• Radio 3 – Hear and Now Fifty

Well, you can see from the preceding post Toothless, Lame and Lazy that I get hot under the collar about all this celebrity endorsement.  It’s as if programme makers (or more likely their executive seniors) don’t believe that music can stand up for itself.  You can imagine my horror when I heard a few days ago about the celebrity component planned for a Radio 3 bastion of musical self-sufficiency, Hear and Now.

This strand, under different titles, has long stood up for contemporary musical creativity.  It’s always been forward-looking, innovative, challenging.  I reported on a characteristically intriguing edition last month (Sit, Stand, Walk).  But even Hear and Now has not been able to resist the pressure to make an ‘essential collection’, the Hear and Now Fifty.  It’s going to be 50 works from 50 years (1950-99) chosen by 50 ‘figures from the worlds of new music and the arts’.  I wonder what the strand’s successor collection will be called next September, because once you’ve started down this path there’s no going back.

As usual, the promotional material has its own brand of tosh: ‘This rich legacy can now be viewed without the prejudices and barriers that dogged its perception at the time’.  Excuse me?  ‘Viewed’?  ‘Dogged’?  ‘Its (the legacy’s?) perception’?

Are we to understand that we are equally distant in time, prejudices and barriers from a work composed in 1999 as we are from one written in 1950?  Have the 50 pieces therefore been chosen for their revisionist potential?  And what about being dogged by today’s prejudices and barriers?

At least it looks as if the ‘50’ will not take over the whole programme each week, which leaves Hear and Now free to continue to pursue its traditional targets.  My initial horror is somewhat lessened by the range, calibre and potential of the creative input from the ’50 figures’.  The first batch looks like this:

17 Sept.    Steve Reich: Different Trains (1988), with electronic music producer Matthew Herbert
24 Sept.    György Ligeti: Atmospherès (1961), with film maker Sophie Fiennes
1 Oct.        Elliott Carter: String Quartet no.3 (1971), with novelist Mark Haddon
8 Oct.        Pierre Boulez: Le marteau sans maître (1955), with composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Thereafter we are promised:

Louis Andriessen: De Staat (1976), with composer Michael van der Aa
Iannis Xenakis: Nomos Alpha (1966), with Marcus du Sautoy (again)
Cornelius Cardew: The Great Learning (1970/72), with pianist John Tilbury
John Cage: 4’33” (1952), with artist Tacita Dean
Edgard Varèse: Poème electronique (1958), with composer Tyondai Braxton
Morton Feldman: Extensions 3 (1952), with composer Howard Skempton.

Further, incomplete details indicate that the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson will introduce something by Milton Babbitt, Kronos’s leader David Harrington will introduce George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970), and that Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (1957) and Toru Takemitsu’s score for the film Kwaidan (1964) will also feature.

It will be interesting to see what the remaining pieces will be.  If Hear and Now is intent on creating a specific canon, how much editorial control has been applied to the repertoire to shape this canonicity?    And how many of the composers and pieces will be as unestablished or ‘non-core’ as in the programme’s habitual focus?  The answer to this last question is particularly key.  If the majority of the ’50’ are of the ‘classic’ status of most of the first ’10’ above, then they will sit awkwardly within the current experimental ethos of this strand, although I can see that they might well have been in the strand had it been running that long ago (there’s a musical-historiographical agenda here).  On the other hand, each ‘1’ may provide an interesting context for the ‘now’ pieces that happen to be in its particular edition of ‘Hear and Now Fifty’.  So there is potential in these juxtapositions; they won’t necessarily be safe.  I’m coming round to the idea.

Hang on a minute.  If each week’s Hear and Now is losing a good proportion of its airtime to these ‘50’, doesn’t that mean that its core mission has been irrevocably diminished?  That is hugely to be regretted.  Why didn’t Radio 3 instead extend its new titling fixation and create a third, contemporary, ‘Classics’ programme that would complement Hear and Now rather than steal from it?

It is, however, a sad sign of our times that most of these ‘50’ works are unlikely to be heard ever again on Radio 3.  So catch them while you can.  You can subscribe to the podcast introduction here –Radio 3’s Fifty Modern Classics (oh, so there is a ‘Modern Classics’ strand – I thought we’d lost it).

