad for its missiles.

He arrived in Manchester towards the end of August [1848], and was put up at the house of a German Jew called Salis Schwabe, who had settled in England thirty years before and amassed great wealth. The Schwabes were widely travelled and cultivated, and their fine mansion just outside Manchester, Crumpsall House, was often used by visiting artists.

Chopin was a little astonished to find that “in this smoky place there is the most charming music room imaginable”.

(Adam Zamoyski, Chopin: A Biography)

Depending on whether you believe official records, or the composer himself, Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born either on 22 February or 1 March, 200 years ago. He died thirty-nine years later, of tuberculosis.

I find his music rather depressing, mainly because I am painfully aware that I will never write anything for the piano half as well as he did.

This hasn’t stopped me “borrowing” some of his more chromatic passages for use in my own compositions, which are frankly atonal and dodecaphonic, although admittedly in the sense that Alban Berg’s music is atonal and dodecaphonic.

The greatest interpreter of Chopin, for me, is Horowitz, although my young friend Melissa has a soft spot for Tamás Vásáry.

I find it interesting that the world’s greatest pianist, Alfred Brendel, rarely performed Chopin’s music, possibly because it lacks humour.


The reasons that conductors’ gender is still an issue for us are twofold: there are still too few female conductors in charge of orchestras (apart from Jane Glover at the Royal Academy of Music, there are no women currently in posts high up the orchestral or operatic hierarchy anywhere in Britain).

(Tom Service, The Guardian, 22 January 2010)

In the past, the musical establishment has claimed that female conductors simply lack the gravitas to lead an orchestra. Others have suggested that women don’t fully understand music written by men.

“Women can’t conduct Brahms, and Mahler is men’s music,” proclaimed Helen Thompson in the 1970s, then manager of the New York Philharmonic.

I have been hanging around the Royal Northern College of Music and various bars in Manchester for the last three years hoping to bump into Ewa Strusińska.

It seems she has been avoiding me in order to concentrate on becoming the first woman conductor of the Hallé Orchestra.

Why such a gorgeous babe should waste her time waving her arms about in front of an orchestra is beyond me.

Ewa, leave Mahler and Elgar alone and come and have a drink with me.


Tom Service: Where are all the women conductors? Why am I so ill-informed?

The room was passably warm by now. The tea and a cigarette worked their short-lived magic. He began to feel a little less bored and angry. Should he do a spot of work after all? He ought to work, of course. He always hated himself afterwards when he had wasted a whole evening.

(George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying)

Takemitsu is a very important composer for me, for all sorts of reasons. I do think there are few composers who can write music as sheerly beautiful as his – those who think modern music is of necessity ugly simply don’t know they are born.

In all sincerity, in simple sonic terms there is nothing in all music as ravishing as, say, From me flows what you call time, which seems to me to go about as far as music can go in its particular direction. The danger is that the music becomes too sensuous and loses its spine – this is not to say that it needs to be faster, louder or more abrasive, but that it skirts with becoming inconsequential unless there is more substance there – in the piece I’ve cited, which I am loathe to criticise, the motivic material holding it all together is possibly stretched pretty thin. But in other works, Takemitsu’s finest, this is not a problem, and everything is held in miraculous balance.


An income of virtually £10,000 a year was [in 1881] an extraordinary level for anyone in the arts to attain. (Gladstone’s salary as prime minister was £7,500.) To maintain such an income, what alternative was there but to continue his output of operettas?

(Arthur Jacobs, Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician)

The music of Sir Arthur Sullivan. Not Gilbert’s lyrics, just Sullivan’s music. This morning, I played a disc containing ten overtures to their operettas, including Yeomen of the Guard, Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, Patience, etc., etc.

Lovely, light, tuneful, entertaining, exceedingly well recorded and played. Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Alexander Faris conducting (the guy who wrote the theme music for Upstairs, Downstairs, not Star Trek, that was Alexander Courage). Nimbus Records. Perfect music for brightening up a rather dismal Manchester winter’s morning. Much more enjoyable than Boulez, Carter, Ligeti and any other atonalists.

Next up after an excellent and rather liquid lunch is a disc of 15 waltzes, overtures, etc., of Emil Waldteufel.

I must confess too a fondness for some of those old London Phase 4 LPs where they just stuck a microphone down every horn and 1½ inches from every violin. My particular favourite was the Henry Lewis recording of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Another, for a bit of a different reason, was Stokowski’s version of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. The last movement was edited in a particularly outrageous way by Stokowski to make it longer. Lots of repetition and slow building to an orgasmic finale that isn’t in the score at all.


One afternoon in November, 1901, as I was walking along the Ring with some friends, I happened to meet the Zuckerkandls. Zuckerkandl, besides being an eminent anatomist, was something of a highbrow and had a great sense of humour.

“We’ve got Mahler coming in tonight – won’t you come?”

I declined. I did not want to meet Mahler. In fact I had purposely and with considerable difficulty avoided meeting him that summer, because of all the stories people told about him.

(Alma Mahler, tr. Basil Creighton, Erinnerungen und Briefe)

Gustav Mahler’s wife was one of the 20th century’s hottest women.

She did compose, you know, and she was not all that bad either. I have a CD of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy and tacked on to fill up the disc is a collection of six of her songs presented by the mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion. The foremost fact ranking the songs in my favour is that Alma wrote them for mezzos, avoiding shrieking excesses by high sopranos, not my favourite category of female vocal performers.

She was really an interesting woman, very intelligent and cultured. It seems she took it very hard when Gustav told her basically, “Hey, it’s all about me, I’m the composer in this family!”

Unfortunately the literature available about her is mostly dealing with her personal life, calling her a femme fatale, among the nicer attributes. She was an intelligent woman and it was intelligent, creative men who found her attractive. What’s wrong with that? The attitude of her husband, unappreciative of her talent, was more the fault of the period in time where “equal rights” was not in fashion.


Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille,
Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt.

(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Torquato Tasso)

I’m not into virtuoso music in general, but I have about ten recordings of this guy and I’m just floored by each one of them. His fireworks can get boring after a while, but his musical invention is unmatched. Everything gets a spin, rhythm, harmony, colour, dynamics, key changes, and it happens all so fast and spontaneously. If a piano could play itself, I’m sure this is what it would sound like.

I enjoy Erroll Garner’s playing even more than Art Tatum’s. Both were undeniably great. Garner was largely self-taught, could not read music, but could play incredibly fast and incredibly lyrically as well. Too bad young people don’t listen to and appreciate this stuff instead of that horrific, dehumanizing gangsta rap hip hop crap.

I almost forgot … R.I.P. Earl Wild, who died last week. Who now can be bothered to bang out all that Liszt? A sad loss.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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