September 2005


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Another year, another Proms season gone.

Again I’m chuffed that the British Broadcasting Corporation exists. No other broadcaster on the Planet would have the will or the capabilities to pull off such stupendous live-broadcast. 74 concerts over 58 consecutive nights. Every day the logistical waltz of one international orchestra moving into the Royal Albert Hall while another packs up to leave and another prepares to perform. Ten cameras cut together and broadcast simultaneously from a scanner truck, where a director and vision mixer pick shots according to the score, the bar numbers of which are being called out by an assistant. Bearing in mind that the director has to be familiar with each score (there were more than 200 pieces played in the season) and some scores (Wagner’s Valkyrie) last 4 hours and others (Tom Ades’ Violin Concerto) were only completed a few days before their performance.

As I sat in the box each night sucking in the music, peering avidly over the shoulder of the cameraman next to me, following the cue-calls I knew he was hearing in his headphones, I was sometimes more impressed by the technical chuzpah of the whole thing than the beauty of the music.

Appreciation of music is always a subjective thing. Luckily I was never called upon to speak objectively about a piece I disliked or a conductor I didn’t rate. That’s what prevents me calling myself a critic… I just read a wonderful book by Craig Seligman portraiting the American critics Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. In it he points out that Sontag rather gave up the true critic’s mantel after the 1970s because she only chose to write about what she loved and revered. Kael stayed true to the idea that judging was an important faculty, especially in the late Capitalist mush we swim through.

I don’t recall reading what my heroine, Sontag, has to say about classical music. She tended to keep her lapidary comments for visual and literary arts. But I find judging so hard as to be almost pernicious. There are artists I revere in a rather cerebral way (Bach) and there are artists I love and the “love” category is very fluid. It can vary from year to year and even month to month.

I love Mahler and have since I discovered him in 2000. There’ve been moments when I thought I’d had enough Gustav and the ‘Mahler sound’ was starting to cloy on the ear, but then along comes a performance like von Dohnanyi’s Mahler 5 this season and I’m won over all over again. All my vertebrae tingling with electricity.

I remember dutifully listening to Beethoven as a teenager (shades of Clockwork Orange) and as a college student sitting in a red-wine fug, playing his late quartets over and over. But I can’t say I “love” Beethoven. I find his voice too confident, too martially optimistic, too grand. (Even as I welled up at the sentiments of the Ode to Joy this year, I wondered if it were quite “right” to be so swayed, so manipulated. I guess that particularly piece of music has been scarred by propagandist use…) But, for me, that Masur Prom belonged to the brilliant new piece by Sofia Gubaidulina, The Light at the End, which was mysterious and magical…

Because my biggest passion has always been for the new and the different. I remember as a child taking books out of the library on modern composers and poring over their totemic names – Britten, Boulez, Bartok, Berg, Berio – and marvelling at the snippets from fiendishly difficult looking scores. I fetishized the names of their works and their photos and their opus lists long before I ever heard them. There was something about the modern and the new that always swept me away.

And people I’ve taken to the Proms this season – all non-musicians – have unanimously preferred the new commissions, the prickly, the challenging pieces rather than the Beethovens, the Tchaikovskys, the Vaughan Williams. Because the new is important and the act of being shocked and challenged is also important. Il faut etre absoluement modern.

Tom Ades’ new violin concerto Concentric Paths was perhaps the most anticipated and most excitedly received. Ades is constantly cast as the new Britten, as the young British composer most often described as a genius. I think many of his pieces (America: A Prophecy, Asyla, his string quartet Arcadiana, much of the opera The Tempest) are genuinely touched with genius. He himself cultivates (unconsciously or not) this aura by refusing almost all interviews, composing up to the last second with pages being faxed into the orchestra daily and by cutting a very splendid dash when conducting his works. (I’ve noticed that his conducting style has become much more dance-like… he was positively Fred Astaire at the Albert Hall this week…)

I’m not so sure about this piece. It was wonderfully played by Anthony Marwood, who was raised above the orchestra on a rostrum and sported a fabulously white suite on his long Paganini-esque form, and the first and second movements were spell-binding – especially the endless, hung-from-star-to-star melody at the end of the slow movement. The last movement was, however, disconcertingly abrupt and without the show-stopper that Ades usually pulls out at such moments. I’ll have to listen to it again…

Much more solidly appealing but no less modern was Mark-Anthony Turnage’s brand-new trumpet concerto From the Wreckage, which saw Hakan Hardenberger moving from flugelhorn to standard trumpet to piccolo trumpet through a very jazz-inflected but unflichingly challenging 15 minutes. I love those great swags of string-sound that both Turnage and Ades create and I relished this piece immensely – which is not the case with most of Turnage’s work.

