Saturday, January 20, 2018

unoriginal instruments

I was listening to the radio today and a heretical thought crossed my mind:

Hasn't the period instrument stuff gotten boring?

I mean - back in the olden days, say, like the 1970s, when there were folk who clearly had a direct line back to stuff like Mozart, it was a fascinating thing. Musicians, fed up with being able to play familiar scores, started to play them faster just to see if it was possible. Often it wasn't, but we loved it anyway. We were told it was old, but it was new.

And then came the influx of "original instruments" - like real instruments, but impossible to play. So we had stunningly well recorded versions of Bach and, well, more Bach, played sometimes really nearly in tune.

Just like Bach would have heard it himself.

It was a crazy time - people thought of all sorts of things, like using really bad pianos to record Mozart concertos, and then changing 'pitch' - reading the same music but playing a semi-tone lower than you were reading. Really technical stuff. And given that, that most of the notes still came out in the right place and in the right order was awesome. No wonder we gave those guys awards by the bucketful.

But now...

Original instruments sound so...unoriginal.

They're so in tune. So accurate. So together. So like real music. I mean, that's it really. When you go to a concert, you can see some of the flutes are wooden, and some of the string instruments are a funny shape, and some of the trumpets are side-ways on, but when you just listen - it's like listening to proper people playing proper grown-up instruments. It's all so professional.

It's like Simon Cowell has applied autotune to everything.

It is sort of pretty; but it's not so much fun. Somewhere along the way the early music brigade has exchanged its personality for a glossy coat.

Monday, January 08, 2018

New Year, New Blog

I have a new blog. This one will keep running with the usual mix of - well, whatever it is I put on here...

But now there's also The Possibility of Difference . This one is where I'll put thoughts & theologies & stories to do with issues of sexuality in the Bible & the church today. By all means wander over & take a look!

Thursday, January 04, 2018

New Year, New Toast

As a regular listener to Radio 3's Breakfast programme, it is with some resignation that I hear of the excitement in the various announcers' voices as they talk of the "New Year, New Music" promotion that is being offered to us in January.

It's like a musical Dry January. Having had a feast of lovely music in the run-up to Christmas, we pay for it by having to listen to all sorts of gargling sounds in the first days of 2018.

"...And this is a wonderful combination of the bells of Winchester cathedral, the human voice and a vacuum cleaner, all mixed in together..."

Still, at least there are three things to give thanks for as we endure New Year, New Music.
1. February will soon be here.
2. The dog is occasionally entranced by the bizarre noises emanating from the radio as we wake up, and sits staring at the speaker till it all gets too much. Then he barks. And then I get up.
3. And - thank God - they have learned from a former experience, and at least we don't have the New Composer in residence that we had a couple of years ago.

This last thing was a terrific experiment that came straight from a Radio 3 version of W1A. Having listened through the whole darned thing, I imagine it went like this...

The Director of New at Radio 3 had an idea. Or, one of his team did, which (essentially) is exactly the same thing. So he sent an email to the Editor of Breakfast, and they met for coffee in Debussy, the Radio 3 canteen.

"Thanks for making time," said New.
"Always a pleasure," said Breakfast.
The Editor of Breakfast had been rather stunned to receive the email. The Director of New was well-known for arriving in the office at 11.30 every morning, and it was generally presumed he had no idea that Radio 3 offered a breakfast programme to the nation.

"I've had an idea," said New.
"Yes, great."
"Isn't it?"

They drank their coffee.

"Well, what is it?" asked Breakfast, nervously.
"Oh, of course," smiled New, "how silly."
"Not at all."
"You were saying?"

"We at New are always looking for ways to further the embrace of New throughout the purview of the great Network that is Three..."
"Quite right."
"Yes, well, we realised that amongst all that whatever it is you do at whenever it is you do it on Breakfast - wonderful title, by the way, so - descriptive - "
"Thank you."
"Well, there's not much New is there?"

The Editor of Breakfast sat, silent. Then:
"Not much New?"
"I mean, I listened today - well, obviously, I didn't, but I read the playlist, which is pretty much the same thing - "
"Pretty much."
"And there was plenty there that was new to me. I didn't even know the Apprentice was a ballet."
"It's not."
"It is - it said so on the play list."
"The music is from a ballet."
"Same thing."
"Bloody hell."
"As I said, new to me. But not - New. So we thought -"
"I'm a bit nervous."
"Don't be. We thought - Jacinta has a cousin who knows this chap who won a prize at, well, who cares, but the thing is, he's an actual composer. Like Alan Sugar."
"Bloody hell."
"And we've hired him."