Essential Classics anyone?
Saturday Classics – anyone there?
• ‘Modern Classics’ 1-50, and counting?


The first edition of Hear and Now Fifty has just finished.  The 1/50 came at the end.  First were three pieces from the 41st Vale of Glamorgan Festival.  Under its originator and artistic director, John Metcalf, it has moulded a niche for itself by focusing exclusively over the past 20 years on music by living composers, with a strong emphasis on minimalism and on Australian and Eastern European music especially.  Although it is a small event – five concerts in five days – it punches above its weight, thanks largely to links and reciprocal arrangements built up over many years.

Three pieces were broadcast last night, all from the concert given on 8 September by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Jean-Michaël Lavoie: Metcalf’s Three Mobiles (with Gerard McChrystal, soprano sax), Mark Bowden’s Lyra (Cello Concerto, with Oliver Coates), and Qichang Chen’s Wu Xing (Qichang Chen was the Music Director of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – his ‘eclectic music will feature strongly in future Vale of Glamorgan Festivals’).

Three Mobiles seemed to have sprung from harmless, mainly American musical idioms current 80 years ago: eloquent, sweet-toned but anachronistic.  The third mobile began with some minimalist patter, but soon reverted to type, with a Coplandesque Hoe-Down threatening to burst out.  Mobility didn’t seem to come into it, certainly not from the perspective of Stockhausen’s Piano Piece XI (1956) or Serocki’s A piacere (1963).

Lyra is a more persuasive work.  With inspiration drawn first from the character ‘Lyra’ in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, plus subsequent links with other meanings of the word (a constellation of stars, a small bass viol, a class of Soviet nuclear submarines), Bowden has fashioned a 20’, one-movement cello concerto by intermingling material from his initial three-movement plan, ‘Vega’, ‘Ayre’ (‘Air’?) and ‘Crushed Depth’.  The soloist spends much of the time in its high register against a busy and sustained orchestral backdrop.  The lyrical element is therefore very much to the fore, with little concertante interplay in the sense of actively working with or against the orchestra.  There are passages of frenetic movement, but no substantial interest in any real dialogue between cello and orchestra.  For most of the time, Bowden seems to hear the soloist as a textural and voluble primus inter pares.  Fifteen minutes in, the strings declaim a modern twist on the idea of a chorale theme and a more motivated and obviously co-ordinated section develops, driving both soloist and orchestra to a powerful climax before they separate again onto parallel tracks in the dying moments.

Wu Xing concerns the Chinese concept of the elements – they have five, not four: water, wood, fire, earth and metal.  Qichang Chen, who studied with Messiaen and has lived in Paris for almost 20 years, was apparently interested in the ways in which these elements could transform into each other.  The score is deliciously fluid, sometimes bearing the hallmark of his teacher, sometimes proving timbrally elusive and more ethnically Chinese.  Its five movements seem to live on the edge, taking unexpected detours, but always convincing in their journey.  He really understands the sonority of the orchestra and the value of material contrasts as well as continuities and the flexibility and balance of tempi.  Alluring, and the clear highpoint in this first of two Hear and Now broadcasts from this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival (next week: Steve Reich’s City Life from the same BBC NOW concert).

And so to the first of the ‘Modern Classics’: Reich’s Different Trains.  It occupied 35 of the programme’s 90 minutes, so over 1/3rd.  That’s 1/3rd lost to the core function of Hear and Now.  I don’t need to add my penny’s worth to the existing discourse on this piece, so what did Matthew Herbert and one of the series’s resident pundits Gillian Moore have to add that was new to the discourse?  Not much, in truth, though they did it in an engaging and intelligent manner.   They spoke over excerpts from the piece, separately and alternately, describing what they each heard as key features.  Reich himself made a brief and telling appearance at the very end.  It was a nicely edited nine and a half minutes.  Ideal podcast material.

But not a whisper about prejudices or barriers having dogged people’s perception in 1988 or since.

I return to my main concern.  Is this the best place to do this, at the expense of the coverage of music being written today?  I hope that Radio 3 will think that this format – a podcast introduction followed by a recording – is worth its own programme slot in a year’s time, called, if it must, Modern Classics.  That would allow Hear and Now to devote its full 90’ to contemporary music of today.

