In the early 1960s two players in the Prague opera orchestra were locked in a vendetta. The band used to leave their concert uniform in the green room. Every couple of weeks, one of them, coming in early and unobserved armed with needle and thread, meticulously took up the cuffs of his adversary’s concert trousers by a tiny bit.
More WAM ethnography:
Brass players enjoy, even flaunt, their hooligan image (more “licence to deviate from behavioural norms”)—or at least, UK brass players in a befuddled heyday from the 1960s to the 1990s, still an ongoing hangover today.
Becoming a musician (or indeed a household Daoist) is about far more than “learning the dots”; aspiring musicians also look to the lifestyles of their role models. The intoxicant du jour changes—Chinese shawm players have moved from opium to amphetamines, for instance. But both in jazz and WAM, many musos have learned to their cost that adopting the, um, recreational pastimes of Charlie Parker or John Wilbraham doesn’t necessarily help them play the way their heroes did.
The trumpeter John Wilbraham (“Jumbo”) was legendary. This is a beautiful site well worth exploring—an insider’s ethnography. I came across him when he was trumpet tutor for the NYO, and later in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
There are also some fine stories on this site, not least about two of my most admired conductors (more maestro-baiting):
“The one thing we do know about Bach for certain, is that he didn’t want it to sound fucking awful!” —John Wilbraham to John Eliot Gardiner.
(a succinct critique of the Early Music movement?), and
“If I’d wanted to play in front of a clown, I’d have joined the fucking circus.” —John Wilbraham to Gennadi Rozhdestvensky.
Learning to perform—in any tradition!—requires endless hours of practice (again, it’s the stories about jazzers, rather than WAM musos, that inspire me here). There’s another famous story, which strangely I haven’t yet found among all the online anecdotes:
Before Mahler 5 at the Proms, a music critic was having a drink in the 99, favoured hostelry of Prom-goers. He watched in amazement as Jumbo downed pint after pint, and then picked up his trumpet case to stagger off to the gig. Expecting the worst, the critic took his place in the audience. The symphony opens with a scary exposed trumpet solo, and is challenging throughout. Jumbo played the whole symphony perfectly.
After the concert the critic returns to the pub, to find Jumbo already propped up at the bar, more pints lined up. He walks up to him and says,
“You must excuse me, Mr Wilbraham, but may I ask how you manage to play so perfectly when you’re pissed?”
“It’sh perfectly simple,” Jumbo smiles back at him conspiratorially, “I practice pissed!”
Stories like this belong to the treasury of orchestral myth-making.
Occasionally I accidentally view snippets of both The voice and Cardiff young singer of the world. Both feature remarkable singers—within their respective genres and social milieux. My reservations merely concern the blinkered media hype, with all its competitive ethos.* They jump through the hoops, displaying just the right degrees of individuality, gauging the prevailing ethos within their respective social and temporal fanbase. Image is is a major aspect of both events.
And of course neither contest, and neither genre, reflects the diverse riches of “singers of the world”— even for the current scene, let alone earlier histories. I don’t really expect Romanian wedding laments, praise singing from Rajasthan, or the songs of Chinese spirit mediums to feature prominently in popular TV viewing, but even the impasse between those two contrasting contemporary Western genres is glaring. Neither can be regarded as intrinsically superior.
*Another fatuous Bible quote:
The race is not to the swift.
Who’s going to break the news to Usain Bolt?
Three monographs on ethnic religion and culture that I haven’t yet seen—or even written:
- On campaigns against popular shamans:
Striking a happy medium.
- On the stagecraft of Japanese drama (Altogether now):
There’s no business like Noh business.
- On the well-attested debt of the Western classical tradition (notably British music) to the nuba suites of North Africa, with reference to antiquated sexist ideology perpuated therein:
WAM, BAM, thankyou MAM.
I’m so permanently immersed in Mahler 2, 5, 6, and 9 that I sometimes neglect the 3rd symphony:
Here, apart from the overwhelming overall effect, I’d merely like to zoom in on a tiny detail (as I did with the syncopated percussion cadential pattern in the hymns of Yanggao Daoists): the use of quintuplets, often informed by Mahler’s instruction nicht eilen! (“Don’t rush!”). An example from the finale (fig.22 from 1.34.30):
The figure returns at 1.40 18, and then with the full orchestra led by blazing trumpets at 1.41.16.