Stunned silence.

The Editor of Breakfast tapped his cup, nervously, wondering if it would make much difference at this point if he smashed it over the Director of New's head.

"You've hired him? Why?"
"Because - and you'll love this - for six weeks he's going to write a piece of music a week for Breakfast. Something New. New, do you get? We'll be working together!"
"Bloody hell."
"And am I allowed to know his name?"
"Oh yes, he definitely has one."

And that was that.

Geraint Brynmor-Hughes was delighted to be commissioned by the nation's most prestigious serious music network to produce six short works for broadcast. It was - by far - his most significant opportunity to date. When the Director of New had first approached him, he had needed no persuading. When he had been offered actual money for the six pieces he had wept openly.

So Geraint Brynmor-Hughes put enormous thought and effort into his first work. It was important that the listeners to the nation's most prestigious serious music network understood his thought processes and the way he approached the task of composition. It mattered that they entered into the journey of self-understanding and communal-expression which embraced the every day and then transcended the ordinary.

Week One
"September Morning" was broadcast at the end of August.

The Breakfast team were slightly tense as they awaited the delivery of the recording. It was felt that they too should hear it for the first time with the nation.
"Builds the suspense."
"Makes everyone everyone."
"And, to be fair, this way it really is New."

At 7.43 Petroc announced - "We're delighted that today begins our new series of Composer in Residence pieces with six new compositions by prize-winning young composer, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes. This is 'September Morning'.

A low growling noise spluttered from an unsuspecting nation's radios. It was followed by a high-pitched squeal, that ululated, paused, stuttered, repeated, and was then joined by the percussive rhythm of a pneumatic drill with added Chinese gong.

The whole thing lasted one minute and twenty four seconds.

In the Breakfast studio, there was sheer terror. Followed by Petroc announcing:
"'September Morning' by Geraint Brynmor-Hughes, the first of six new compositions especially for Radio Three Breakfast in an exciting new series. Next, Chopin."

As the Chopin began, so did the recriminations.
"What the **** was that?"
"No it bloody well wasn't."
"It's on the list again for 8.39"
"Well take it off."
"But the list..."
"It's a minute and twenty seconds - Petroc can talk to the newsreader for all I care. That's New!"
"He does that most days."
"He's definitely doing it today."
"Who on earth is Geraint Brynmor-Hughes anyway?"
"Someone someone in New knows. Won a competition."
"For what?"
"Bloody well fooled me."
"Oh God."
"Look at the Twitter feed..."

Twitter was not the natural environment of the nation's most prestigious serious music network's Breakfast listener - so when #Radio3GBH was trending by 7.55, it was either a very bad or a very good thing. Depending.

Either way, Geraint's second composition came a week later.

Week Two
The Editor of Breakfast waited at the door of Broadcasting House for the Director of New to arrive.
"Did you hear it?"
"You didn't."
"Of course I did. Marvellous."
"In what world is ninety seconds of Saami folk song mixed with computer game noises and 'The Price is Right' theme bloody marvellous?"
"Look, you just have to understand 'New'."
"Or music. They seem to be alternatives."
"It's water cooler stuff though isn't it? I mean, here we are!"
They walked past the water cooler in the entrance foyer.
"I'm really sorry," said Breakfast, "but we're pulling the plug."
"Why?" asked New. "Too many listeners? Too many people talking about your show? Too much exposure for Petroc? Afraid he'll leave? I have had lots of enquiries... All that social media stuff must be very - what's the word - New."

The Editor of Breakfast fumed.
"It's just not right for us!"
"Then have Geraint on the programme," smiled New. "He's a lovely chap."
"Know him well, do you?" hissed Breakfast.

Week three
"And this morning," melifluated Petroc, "we're delighted to welcome our Composer in Residence, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes to the studio, to tell us all about his latest composition for us. Geraint, welcome."
"Is that a Welsh accent I can hear there?"
"No, I'm from Brighton."
"Ah - forgive me..."
"It's OK, I get it a lot. The name."
"And your latest piece, I must say - they've been causing everyone to talk - what is this one called?"
"Can you tell us something of the way you approach writing new music?"
"Well, this one is a classical Badinerie in form, but with hip-hop rhythms using household electrical items, and a bagpipe."
"Can't wait. Here's 'Thoughtfulness' by our Composer in Residence, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes."