• Toothless, Lame and Lazy

This post was originally the first half of Radio 3 – Hear and Now 50 (the next post in the sequence).

BBC Radio 3 tried to persuade me to listen to a programme yesterday afternoon by informing me that it was to be presented by the country’s “best-loved choirmaster, Gareth Malone”.  Or so the M&S-style voice said.

Tell me, who writes this meaningless crap?  By what yardstick is Gareth Malone ‘our’ best-loved choirmaster?  Who decided that a choirmaster had to be loveable anyway?  Was there a poll that I missed?  Or is this just slack speak for “most-frequently-seen-on-BBC2-TV choirmaster”?  There is a difference, you know.  I can’t believe for one minute that this appropriation of simplistic advertising jargon attracts anyone, except Gareth Malone fans who are, by definition, already in love with him.  Watch it, Gareth.  Radio 3 promotion is lumping you together with CDs of best-loved melodies and anthologies of best-loved hymns.  Is that really where you want to be?

The programme?  Another stunningly inventive title from Radio 3 – Saturday Classics.

Saturday Classics

Malone’s theme over this and his next three programmes is ‘musical youth’.  I hope that this develops as a more meaningful connective tissue than it did yesterday.  First we had Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, included because it was a good example.  Of what?  Because it was written when he was 30?  Then three excerpts from Vivaldi’s Gloria, simply because Malone’s mother used to play it to send him to sleep when he was young.  Ah, bless.  Then a story about unborn children being able to hear (hardly breaking news), about a singer rehearsing Aida while pregnant, etc..  Cue a chorus from – yes, you’ve guessed it.  The background to Elgar’s Dream Children was more interestingly told, but just because Chopin, like Mozart, was an infant prodigy hardly justifies playing his ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, composed when he was almost 30.  You could take any composer by this method, play a piece composed at that age, and claim a connection with ‘musical youth’.

And so it continued.  It was mild, comforting, thoroughly unchallenging musical fare, suitable for anyone without teeth.  In short, it was lame.  Malone ended with the phrase “I hope you enjoyed today’s romp through musical youth”.  Give me strength.

I just hope that future four-week presenters bring a bit more bite, insight and robustness to their themes (if they have to have them).  And that we get less standard fare.  We’re promised Simon Russell Beale, John Wilson and Alison Balsom, so let’s not give up quite yet.

The mania for ‘personal’ programming is getting thoroughly tiresome.  Whichever way you look at it, it’s a largely spurious approach to music.  If our ‘guide’ is strong, we remember his or her character and history rather than the music, which is incidental to such formats.  If weak, then the off button is suddenly very attractive.  It’ll be off for me on the next three Saturday afternoons.  What a relief it was to hear Geoffrey Smith at 17.00: a relaxed, cheery ‘HaLLO’, insightful commentary and a focus on the music.

Essential Classics

This juror is out with regard to another ‘Classics’ programme – Radio 3’s weekday morning sequence Essential Classics, whose title I lambasted two weeks ago.  It began inauspiciously last Monday with an instantly forgettable Czech composer and music (Oskar Nedbal’s Dance of the Brigands).  Its main ‘slot’ (after 11.00 each day) was worth hearing, however, not least because I trust Rob Cowan’s knowledge of recordings to provide interesting performances.  I’m far less convinced by the daily guest input.  This week the guest was the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, next week it’s a gardening expert called Rachel de Thame.  Poor souls, they’ve had to fill out a questionnaire in preparation.  Have a look at these twenty questions and ask yourself a simple one in return: will the ‘piece’ itself be enhanced by knowing that someone else chose it for one of these reasons?

