Monday, August 30, 2010

Soaking It Up

Strangely, I don't feel like I'm going to move back across the ocean in the morning. I went through a period of being saddened — and oddly worried — by the move, but the closer it gets, the more accepting I am of it.

This has to be at least in part due to our exploits in the city lately: in just two weeks we've rampaged through two Shakespeare plays at the Globe, La Bête, The Woman in Black, and eight concerts at the Proms. Yes: rampaged. And we've been checking off our list of London things-to-do-and-see with equal abandon. One laundry list is enough for one post methinks, but suffice it to say that we've been doing our best to get out and enjoy it while we can.

So long, London. See you again soon, I hope.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Julia Fischer

This afternoon, I rather unexpectedly had one of my most affecting concert experiences ever: the violinist Julia Fischer playing an Ysaÿe solo sonata and the Franck sonata.

I almost didn't get in; though it was a short concert starting at 1 p.m., Cadogan Hall was full to the brim; I was deep in the returns queue and only three people behind me got in.

I've been a fan of Julia Fischer for years: her recording of Brahms' concerto was enough to make me a follower, and I've seen her play live once before — as soloist with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe playing Mendelssohn's concerto. I'm enough of a fan to have wanted to go despite the program (Ysaÿe and Franck aren't typically my sort of thing). But this was a solo recital, where I'd really be able to hear her play, close, and without orchestra.

I expected an outstanding performance, but what raised this concert from outstanding to memorable was the brief, mid-concert interview she gave. Because the concert was part of the BBC Proms, a presenter (the concert was broadcast live) asked her a few questions between the two pieces.

One question involved the flood of recordings available today — including the useful glutton, YouTube — and how they compare to the early recordings made by turn-of-the-century violinists. Julia explained that the early recordings often sound so different from those of today "simply because they didn't have the possibility of YouTube; they couldn't listen to all the other colleagues... They played in their own style with their own ideas."

The simple concept struck me. Musicians playing in their own way because it's what they wanted and what they thought their audience wanted. None of the obsessively self-conscious comparison of recordings performers subject themselves to these days. Surely they must have listened to other violinists and their teachers, but the whole culture about the 'correct' way to approach a piece may not have existed then — certainly not to the point it does now.

(That can only be a positive thing: look, for example, at the wild diversity in musical styles being written in the first half of the 20th century. In contrast, history has shown us more recently that 'taste police' have turned out to at best narrow-minded and at worst oppressive.)

She's not saying the technology isn't beneficial, she's advocating independent thinking. Welcome words to my newly-graduated ears.

She went on to discuss one particular way the changing times had altered interpretation: "Today we are trained to be very rhythmical in style, and at that time not necessarily everyone had a metronome at the age of five... so of course the playing was much freer. And there is a certain difference between being rhythmical and playing like a metronome, which is actually not playing in rhythm."

There's a bit of new music phobia (you know the sort I mean: "Any deviation from the tempo is an error!") dashed. I've fretted for years about the propensity for modern composers to spell out even the tiniest change in metronome marking for the performer. In my view, either they'll understand the music and interpret it or they won't.

Finally, she spoke about the Franck sonata she was about to play, a very well-known and often-performed piece. "It's a dangerous thing to believe that just because something is well-known, you have to make it sound special." Amen to that; if you see a musical with a well-known song, chances are that song will be tortuously 'individual'.

And then she said something that hit home to me not just as a musician or conductor, but as a composer: "Trying to do something completely different from everybody else is as bad as doing it exactly the same as everybody else."

As she spoke, I felt like someone was picking at the knot of musical neuroses and paranoias the College planted, unraveling its tangled threads into orderly, observable thoughts. Perhaps this has only exposed my own niggles and worries rather than detailing the outstanding music I was lucky enough to hear. But the two are inseparable: her comments got to the heart of what I've been trying to digest of late, and I was left somehow unguarded, open, receptive.

