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This is very worrying. I still adore it with all my heart, respect, love, worship it; but I’ve noticed that I’m listening to it less and less. I haven’t bought a CD for months, and recently I haven’t really been listening to music at all; when I do it’s usually some pop song.

I want to recapture that old love. When I do summon up the energy to put on a Mahler symphony my soul burns bright, I just hardly ever do for some reason

I wonder if this affects us when we get to a certain age. There comes a time when we think we have heard everything, e.g. yet another new release of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. How many more to come, we’ve heard it all before, then boredom sets in.

An old professor of mine was of the opinion that people listen to too much music. While I would never get rid of the recordings I have, I think there’s something to that. In particular, we don’t give the attention to music that it deserves.

The answer could be listening less. I try to set aside time when I can give music my full attention in a relaxed environment without distractions.

Turn the lights out.
Pour a glass of wine or good single malt.
Don’t spill the drink in the dark.

The splendidly named writer Robert Thicknesse has long been an evangelist for opera, the most maligned of art forms. But, he’s beginning to wonder, what’s the point of it all? Has he been defending the indefensible?

I’ve been writing about opera for about a decade now, and over the years, as I’ve watched one companion after another’s eyes glaze over, or close gently, during a show, I have begun to wonder: what if I’m wrong about this? What if it actually is all rubbish, self-indulgent, glittery, adolescent, incontinent, with a vastly inflated view of its own importance? Can opera ever be more than a diversion for people with too much money and too little taste? And was it ever intended to be, anyway? Opera’s latest defence mechanism is a retreat into high camp best summed up by Rufus Wainwright’s recent quasi-opera Prima Donna, a piece that enshrines the extraneous things that have become the point of opera for many of its audience. It took a critical pasting because many of the critics are in the business of convincing themselves that opera is actually something else – a notable forum for discussing issues of great contemporary moment, for example. “Attacking me for using cliché in an opera about opera is absurd,” says Wainwright. “Cliché, camp and sentimentality are cornerstones of the form and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”

Is Robert Thicknesse playing the role of agent provocateur hoping to get droves of opera haters to defend an art form that they have absolutely no interest in – for the sake of defending art? Such a ploy must surely be doomed as very few are interested and many perceive it as a bourgeois art form to be enjoyed by bankers.

If it is not a ploy, should we then take what he says at face value? If one does that, then one really wonders at his critical acumen. Is he tired of the buildings, the opera-goers, and the marketing, rather than the art form itself? Seems he is. Even the Viennese writer Karl Kraus (one of the most cynical writers who ever penned a feuilleton) was capable of appreciating operetta – which is for some a watered down or dumbed down version that sits between opera and the musical. However, like Thicknesse, Kraus was merciless when it came to satirising the “Opera World”. I think one can be adult enough to separate the two. I can enjoy art without bothering to think of all those odious people in Japan, New York or Moscow buying the art works, or those imbibing wine and chattering about taxes spoiling their weekends. I think that opera transcends their values and lifestyles. It has its roots in what after all was seen to be an entertainment for the people, its themes a distillation of the sentiments and melodrama of ordinary people.

It was a subversive art form. It has tremendous potential in the postmodern period for providing a locus for all art forms. Why not defend that? Why not promote that? Instead of going for an ideologically safe approach, and say opera is exclusive.

The Queen of Gastroporn pictured at the Chelsea Flower Show. You would, wouldn’t you?

No audience can keep awake through the eternal reiteration of a single idea. Nor can the human mind withstand a continuous bombardment of new ideas.

(Reginald Smith Brindle, Serial Composition)

I’m just reading The New Music – The Avant-Garde Since 1945 by Reginald Smith Brindle (1987), acquired for pennies from the Oxfam shop on Oldham Street just around the corner from where I live in Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter.