Quintuplets play a similar role in climactic moments of the 9th symphony:
like this passage (from 1.06.09):
——and just dig all those string glissandos. Such a rhythm creates a quite different effect from the more conventional alternative, like this magnificent recapitulation on the horns:
It is as if the quintuplets are struggling to emerge from the stone like Michelangelo’s Slaves.
While I’m on Mahler, here’s a fine comparative post about the climax of the 2nd symphony.
*Historical note: I chose these versions mainly for Bernstein, but it won’t necessarily strike the casual listener/viewer that there’s something else remarkable about them. The Vienna Phil is one of several orchestras that haven’t exactly led the way in gender equality: permanent posts were only given to female musicians in 1997, and even by 2013 the orchestra only had six female members. Historically authentic, sure, but…
For the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper, Howard Goodall paid homage to the genius of the Beatles—and George Martin—in his fine BBC2 programme Sgt Pepper’s musical revolution. It’s popular musicology, accessible yet demanding, in the very best tradition of the BBC.
One pioneer of taking pop music seriously was Wilfrid Mellers, with his 1973 book Twilight of the gods. It was work like this that opened the floodgates, to the consternation of old-school musicologists still seeking to reserve the concept of “serious music” to the WAM canon—as some, indeed, still do. although for them the Beatles may make a more palatable example than some genres. Mellers’s tenure at York was formative for innovations in new composition and early music.
Sgt Pepper was born out of the Beatles’ frustration with touring—an exhausting schedule through which they had to churn out the old numbers almost inaudibly beneath the hysteria. As they retreated to Abbey Road studios, the process of composition with George Martin (“collective creation”, as was all the rage in China at the time) lasted five months.
The songs work as one long suite, with themes of childhood and ageing, nostalgia, anxiety. But individually too they are gems. It’s world music, in the sense that all genres are their canvas.
Goodall gives us illuminating harmonic and melodic analysis, as with his discussion of Lucy in the sky with diamonds. He highlights the empathy, the different perspectives, of She’s leaving home—an insight into the real lives of 60s’ people, by contrast with the glamour of the image; the zeitgeist subsumed the contrasting moods of Ken Loach’s Cathy come home and Jonathan Miller’s Alice in wonderland—both from 1966. Goodall shows the Beatles’ innovative use of technology, as in A day in the life, whose story synthesizes fragments of reportage—and its amazing last chord.
Even I had been surreptitiously following the Beatles from the word go, and all their work is deeply affecting, but these studio albums took our admiration to a new level. Of course we didn’t—and don’t—need to “analyze” such work, any more than most audiences do when they attend a performance of a Brahms symphony. But such studies show how music-making of all kinds can be deeply creative.
I guess we should be grateful—nothing focuses the mind like having a vindictive sulky misogynistic illiterate baby as Philistine-in-chief in the White House. Some of his advisers were concerned that withdrawing from the climate agreement “might damage his credibility”. Where have they been?
Sure, we have worse thing to worry about than his highly peccable aesthetic sensibilities, but they evidently developed early. In “his” 1987 book The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote:
In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye—I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.
I’d love to know more about this music teacher—just how little is it possible to know about music? Can it be that the young boy’s ire was caused by the inexplicable absence from the syllabus of the late Beethoven string quartets, which as we all know would later form his core listening?
But unseriously though folks, this is a fine spoof. I particularly love
And if you think translating medieval Daoist texts is difficult, spare a thought for interpreters, trying to make sense of the prez’s mangling of the English language. At least culona inchiavabile can be transformed into something even more evocative.
Back in Blighty, I see Bumbling Boris has escaped again, leaping back into the fray by welcoming a kindred spirit to Britain with more blithe inanities.—but he’s got The Latin, so that’s all right then. Imagine Conservative Central Office:
How did he get out? I thought we packed him off to Bongo-Bongo Land.”