The whole experience was overwhelming in the best way. To find a performer who really thinks about music is rare enough, but it comes through in her playing. Her interpretations are mature, perfectly paced, and never showy; she can be confident as well as vulnerable. I haven't found deeper, more meaningful performances anywhere.

Her performance of the Franck was, predictably, outstanding. I say predictably because I already knew it would come from a genuine artistic impulse. She said before she began:

"Even if you know it, I hope you will enjoy it anyway."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Musical Happenings of Late

A few nuggets of musical happenings of late:

I got my first commission on Friday — a proud rite of passage for any composer. Mine may have come later than some, but it certainly helps to fill the post-study void. The new work, commissioned by the Festival Chorus in South London, will be premiered next July.

Also, an old piece of mine, Well, I Was Watching TV on April 29, 2004... will be performed at the Society of Composers National Conference in South Carolina in November. It's the only piece I've written for jazz big band, and I still consider it one of my favorites. You can listen to an excerpt of it here.

And finally, Teriann and I had another unusual London experience last night when we went to see Partial Gathering play in the Old Vic Tunnels. The venue, only recently opened, is a Victorian brick cavern beneath the tracks of Waterloo station, and as you might imagine is completely immersive. Dark, creaking, rumbling, and musty-smelling, the space is fascinating in its own right, but they put on quite a show. Ruaidhri and Corentin are friends from my oh-so-recent time at the Royal College, but they're turning into contemporary electronic stars of sorts. The best thing about these guys — apart from their hair, of course — is how honest and unfussy their music is; they say what they mean to, and boldly. Pleased to have met you, lads.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Second Anniversary Trip

I've been putting this off. I've been procrastinating. Partly because this, recounting our last venture out to Europe before we come home, is slightly bittersweet, and partly because I haven't been looking forward to the task of selecting — out of our roughly 400 photos of the weekend — the best ones to post here. They're all incredible. You'll see what I mean.

I suppose that now that two months have passed, though — our trip was in early June — I should face it.

Our destination was Bled, Slovenia. Slovenia was, until 1992, a Soviet satellite, and pretty much everyone I talked to back in Phoenix said, "Umm... where's that?" It is nestled in the corner made by Italy and Austria, and, though a small country, has both beautiful Adriatic coastline and the southern edge of the Alps.

This latter part was where we visited: Bled sits just where the Julian Alps flatten out.

It's not hard to see that this was recently Soviet territory: neighboring towns we saw from the train looked gray and unpromising, and much of the architecture is drab and square (although, to be fair, that may have been more a fault of the 60s and 70s in general). What is remarkable, though, is the rebirth going on in Bled itself. Everywhere, people are determined to make the most out of what was a lousy situation. The plain, concrete hotels on the lakeside all sport fledgling crawlers whose vines half-cover the grayness. It's effective, and a far more elegant solution than wrecking everything and building from scratch. New buildings, on the other hand, are built with taste, quality, and an eye for detail. If only Britain invested the same level of attention and taste in its new buildings.

And the people are kind — which always influences how you feel about a place.

All this would make a very nice holiday destination, but what pushes it over the top — and drew us there — was the outstanding natural beauty. And an excellent place to take it in was our first stop, Bled Castle, perched on a cliff over the lake.

They were having their annual 'Medieval Days' festival, which basically entailed some sword-fighting, some archery, and a whole lot of dressing up.

But the best thing about the castle was the view.

The lake is peaceful and calm, and is ringed by a wide, comfy footpath. It's not terribly long, but it takes ages because you have to stop constantly to take pictures!

Along this journey, we rented a rowboat and rowed out to the island for a closer look.

Easily one of the best traveling days I've ever had. And it was only the first.

The next day, we rented bikes and took a ride through the countryside to Vintgar Gorge.

It was incredible; I've seen murkier water in aquariums.

I can't imagine a better way to spend our anniversary. Mmmm lunch.

One last word about Bled: the food. It was not only really good (since it's so close to both, you can get proper Italian food and proper German food), it's really cheap. A glass of wine with dinner costs four or five pounds in London. In Bled? One Euro. One. In fact, the prices for just about everything around town are just right. The restaurants are really nice, but no one dresses up in them. It's laid back because everyone else there has been out hiking too. What a great town.