1.    What was the first piece of classical music you can remember hearing?
2.    What piece first stimulated your interest in classical music?
3.    What was the first classical record/CD you bought yourself?
4.    Do you have a favourite performer, and what piece would you choose to hear him/her/them play?
5.    If you could choose to be a virtuoso on any instrument, what would it be, and what piece would you like to play?
6.    Is there a piece you can play, or would like to play yourself?
7.    Do you have a favourite composer – and a favourite piece by him/her?
8.    What piece of music do you use to relax to?
9.    What piece of music makes you glad to be alive?
10.    What piece of music would you listen to on a journey (car/train/plane)?
11.    Is there a piece that you find particularly moving?
12.    Is there a piece that reminds you of a particular place?
13.    Is there a piece that makes you laugh?
14.    Can you work while listening to music, and what piece would you choose, and why?
15.    If you are entertaining friends, is there a particular piece you would put on?
16.    Is there a piece that you think should be more widely known – a hidden gem?
17.    Is there a piece of film or TV music that has particularly affected you?
18.    If you could step back in time to hear a great performer who’s no longer with us, who would it be, and what piece would you choose to hear?
19.    If we gave you an orchestra/choir/soloists, what piece would you choose to conduct?
20.    What piece of music do you want played at you funeral/to be remembered by?

In some cases, the answer might be yes (nos 16 and 18), something interesting about the music might emerge.  Some are downright idiotic (the ludicrous no. 9).  Most are intrusive and only interesting if you are interested in the person making the choice.  In other words, their answers are intrinsically a reflection on themselves (Desert Island Discs syndrome) rather than on the music.  Private Passions it ain’t, just a feeble imitation.  Or turn the process on its head. How many of the questions would fit the choice, say, of Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet or Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, both of them works which have long been regarded as part of the canon of 20th-century classical music.  According to this questionnaire, I very much doubt that they are ‘essential’ any more.  I hope that I am confounded.

How about creating an alternative questionnaire?  Here are a few suggestions to start with:

1a.    What is the last piece of classical music you listened to?
2a.    What piece of classical music can’t you stand?
3a.    What was the first piece of music that you downloaded legally/illegally?
etc. …

Given that guests are likely to have achieved eminence in their field, just one question might have sufficed instead of the lazy twenty above: ‘What music has stimulated your own creativity?’.

• Conundrum – When Does ‘Late’ Mean ‘Early’?

Talking about the dead is fraught with difficulties, dressed up in all sorts of niceties.  We seem to have gone past phrases like ‘the dear departed’, but we still cling to euphemisms whenever possible (dead parrot, anyone?).  But ‘the late’ sticks around.  Why?  To remind us of a recent death, in case we’d forgotten?  Or in case we hadn’t realised that he or she had ‘left us’ in the first place?

I was set yesterday to musing (well, frankly, fuming) on the general idiocy of ‘the late’.  It seems to have no boundaries or rationale.  In its most vacuous incarnation it has the urge to alliterate – ‘the late, great’.  Aaagh.  Taking purely musical examples, I can just about understand why the singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954-2006, aged 52), on the left, is still referred to on the radio as ‘the late’.  It’s harder to comprehend why presenters feel it necessary, as they still sometimes do, to talk of another soprano, Arleen Auger (right), as ‘the late’.  She died 18 years ago (1939-93, aged 53).

What took the biscuit for me was listening yesterday morning to the first edition of BBC Radio 3’s new morning programme Essential Classics.  Rob Cowan, whom I like and respect as a presenter, referred to the early-music pioneer, David Munrow, as ‘the late’.  Well, honestly.  That’s ridiculous.  He died 35 – yes, 35 – years ago (1942-76, aged 34).  What can ‘the late’ possibly signify?

It seems to me that there’s a prolonged whiff of undue sentimentality, bordering on mawkishness.  The past tense surely suffices and nothing else.  Benjamin Britten (1913-76, aged 63), who died in the same year as Munrow, lost the label long ago.  I wouldn’t dream of saying ‘the late Witold Lutosławski’ (1913-94, aged 81) – and he died less than a year after Arleen Auger.  I wouldn’t even use it when speaking about Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010, aged 76), who died ten months ago yesterday.

It’s noticeable that all three of these ‘late’ musicians were performers, not composers, and all died ‘before their time’ (two of cancer, one by suicide).  Has ‘late’ therefore come to mean ‘too early’?  I suspect so, but did people in 1863 still refer to Schubert (1797-1828, aged 31) as ‘the late’?  Or talk likewise, in 1915, about Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80, aged 44)?  I hope that devotees of Maria Callas (1923-77, aged 53) no longer apply it to their ‘dear departed’.  Somehow I fear that they do.