Even though I have a couple of Mr Brindle’s guitar works on an old Julian Bream LP, this is not a category of music that figures much in my record or CD collection or concert and BBC Radio 3 listening, although when I first started listening to BBC Radio 3 around 1972 I tried hard to make some sense of what was broadcast of the “new music”, albeit without much profit. I now find Brindle’s fairly gentle critique of the thinking behind indeterminacy, integral serialism, graphic scores and the like usually hits the nail on the head.

So where does that leave the music he discusses: the likes of Togni, Donatoni, Nono for integral serialism, Haubenstock-Ramati, Renosto for aleatoric, Cardew, Bussotti, Buonomi, Levine, Brindle himself and Donatoni again for graphic scores? The above names are taken from the musical examples in the book, although I’ve been deliberately selective (mendacious?) in leaving out more famous names like Messiaen, Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen.

Have these “schools” died as far as performances and recordings are concerned? Do any “masterpieces” linger in anyone’s memory (a tricky notion of course for those scores where no two performances will ever be the same, to the point where the whole idea of a recognizable “work” may well disappear completely). Is this period now to be regarded just as an unfortunate cul-de-sac in musical history?

Some of the then hard-line composers came to that conclusion themselves (Penderecki, Pärt, to name but two of the most well known names), others like Nono and Boulez stuck to their own kind of serialism. Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) committed suicide, but in his music we find the tendency of leaving the German symphonic style behind to develop an increasingly more avant-garde style, which would have continued without abating had he lived longer.

Quite radical composers in the minimal music corner have either mellowed (Andriessen, Adams, gradually losing the sharp edges) or ripened (Reich, refining his point of departure).

So, no, 1950s avant-garde is not really dead, but this type of music in its pure form might in the nearer or further future be considered a cul-de-sac.

Yes, 1950s avant-garde techniques and devices have been adopted, amalgamated, merged with (what might be called) more “classical” points of departure; and therefore, yes, the 1950s avant-garde does play a role in present day composing, either as continuity and development, or in music which is a reaction to the mathematics of it.

As with all periods some, indeed most, of the music then written (1950s), ends up in the “Oxfam shop” of music. What none of us know is what future generations will make of the music. It may all swing back into fashion, as has happened with the music of Korngold. Who would have predicted that in the 1970s? The avant-garde is far from dead, but it’s no longer sensibly called avant-garde, because it is simply part of the vocabulary which informs so much of what composers still do. The amazing freedom which it represented at the time remains often overlooked however, and is certainly still overlooked by those curmudgeons, stubbornly, bizarrely seeking out a tune in Pli selon pli.

Composers are now free to be as conservative or radical as they please; the pendulum has stopped swinging this way or that, because it’s finally become evident we don’t need a pendulum. Schnittke was the most prominent composer who boldly swung between styles (often in the same work) but there are many others.

The down side is that (as with much contemporary art) passions rarely are aroused one way or another. And I’m not sure the absence of an over-arching “school” doesn’t invite decadence. We don’t have a musical Damien Hirst yet, but it’s surely a matter of time.

In his heyday, Ray Alan, who has died aged 79, was described by some as the world’s greatest ventriloquist, and his dummy was the boozy Lord Charles. The hoity-toity aristocrat with his put-down catchphrases, such as “You silly arse!”, proved to be a long-lived inspiration at a time when so many other ventriloquists and their dummies were going out of business.

A dummy that speaks with the permanently slurred lazy drawl of a half-cut upper class alcoholic. What an elegant solution to the problem of being a piss poor ventriloquist.

R.I.P. Ray Alan, ventriloquist and writer, born 18 September 1930; died 24 May 2010

The Duchess of York with the Maharaja of Jodhpur

Sarah Ferguson shamelessly plotted to sell access to her trade envoy 19th in line for the British throne ex-husband fat bastard Prince Andrew for £500,000.

She was filmed taking a £27,000 ($40,000) cash down-payment from an under cover News of the World reporter.

She claimed that she does not have a pot to piss in. Boo fucking hoo Duchess, you greedy fat fucker.