Of course, Rimbaud was talking about making the very fabric of one’s life absolutely modern – but if I ever need to remind myself of that duty then it’s a blast of Boulez I chose not Beethoven.

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Whisked off to Toronto last week to talk to W Networks about a possible new show out there in the Land of the Freer.

I’d forgotten how much I like Canadians. I’ve been out with two of them so I like to think I’m a bit of a connoisseur but a few summery days on the shore of Lake Ontario reconfirmed my feelings.

Toronto’s a great summer city. North American grid but like a lower-slung, decaffeinated version of Manhattan. Great restaurants. A beach (though all Torontonians gasped the same slack-jawed “You did what?” when I said I’d swam in the lake.) And everywhere a complete lack of the smugness that can make New York so irritating. Having such a big brother down South, it’s like the Canadians are those long-suffering, smilingly-pliant but secretly-always-winning younger siblings with whom I so empathise.

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It was also lovely being in such a luxurious limbo for a few days. Nothing to do but head from meeting to meeting, chatting. Alone but busy. It’s a beautiful state sometimes. I pottered about up and down Yonge and Bloor drinking bubble tea, trying on summer suits, sniffing round Sam Sam for new records.

My absolutely favorite band of the summer has been The Hidden Cameras, a Canadian combo with beachy, almost evangelical guitar strumming and a innocent-little-boy voice who is actually singing about full on gaysex and the intricacies of SM love. Lyrically in the same vein as the Mercury-winning Anthony but much, much less doomy. I absolutely love them. The album “A Smell of Their Own” has barely been off my iPod all summer.

I found a solo album by one of their number Gentleman Reg which I didn’t love so much. But also the rather groovy New Pornographers and the much-hyped Arcade Fire. Apparently they’re better live… though they have a little too much of the Polyphonic Spree for my taste.

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It seeped into my consciousness that “The March of the Penguins” was a must-see movie this year. Someone had mentioned it was a good example of the documentary films that were trouncing Hollywood block-busters at the summer box-office. So since I had an hour to kill before the end of my lovely trip to Toronto, I thought I’d see it.

Penguins are cute and penguins are intrinsically funny. Seeing a line of penguins walking in a line across the spectacular Antartic landscape is both endearing and amusing. Emperor penguins in particular are extremely beautiful and elegant birds.

There was one moment about a third of the way through Luc Jacquet’s film, when a male and female Emperor find each other and – one presumes – fall in love. (They’re famously monogamous birds.) The simple image of the two bird silently curving their necks to one another and softly billing each other’s necks was incredibly eloquent.

Much, much more so than the inane voice-over that completely ruined an otherwise pleasant if anodyne 90 minutes.

pp_004Call me hard-hearted but since when did natural history films become so prudish and bowdlerized? I thought the secret joy of nature films was to see the nitty-gritty of life and death, sex and love ubnabashedly exhibited by our animal brethren. As a kid, I learnt most things about human behaviour from animal shows. I mean, even Disney let us see Bambi’s mother getting killed. And that was in 1942…

But here in 2005 the birds don’t die, they “disappear into the snowy whiteness” or “go to sleep and simply disappear”. More astonishingly, they don’t have sex either. There were some coy shots of birds clambering onto one another and then – voila – there was an egg.

Is there some puritan sensibility at work that now dictates that we cannot see birds having sex for fear of shocking Middle America. I longed for David Attenborough’s matter-of-fact voice explaining how penguin penises delivered sperm, how the mothers coughed up – presumably – regurgitated food to feed their young. All the icky, sticky business of life was edited out of this film, leaving only a series of “oohs” as we see little fluffy chicks and “aahs” as another graceful emperor penguin slips and falls on his arse.

Instead of that jaw-dropping amazement David Attenborough’s natural history films engendered – (I got the feeling the BBC Natural History Unit would have dealt with this whole penguin business in a 5 minute segment) – I was left feeling rather irritated with these animals. For God’s sake why walk 70 miles everytime you want to get some food? Why not have the chicks nearer the water? I definitely was getting irritated with Morgan Freeman (though of course he didn’t write the silly script) when, after one of the chicks die, he says “the mother’s pain is overwhelming” or when the father leaves on one their endless trips, “parting from the chick is a unimaginable wrench”. Such daft anthropomorphism is insulting. How the hell do we know what penguins feel?

If this is the rebirth of the documentary, then it is a sad, sanitized rebirth – without sex, without copulation and without human messiness. Bring back Life on Earth.