2017/2018

I wonder whether such blog posts are the New Year equivalent of Christmas letters. I see more and more of them this year. All healthy stuff, of course. Good for the soul. But are people getting bored of them?

I hope not. As it happens I rather like both Christmas Letters and annual reviews.

So, in time-honoured Thoroughly Good tradition, here’s a review of this year against my original 2017 objectives, a few blog successes, a concert high-point, and some actions for next year. Consider it the appendix to the Thoroughly Good Blog User Manual.

 

2017 Objectives

1. Face change with boldness; feed challenges with an open mind.

Totally did this. Left the BBC behind. It appears I’m more at ease with change than I had previously given myself credit for. But let’s regroup in a year’s time on this point. If I feel the same way in a year’s time then all is definitely OK. 

2. Be an architect, not a victim.

If you can’t make your own decisions about what you think is right for you when you’re 45, when exactly can you?

3. Help more.

A difficult one to quantify. I mentored a graduate in Kathmandu, and coached various people.

4. Seek out freedom; eradicate addiction.

I didn’t so much seek out freedom, as avoided those things which had a whiff of freedom being denied.

I’ve understood addiction more. My addictions are not what I assumed they were at the beginning of the year. Awareness is the first stage. I’m not sure the word ‘eradicate’ really helps. Understanding behaviours and making mindful decisions seems like the right way to go.

5. Reduce my digital footprint.

Hmm. Well. No. Failed on that one. 

 

Review in (around about) 208 words

1. Went to Kathmandu, made a filming project, and mentored a chap out there. A remarkable experience. Saw a country I’d never seen before. Something I want to repeat.

2. Left the BBC.

Had worried I’d been institutionalised. Worried I would pine for it. Concerned I would flounder.

The outside world feels a little more raw than I had originally seen it inside the BBC.

A lot of the BBC’s flaws are more apparent when you’re a licence fee payer. I’m much better working for myself.

3. Got selected for the first stage of the Penguin Write Now Scheme.

4. Established Thoroughly Good Coaching – a new coaching business. Worked one to one with a variety of businesses, public sector and higher education organisations. Also secured associate work. Acquired my Coachy Accreditation.

5. Secured some video commissions – want to do more of this kind of work in 2018. I really enjoy it.

6. Played the clarinet solo in Rachmaninov’s second symphony. Got a bit emotional. No surprises there.

7. Developed some new ideas for the Thoroughly Good Blog, developed a funding strategy to take it to the next stage in its development. Started producing a new podcast for launch in the new year. Uncovered some core editorial strands for my classical music writing. Always useful.

8. Redecorated the living room, hall way and bits of the upstairs at home. Colours me and the OH have lived with for 20 years are now gone. A new dawn.

Blog Successes

Blog traffic is up 50% on last year’s total, rising dramatically in July (around the time I devoted more time to the blog, reached out to new content sources, and started expressing stronger (for me) views on the classical music world.

The five most popular blog posts were: Daniel Barenboim’s Post Concert Proms Speech transcription, Why on earth wouldn’t a woman on the podium be your cup of tea Mariss?, Why I Love This Music and What I Owe It, and Classical Music’s Biggest Problem.

These posts defy some of the assumptions I started the year with about classical music writing.

Readers are prepared to go with long reads, the classical music world isn’t the perfect world most might assume it is, and readers do seek out a personal perspective.

I don’t think that’s restricted to my blog necessarily. I see it on a few others of note where longer-form content is successful.

Thinking ahead, I think there’s undoubtedly a sweet-spot to be reached in terms of content where sentence length is optimised but authority isn’t sacrificed. Also, its increasingly important to remove as many barriers to the actual music as is possible.

Not being motivated by what the traffic is or might be undoubtedly helps shape editorial into something distinctive and authentic. Obviously, we don’t everyone doing that otherwise being distinctive will be ever more challenging.

Underneath it all

The most striking insight for me where the blog was concerned was the extent to which writing passionately about how I interact with the classical music world made me confront a side of my personality I didn’t especially like.

This illustration might help.

The green line marks my perception of the world around me as triggered by my Instagram feed for 2017.

The red applies the same assessment in reaction to my blogging, the reaction I received as a result of it, and the impact it had on my personal outlook.

I see an encouraging rise around July in both accounts in terms of confidence and I recall there being a renewed sense of vigour throughout the summer and into the autumn.

The real come-down came in early December when the reality of what I had written in Classical Music’s Biggest Problem essentially appeared as an actual real thing at various events.

Taking an objective stance on that might suggest that I created my own self-fulfilling prophecy – that has to be borne in mind. Or it might just mean I was right.

People I met and their impact on me

Business Leads

Potential new business leads are fascinated about the BBC. This was an odd experience when, shortly after leaving, the one thing I didn’t want to talk about was the Corporation. These conversations did reinforce my appreciation of the skills I have, and shone a light on the slightly odd expectations society still has on people who work freelance. My parents for example, refer to me leaving the BBC as me ‘retiring’.

Coaching Clients

There’s an assumption that coaches are the experts, that they’ve got life sorted out, and that if only the client could be like the coach then everything will be fine. My clients this year have helped me in my own personal development too. It is because of a coaching session that further personal learning is demanded. I like that.

Music Contacts

I spent years at the BBC assuming things about my musical contacts. I also definitely feared PRs (largely because within the BBC a lot of PRs exert a lot of necessary control over the projects they run). Outside the BBC I’ve discovered that isn’t quite how the PR world works. That’s made making new contacts and developing new ideas a breeze. That’s something I really value from this year.

And then there are the actual musicians and the writers. I’ve really felt supported by the people I’ve reconnected with and been introduced to in the second half of this year. It’s been invigorating. That’s something I really wasn’t expect when I changed direction in July.