The airport we flew into was across the Austrian border in Klagenfurt, so on our way back out, we stopped to have a look around. Klagenfurt is home of one of Europe's largest model parks, Minimundus. There were elaborate models of most of the continent's landmarks, and we enjoyed seeing our previous travels in miniature. Like our previous year's anniversary trip: Neuschwanstein.

Teriann with the Tower of London.

Klagenfurt is also near the second of Mahler's three composing huts. We saw his first one last September, which was on open, grassy bank by a vast lake. This one, however, where he wrote his Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies, was tucked away in dense forest. Only a few hundred yards from another lake, the trees were so thick you couldn't tell it was there at all. It was quiet and secluded.

And just down the hill, his villa on the Wörther See.

The things I'll miss about Europe.

Bittersweet? Mixed feelings? Yes. But there's no doubt that the glass is half full.

Have a look at the many other photos in the facebook album.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Layers: Inception

I've seen Christopher Nolan's Inception twice now. How rare and wonderful a thing nowadays is a movie you can't completely understand on the first viewing.

By the way, I've been very careful, and there are no spoilers ahead.

After seeing it the first time, I was left with a couple of reservations about the film. The plot itself isn't particularly convoluted, but there was something vaguely unsatisfying that I couldn't put my finger on. Yes the music isn't quite right and I could edit out five to ten minutes of pointless gun-fighting scenes (this film actually would have been better with a smaller budget), but that wasn't it.

I couldn't get the film out of my head for a week and a half, so with a few theories in mind, I saw it once more to sort it out. As I watched again, I realized that what I was confirming wasn't the basics of the plot — as I said, it's reasonably straightforward — but the presence of another layer cleverly built in.

Layers are, for me, the most satisfying thing in art. It's why I'm less intrigued by painting and sculpture than by literature, music, and film. In Bach, Brahms, Adams, or Schwartz, in Dickens, McEwan, Kaufman, and Hitchcock, layers mean all sorts of different things, but always enrich the end product.

Someone could watch it once and understand (most of) the plot and have an enjoyable ride, but I would argue there's a deeper level to the film that only rewards those who do a little digging.

That — cinematic Bach in the age of one-layer pop tunes — is truly satisfying.


I just finished reading Ian McEwan's recent novel, Saturday. McEwan is one of my favorite writers, but that opinion is founded on admittedly little. Before this, I'd only read Enduring Love, which was good enough to seal his place on my future reading list, and Amsterdam, which was, to be kind, very weak. I haven't even gotten yet to the novel considered by many to be his best: Atonement.

But Saturday, I'm happy to report, is terrific. Better, if anything, than Enduring Love. He is better than anyone else I've read at detailing the inner workings of the mind, of slowing down the blur of mixed-up thoughts that rush by at machine-like speed to a more human, understandable pace. In so doing, he achieves that near-impossible feat of squeezing thoughts into syntax and grammar without harming or altering them in the process. (An unfortunate byproduct of this is that when time resumes its speed and the action in the plot moves along, it does so clumsily. He's clearly more at home with writing from the inside, and I think the best McEwan novel possible would perhaps take the space of only minutes or seconds and contain no plot whatsoever.)

So why am I writing about it? I read plenty of books that I like or dislike, and to mention them all here would be as dreary for me as for you.

Because while art is littered with works shining lights into every nook of the past and trying desperately to imagine every possibility of the future, there are precious few books — or artworks of any medium — that illuminate the present. Shock Doctrine, which I wrote about here some months ago, was one, but as the old saying goes, if you want the truth, read fiction.

Saturday is, at its very best, an elaborate and detailed snapshot of what life in this time is like, what life in London is like, and how the conflicting forces of technology and humanity play out — in one's mind and in society. There are passages that feel like he's written my thoughts with greater clarity than I can think them, and I'm very grateful that he has.