Did she seriously believe that a man who hands over £27,000 in cash out of his safe could be anything other than a reporter?


Why I feel sorry for Sarah Ferguson
Shamed Sarah Ferguson sobs as she apologises

Outside the music of the Second Viennese School, whose works are of course central, some other pieces are particularly special to me, though I don’t claim great things for all of them, necessarily. Here are just three of them.

Somewhere near the very top of the list come the three sets of Greek Lyrics by Dallapiccola, I think. Actually they are one of my favourite things in music full stop. Think of Webern’s concision and structural perfection and combine it with a delicate, refined Mediterranean lyricism (these are settings of ancient Greek poems). Few such exquisite pieces have come from any century and any style.

A surprise entry, really pretty obscure, is the Op. 15 Klavierstucke by Hanns Jelinek. I just love these works, though they aren’t at all barnstorming masterpieces. They were the first twelve-tone pieces I knew very well as a teenager, and are full of imagination, wit and fun. The work is divided into five books, each containing a number of pieces; Book I is four two-part inventions; Book II is five character pieces; Book III is three toccatas (including a Toccata Funebre for Berg, with some Wozzeck quotations); Book IV is three dance movements (including an utterly beautiful Sarabande, and a March clearly inspired by the Landsknecht number from Schoenberg’s male part songs) and Book V is a Suite in E major, including among other things a Bachian Prelude , a Siciliana which reminds me of Mozart a little, a jazzy Musette and an Epilogue which is an hommage to Debussy “d’un dodecaphoniste vienoise”. Each book uses the row in ever more advanced ways, until in Book V there is note repetition, free transposition and so on.

Forever linked to the Second Viennese composers in my mind will be Hugh Wood, who took a series of seminars on them when I was at Cambridge which I will never forget – truly moving occasions.

Hugh Wood is an archetypal northerner (he’s from Lancashire), bluff, down-to-earth, but he is at heart a late flourishing member of that set of post-Second Viennese composers that included Gerhard, Dallapiccola, Eisler and so on, and the eloquence and emotion with which he gave his last talk, on these three composers and their various fates, was particularly beautiful; and then he pulled out a bottle of champagne and we sat drinking, more or less, to these great musicians.

I love Wood’s three concerti, and particularly his Piano Concerto, which shows how much fun twelve-tone music can be, and is dedicated to gorgeous pouting Joanna MacGregor. It also has an admirably clear form. The first movement is springy, athletic and purely atonal. Its rhythmic vitality is infectious. The second movement, in complete contrast, is almost throughout vague, amorphous, delicate, utterly beautiful “late night” music. Gradually it takes shape, the contours and sonorities become clearer and the music is drawn ever-closer into the orbit of Sweet Lorraine, which is eventually quoted in sumptuous sound for just a few glorious seconds before a withdrawal is made. The movement is an attempt to bring together these two disparate worlds – it is for the most part a kind of twelve-tone rumba, almost, with the first movement’s vitality jazzed up a little. But there are tiny interludes, ever more magical ones, wonderfully orchestrated with soulful oboe or trumpet solos over pattering tom-toms, which although they only take up a few seconds in total, seem to contain the heart of this concerto.


Guitar legend Jeff Beck bringing opera to a wider audience. Unbelievable. None shall sleep, indeed. Watch the bass player.

The Sun newspaper reports that opera legend Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has hit out at Susan Boyle’s “whiz-bang” success – saying it will “disappear”.

She was asked about Britain’s Got Talent star SuBo’s version of I Dreamed A Dream, which she also sings. The singer, 66, replied: “Let’s get off that subject. Move on. I’m doing something classical, not whiz-bang. Whiz-bang disappears. It goes whiz then bang. You insult me by wanting to bring it into this conversation.”

Dame Kiri, whose BBC Radio 2 Kiri Prize is searching for an opera star, took a swipe at BGT judges.

She said her judges “know what they’re talking about”.

My favourite comment from a Sun reader on this story:


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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