Later, at the door to Broadcasting House, the Editor of Breakfast, accompanied by several members of his team, stood waiting at 11.29 for the arrival of the Director of New at Radio Three.
"Ah - Good morning!"
"Yes, well -"
"I see Twitter is agog with GBH!"
"Which is something -"
"It is indeed. Who'd have thought it?"
"Who indeed?"
"Hashtag Radio3GBH? Trending!"
"GBH is about right."
"Do I hear dissent in the camp?"
"What you hear is bloody full-grown revolt."

The Director of New paused.

"Full-grown revolt?"
"Bloody hell."
"And we're not going to play any more vacuum cleaners, pneumatic drills, computer game noises or hip hop on Breakfast."
"But you'll keep the Saami, the Chinese gongs and the bagpipe?"
"So you have been listening?"
"BBCiPlayer. Wonderful thing."

The Breakfast team stared at the Director of New as they all emerged from the lift onto the Third floor and seemed to be heading for a showdown in Copeland.

"It's not just that Brynmor-Hughes has no idea about, I don't know, basic Harmony -"
"Or melody."
"Yes, I see what you mean."
"Or, well, notes as such."
"You mean music per se?"
"It's not just all that."
"Though he did win a prize."
"So did Petroc's cousin's bull at the Great Western Show."
"For composition?"
"More likely than Brynmor-Hughes."
"It's just not very - Breakfast."

"But - " said New -
"Well, just a thought, really -"
"I'm listening."
"No, I realise the revolt is too far gone for this."
"What were you going to say?"
"Well, it's just that I've sort of paid him upfront."
"And it is the Great British Public's money, you know."
"Bloody hell."
"So would it help if - and I'm just spitballing here - we asked him to try using, well -"
"Yes, I suppose. I was going to say -"
"A tune?"
"That's probably a bit hopeful. How about a violin?"
"A violin?"
"Or a recorder."
"A recorder?"
"Something you'd find in an orchestra."
"A recorder. Something you'd find in an orchestra. Right."
"Anything. A more traditional approach."
"Everyone on board?"
"Bloody hell."

Week four
The response to Geraint Brynmor-Hughes' First String Quartet, broadcast 'live' on BBC Radio 3's Breakfast programme, was overwhelming.

It had recognisable instruments. It had four movements (Allegro - Preparation; Scherzo - Oven Timer; Adagio - Reading the Newspaper; Vivace - Dinner). It had no melodies, which might have been a slight negative, but much more importantly - it lasted (in total, all four movements all together) thirty seven seconds.

It was an unmitigated success.
"Well," exclaimed Petroc after it finished at just after 7.51, "I think we'll be hearing that again later!"

It was played seventeen times on Breakfast during the week.
The Director of New sent the Editor of Breakfast an email:

17! Thank you!
He received a reply:
37" Thank you.

Week five
"Geraint, sweetie, we're thinking of following up the String Quartet with another absolute classic."
"I've got something in mind too."
"Really, what?"
"It combines banjo playing and cement mixers on the A1-M."
"We're thinking more - choral. Have you ever worked with the BBC Singers?"
"The BBC what?"
"Singers. Wonderful. They sing."
"I guessed."
"First rate, I'm told. Songs, and, you know, other things. Well, they can't wait. The String Quartet has everyone wanting to perform your music."
"It does?"
"So what do you want me to write?"
"I wouldn't presume."
"Just keep your usual touchstone of the real world."
"For the BBC Singers."
"I knew you'd see it."

Petroc welcomed Geraint back into the Breakfast studio.
"And we're delighted to welcome back Geraint Brynmor-Hughes, our Welsh Composer in Residence."
"From Brighton."
"Tell us Geraint, have you been surprised by the response to last week's String Quartet?"
"It's not something I'm used to."
"I wouldn't have thought so."
"I mean, writing for a string quartet."
"So what made you branch out?"
"Er - well, it's been brilliant having the opportunity to write for Breakfast, really."
"And we have certainly experienced it with you. Now this week the studio is crammed because again we have a 'live' performance - another first performance - this time a choral work. Is choral writing something you enjoy?"
"I'll let you know."
"Tell us about this work, sung for us this morning by the BBC Singers under the direction of chief conductor David Hill."
"Well, I was at the Heston Services and I read the menu, and it came to me that this might be the perfect subject for a choral work."
"So though it's a 'live' performance, there's also some feedback, a bit of looping and a repeat."
"Just like being at the service station. Can't wait. Here's 'Menu' by Geraint Brynmor-Hughes."

