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The idea of “taking a line for a walk” comes from one of Birtwistle’s favourite artists, Paul Klee. A preoccupation with Klee and his theories was an inspiration for one of the definitive Birtwistle pieces of the late 1970s, Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum. Using Klee’s idea of the difference between “dividual” and “individual” phenomena – the difference between, say, the endlessly divisible nature of water, as opposed to the singularity, the indivisibility, of a bottle of water – Birtwistle conjured a series of different musical materials. The question was then how to repeat these blocks of material, and how to transform them. On their own, each block is like a little machine of processes and patterns, but nothing ever repeats in quite the way you expect. That’s because Birtwistle used a series of random numbers to help generate how the blocks would recur, how long they would last, and even what notes they would use.

And here’s the paradox. “I didn’t make any decisions in writing Carmen,” Birtwistle says, since so much of the structure was generated through random procedures, “and yet it sounds like me – and no one else could have written it.”


Whilst there are a few works of Boulez I find to be very mediocre (Derive, Mémoriale, (“…explosante-fixe…”), both Incises and Sur Incises, and a few others), and I’m by no means convinced that various lush re-orchestrations of earlier works constitute an improvement, nonetheless he remains one of the most significant figures of the second half of the 20th century to me, and one whose work shows a greater consistency across the breadth of his output than, say, that of Stockhausen (who spent about 35 years mostly up his own arse, slowly going mad, with just the odd decent work).

All of this is to ignore Boulez’s seminal role as conductor, apologist for not just “new music” but for Debussy’s (for instance), Messiaen’s, Alban Berg’s, and a host of others. He established perhaps the most important institute for electronic and computer music research in the world, single-handedly petitioning a thankfully enlightened French Government in the late 60s/early 70s.

He renovated the repertoire, established a benchmark in certain conducting techniques (perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but it enlivened the world of the symphony orchestra and shook up the BBCSO), released superlative recordings of some of the 20th century’s greatest music, was politically active in supporting young composers, new music more generally, educational standards and notions of musical citizenship, and worked outside the box with the likes of the genius Frank Zappa.


The first woman to conduct the last night of the BBC Proms.

A stale and slow-moving mind is of no use in a first-class orchestra, and an unfit body cannot cope with the physical strain involved. Those players really worth their salt are frequently expert at other accomplishments.

(Bernard Shore, The Orchestra Speaks)

Every single one of the musicians in any professional orchestra has won an audition over sometimes dozens and dozens of competitors, made it through one or two years of his/her trial period, and is required to play difficult pieces, well, day in and day out. If they can’t play the right notes, they can’t work. If a conductor can’t hear wrong notes, he has no business being a conductor. That is just as much a basic requirement of his job as the musicians being able to play the right notes (at least) on their instruments. There are many, many hollow posers and impostors on the podium. It is much easier to fake being a conductor than being a musician.

I saw Claudio Abbado given a very hard time by the brass players of the London Symphony Orchestra. The off-stage guys went to the pub part way through a rehearsal, there was quite a fuss about that one. Abbado was very angry at how some of the musicians behaved, and he walked off to cool down. The performance however was as exciting and electric as could be imagined. This was the same orchestra that decided to get back at Carreras when he said his fluffs were caused by dropped pencils. Abbado and the singer were then subjected to a barrage of pencil-dropping whenever he opened his mouth. In a way Carreras asked for it, but the players did not have to give it.

What is musically good and bad or emotionally communicative is really a different thing. A technically outstanding conductor who hears everything and knows how to rehearse and direct the orchestra is not a different kind of poser. If he knows his stuff, has good ears, knows the score and has a conception of it that he can bring across in rehearsal, then he is not a poser at all. You or I may not like the interpretation that results from that, but one has to separate that from technical qualities.

But if someone does not have these technical qualities and knowledge, then he also cannot develop a valuable interpretation of a complex orchestral piece and direct 80-100 musicians performing it. Whipping up a little excitement and relying on the orchestra to carry the conductor through the piece so that he looks good is not good conducting – although some good performances sometimes happen despite a bad conductor. But only when the orchestra comes through in spite of him. Which can be really dificult.

Although real messing with the conductor incidents do occur and they make for better stories, that rarely happens in good professional orchestras in the way of “let’s test this guy and give him a hard time”. It does happen sometimes, but not often, I would say. And that’s not even necessary. It is hard to describe, but when a conductor does not know his stuff, it becomes apparent very quickly, and after only a short while longer, it is pretty much clear if he knows what he is doing or not. If yes, it can make a huge difference in the ensemble playing experience. If not, then it can be a very big pain in the arse and immensely frustrating. Musicians most of the time don’t even need to test conductors – it often becomes apparent very quickly if they are any good or not.

One should always try to co-operate with the conductor, but sometimes, it’s just not possible and the problems aren’t a matter of different views about the music or anything like that – that doesn’t really matter anyway, because an important part of the craft of the orchestral musician is to be able to grasp and realize many different concepts, after all, if everybody did what they wanted, there would be no ensemble – it is simply that the man with the stick does not belong in front of an orchestra.

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Unlike the previous movements of Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, which are static in the sense that each depicts various aspects of a single trait, this one moves through a series of “events” that bring the music to conclusions not envisioned at the beginning. There is a profound hollowness and sense of defeat in the harmony of the opening chords, and an even deeper despair in the motif sounded beneath them by the double basses. But the elderly voice of wisdom is soon heard in the B minor theme for the trombones, and at the end the mood is one of acceptance, reconciliation and consequent serenity.