Should there be a statute of limitations?  Ten years?  Five years?  Six months?

Or why don’t we just have done with it and abolish it altogether?  Better never than ‘late’.

• What Are You Up To, Radio 3 – Essentially?

Oh dear, Auntie Beeb is at it again.  She’s asking us to sit comfortably in our antimacassar Queen Anne chairs, our tooth mug by our side and a cup of … well, you get the picture.  Welcome to Radio 3’s new morning ‘not-drive-time’ replacement for Classical Collection.  With its aura of chocolate boxes and nice gift shops, that title wasn’t much to shout about either.  Now, make way for … (‘Drumroll’, among other symphonies) … Essential Classics.

What a stroke of genius.  It’s fresh, original, unforgettable.  Others will soon catch on, mind.  I can see the future: fascinating CDs and downloads called Essential Vivaldi, Essential Mozart, Essential Mendelssohn.  We might even get, wait for it, Essential Ravel or Essential, Essential Classics.  And, dare I think the unthinkable?  How about Essential World Music or Essential Classic Jazz (a double hit there, surely)?

Say the word over and over and it becomes meaningless.  Actually, it’s pretty meaningless anyway.  Essential for whom, for what?  I believe that the title is nothing but a cynical ploy to be seen to try to attract less-demanding listeners.  Are radio listeners that dumb?  Radio 3 has a robust following, so does it think that its survival depends on some putative untapped constituency with few musical brain cells between the ears?  Seriously, who these days is going to be won over by such a title?  Not the younger listener, that’s for sure.  In any event, I don’t think that Radio 3 really believes in titles like this.  Classical Collection frequently goes beyond expectations, so why shouldn’t Essential Classics?  It had jolly well better do, otherwise it will lose listeners.

There is so much twaddle that accompanies schedule changes.  Radio 3 says: ‘The extended length of this programme will allow for longer pieces of repertoire to be played and will include, for example, a performance of the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation’.  To take the latter point first: Classical Collection presents the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation already – so what’s new?  As to ‘longer pieces of repertoire’, there are plenty of examples in recent Classical Collection playlists of works lasting 20’-30’.  Less than two weeks ago, it  broadcast Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, which comes in at c. 50’.  So another piece of promotional tosh.

Yet there may be hope for those of us who like a challenge or something ‘inessential’ in our morning (or anytime) listening.  I’m thinking of a wonderful use of my least favourite word in the marketing of an Olympia CD back in 1993.  It was of music by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (OCD 385) and was clearly piggybacking on the phenomenal international success of Elektra Nonesuch’s CD the previous year of the Pole’s Third Symphony, ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976).

What better way to encourage sales than by calling the CD  The Essential Górecki Orchestral and Choral Music.  Recordings Selected by the Composer?  Brilliant.  Though I’m damn sure that Górecki didn’t choose the headline title.  Pity the poor enthusiast for the Third Symphony who bought this CD expecting more of the same, because isn’t that what was being implied?  If the enthusiast listened to music from the comfort of a well-upholstered and well-protected armchair, then a life-threatening shock was in store.

Why?  Because the five works on The Essential Górecki were nothing like the Third Symphony.  There was the terse, Webernian Epitafium (1958), the explosively avant-garde Scontri (Collisions, 1960), the gritty Genesis II (1962), the Messiaenic Refrain (1965) and the modal v. serial-atonal Old Polish Music (1969).

If, on the other hand, the listener was open-eared, unconcerned with mantras about ‘core repertoire’, a wonderful, mould-shattering surprise awaited.  Because, to appropriate the word ‘essential’, this music from 1958-69 was and is representative of the composer’s creative drive and imagination and an essential component in an understanding of his musical journey.

Olympia’s marketing was either a cynical move or an inspired hijacking – of a stale, tired, forgettable term – whose subversive intention was to stimulate individual hearing buds and catch the listener unawares.  If that’s what Radio 3 has in mind for Essential Classics, but isn’t telling, than hurrah for that.

Listen out from 9 a.m. on Monday, 12 September.

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