Week six
Well, thought the Editor of Breakfast as he strolled towards work, this is finally it. One more day and it's all over. Everyone will be happy. The Director of New will be old news. Life will return to normal.

So he was somewhat surprised to arrive at Broadcasting House before the sun had even thought of getting up to find the Director of New waiting for him at the door.
"Good Lord."
"Isn't it?"
"I didn't know you did this time of day."
"I don't usually."
"To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Pleasure is the word. You may thank me now."
Breakfast felt queasy.
"Thank you?"
"Not at all."
"No - thank you for what?"
"Oh I see."
"Really - for what."
"Aha! Come and see!"

Inside Broadcasting House, New led Breakfast to studio seven, which had been laid out to broadcast or record a whole symphony orchestra.
"What's this for?" asked Breakfast.
New smiled: "You asked for something more Breakfast."
"Bloody hell."
"A piano would've done."
"Well I give you the BBC Symphony Orchestra."

The editor of Breakfast was shell-shocked.
"We are the nation's most prestigious serious music network."
"But - that's our annual budget sitting there."
"And about ten minutes of mine."
"At this time in the morning?"
"Well, not at this time - but by the time you're on air, yes."
"When have they rehearsed?"
"Rehearsed? It's Geraint bloody Brynmor-Hughes we're talking about, it's not like they're backing Shirley Bassey."
"No, well."
"I suppose these are professionals."
"And musicians."
"Some of them both at the same time."
"That's the spirit."
"So what has he written for them?"
"No idea. It's a tribute to Breakfast."
"What's it called?"
New looked at his iPhone.
"Bloody hell."

Petroc had a monitor showing him studio seven. He could see the BBC Symphony Orchestra ready to play Breakfast by Geraint Brynmor-Hughes. He, and the rest of the team in the Breakfast studio, were alone in the world in being slightly prepared for what was about to happen.

The string players had been given plates, knives and forks. Woodwind had boxes of cereal (sealed). The brass players had been given bowls of different sizes filled with differing quantities of milk, and were standing by with their mouthpieces, ready to blow. Everyone else had either bread or some form of electrical device (ranging from coffee maker to food mixer).

Not a single 'orchestral' instrument was in evidence.
The composer sat nervously at the side of the seventy musicians.
Sakari Oramo stood at the podium, ready to conduct.

A Rossini overture finished and Petroc announced that it was time for the final of the six specially-composed pieces by Composer in Residence, Geraint Brynmor-Hughes, who was "sitting ready with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, for a magnificent world-premier performance of a stunning new work - Breakfast!"

The scraping of cutlery across plates moved from first violins to seconds to violas to cellos and double basses; soon all of the string players were attacking their plates. Woodwind began (slowly at first) to shake cereal boxes, with an increasing rhythm that grew in intensity and menace. The brass took turns to blow into their bowls - till suddenly in a crescendo all of them were blowing at once, and the electrical devices switched on together. This cacophony lasted a full ten seconds till those with bread threw it in the air and as Sakari Oramo brought his beat down for the final time, the whole orchestra intoned -
"And it's nearly eight O' clock," continued Petroc, without missing a beat, "but there's just time to say that in St Mary's Church in Whitley St Drayton, there's a performance by the Whitley St Drayton Singers of English Choral Classics this evening at 7.30pm. Do look that one out if you are nearby. Time for the news now, read for us today by..."

*          *         *          *             *

Oh yes. It was quite a thing.
And now we are being made to endure New Year, New Music. Payment for too many nice things over Christmas. There's probably a new Director of New trying to improve us all again. Someone who doesn't realise what we need when those of us who wake up to Breakfast wake up.

At least the powers that be at the nation's most prestigious serious music network are not repeating the Radio Three Breakfast Composer in Residence debacle.

Though, as I scan the Radio Times, I see that this week's Composer of the Week is...

Geraint Brynmor-Hughes.
New Year, New Toast then.