Toscanini is excessively short-sighted. To see him peering at a score, held so that it nearly touches his nose, is to begin to understand how his memory holds fast its multitude of details. Evidently to read thus laboriously is in a measure to memorize. It is sometimes painful to see him search for a rehearsal letter in a score or for some other point that has eluded him. He rehearses everything from memory, merely referring to the score for rehearsal numbers or for confirmatoin of a detail, over which he is right 99 times in 100. Occasionally he brings his own orchestral parts – not all very good, and some too bad to be used. None meticulously marked as, for instance, are Mengelberg’s.

(Bernard Shore, The Orchestra Speaks)

Amy Winehouse, 10 days before her death

The question was frequently asked, for whom does he compose? Certainly, for me (and I know that fortunately I am not the only one). With a few exceptions, Stockhausen’s works are consistently among the music of the last 50 years that gives me the most enjoyment and impresses me the most. This holds up until his later music. For example, Himmelfahrt (Ascension) (2004/5) for synthesizer (or organ), soprano and tenor, and Licht-Bilder (2002) for tenor, trumpet, basset-horn, flute and ring-modulation are, in my view, simply in a league of their own when it comes to, not just quality, but also sheer originality of ideas and the authoritative execution of these in the finest detail and with sublime compositional technique.

One of my favorite at-home concerts is currently Gruppen followed by Himmelfahrt. Both works feature polyphony of strands in different tempi – in the latter, the two hands of the keyboard player play in different simultaneous tempi – and both employ the concept in distinct ways. While Gruppen is gestural music, Himmelfahrt applies a more melodic approach. Both works offer complex listening experiences. At the end of such a “concert” I am exhausted but happily so. And completely drunk, so I now am unable to find the fucking Stockhausen CDs.

The Helicopter Quartet – alas, the only most recent work of Stockhausen that is available outside Stockhausen-Verlag – certainly does not tell the whole story about his more recent music.

Apart from the very good beginning and the terrific end (ascension and descent) I find it most of the time boring, and I seem to share this experience with many others. I have had some moments where I thought I had started to like the music, but then, after listening to some other earlier Stockhausen music, like the two above mentioned works, I really couldn’t bear it.

The extravagant perfomance requirements are the most outrageous in Stockhausen’s oeuvre and not typical. While other works are difficult to perform not just in terms of technique but also in terms of costs, none is of such a forbidding nature. And many later works, not just the composer’s own chamber music, like excerpts from Licht, but also his compositions from the Klang cycle, are relatively easy to perform in monetary terms.

I heard Stockhausen give pre-concert speeches in London three or four times. On each occasion, he was lucid, amusing, enthusiastic, unpretentious and, above all, quite sane. I have no idea why he comes across as such a basket case in interviews. In real life Stockhausen was a very nice, un-arrogant and down-to-earth person – I have experienced this during summer courses, in personal conversations and in exchange of letters.

However, and this is not meant as a critique of his contribution to 20th century music, he had shocking halitosis – and unavoidable, even if you were squeamish about such things, because he would insist on standing right up close to you in a conversation, and suddenly exhaling with a big German noise. I was present when David Atherton and two members of the London Sinfonietta vomited, then fainted because of this.

This post is my tribute to Amy Winehouse, now I’ll never get to have sex with her.

(Originally published in the Grauniad on 7 April 1971)

Igor Stravinsky has died in New York at the age of 88. It was obvious half a century ago that his three early Diaghilev ballets – “Firebird”, “Petrushka” and “Rite of Spring” – were classics, but instead of resting on that unique achievement he ranged wider in search of new fields to conquer. He lived long enough to see his many stylistic experiments justified. In his eighties he remained more consistently creative than any other great composer before him, even Verdi. On his last visit to London he was tackled on his age. “Me? Old?” he snapped in mock irritation. “I just live. It is not my fault that I do not die.”

That was the characteristic of his eternally youthful approach to music and musicians. There was a chameleon quality in his ability to soak in influences from any and every source around him, even in Hollywood, where he lived during old age. Critics of the twenties and thirties saw in this characteristic a sign of declining powers, but what over the last generation has become more obvious was that his own personality triumphed unfailingly over any deliberate eclecticism. Even when he turned circle, and adopted serialism as a composition method (in his seventies) the results were always immediately recognisable for their unmistakable Stravinsky flavour.

History will probably decide that Igor Stravinsky was the most influential composer and also the greatest of the twentieth century thus far. Wagner in “Tristan and Isolde” may have foreshadowed the harmonic anarchy which would lead to Schoenberg’s twelve-note system and the whole world of serialism, but in “The Rite of Spring” Stravinsky liberated rhythm with such barbaric splendour that no musician from Debussy onwards (not even Mick Jagger dare we suggest) would have been quite the same without him.

In a sense Stravinsky was the first truly “modern” composer. He made a great deal of money out of music. He conducted most of his major works in the recording studio convinced that future generations would want to play them, and determined there should be none of the interpretative squabble which sometimes surround the great masters of past centuries. He was a gawky, birdlike figure on the rostrum, but a compelling one, as several generations of orchestral players and concertgoers in Britain remember. Almost to the last, he remained a cosmopolitan, a globe-trotter, and indeed some thought that his spiritual homelessness ever since the Russian Revolution was part of his musical essence.

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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