Best Concert

This seems like a slightly odd thing to write about given that most people weren’t present at it and (unless you’ve got a login to Medici.TV) you may never see it.

But the most touching concert experience this year was undoubtedly at Verbier, Shostakovich trios in the first half and Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time in the second. The experience developed my listening skills in quite a profound way. I adore Verbier and the musical magic that emerges there.

Worst Concert

This one’s a difficult one to get across. The music was brilliant. Pianist Mitsuko Uchida was a revelation on stage at the Usher Hall. I was moved to tears.

But, the man who sat in the row behind me didn’t like it when I uncrossed and crossed my legs, momentarily blocking his view of the platform. So he punched me hard on the shoulder.

So I turned around and told him to fuck off.

2018 Objectives

  1. Be bold; be distinctive; be focused; don’t compare
  2. Think of digital content as strands as opposed to standalone posts
  3. Get to Aldeburgh Festival, Dartington, and the Edinburgh International Festival this year.
  4. Get more video commission and motion-graphic work
  5. Drive the funding strategy so it at least covers the annual costs of running the blog
  6. Build your immunity
  7. Don’t panic – opportunities come from all sorts of places
  8. Launch the podcast
  9. Crack the fear of money
  10. Acknowledge the terror and pitch some book ideas

Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts.

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Listen: Georg Philipp Telemann’s Sonata in A Minor TWV 43

The School of Life Dictionary states of our need for music that, We bear within us a legacy of unfelt feelings.”

The modest article in a publication that seeks to promote a deeper emotional intelligence goes further saying, “we’re constantly faced with situations where something significant is going on; at the back of our minds the helpful emotional reaction is there, but it’s subdued and drowned out by the ambient noise of existence. Music is the opposite of noise: it is the cure for noise.

Testify.

It got me thinking about how listening more attentively could potentially help get to the bottom of our core values.

Can interrogating our emotional reaction to a piece of music help uncover the stance we unwittingly adopt in our day-to-day lives?

This kind of deep introspection often occurs between Christmas and New Year.

Little wonder really. The pressure is off. The mind is relaxed (the wine box helps). Plans are made. Hope pops up and says hello again.

Maybe there’s something in it – listening not just to the music but your reaction to it, trying to capture what it is that resonates on a personal level, then trying to decipher why.

Telemann’s Sonata in A Minor

So I tried it with Telemann’s Sonata in A Minor, TWV 43: A5.

The stark tone gives the rich harmonies in the opening grave a nourishing feel.

The dance-like allegro has a resolute air than anything joyous or celebratory: this is a musical marathon, not a concluding sprint. I like it’s punch-like chords, and especially warm to its ambiguous ending.

The second allegro feels like a holding pattern – a sort of musical lay-by preparing us for the next part of the journey. It’s abrupt near-throwaway ending makes for an arresting conclusion.

The concluding allegro builds on the resolute air of the air with a steely busy determination. Precision and industry fuel this intent. It’s bold, its brave too. And it disappears in a flash. Blink and you’ll miss it.

What I Get From It

I’m projecting slightly. That’s the flaw in this particular approach to writing about music. The purists will say that this isn’t critical appreciation. Well know. I’m not writing it to be ‘pure’.

What’s interesting for me is the variants on ‘resolute’ in my listening of Telemann’s Sonata in A Minor. It’s a restless thing, not completely confident of itself. But the stark string tone and the driving pulse makes this all alive. Urgent, perhaps. Determined, definitely.

Now I come to think about other things that have been happening recently, perhaps this view isn’t necessarily a surprise.

We’re Far From Our Neighbours

Just yesterday I ended up interacting with someone on a local community Facebook group. It was a strange affair. The group isn’t as ready for robust ‘dry’ humour as I had previously assumed.

The interactions led me to conclude that there are occasions in our lives when the distance between us and our neighbours is a good deal further than perhaps we first realised.

The way to deal with that distance is a tricky thing. You can either cower and retreat, or you can adopt a resilient stance, knowing that they’re entitled to their view just as you’re entitled to yours.

What you end up with is neither good nor bad. It’s not triumph nor defeat. It’s just day-to-day life.

It’s not easy, but it is authentic.

The picture in this post is from Flickr, published by B Rosen, and used here under the terms of Creative Commons Licence

 


Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts.

If you’d like to define your level of support please use this PayPal.Me link.

The short life-span of a Christmas carol

One thing that has surprised me this Christmas: the relatively short life-span we impose on Christmas carols.

If you’re generous you’ll start listening from the December 1st. If you’re looking to delay gratification then it might be the last week before Christmas or even the day before.

In my case the usual intense anticipation is experienced listening to carols in the week before Christmas Eve. This is topped by the ultimate ‘peak carol moment’ hearing Once In Royal David’s City at the beginning of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

I get all het up about the vulnerability in the voice of the chorister. The regret and sorrow mixed with the agonising hope in Arthur Henry Mann’s arrangement of Henry John Gauntlett setting of words by Cecil Frances Alexander.

Yes, I know. That’s a lot of names. But they’re important. These are the people who create the things that colour, support, frame, or in some cases just denote Christmas. Melodies, harmonies, and feelings.

Creative individuals are behind these things of intense beauty – creations that capture, reflect, and summon a range of uniquely personal and distinct feelings around a particular season.

Christmas morning sees me bravely clinging on to the spirit of the night before, listening to choirs singing their hearts out, accompanied by half-hearted congregations only too aware of the return to normal proceedings the following Sunday.

Much of that change in listening experience is down to me the listener rather than any prescribed listening schedule. Why shouldn’t carols still be relevant late on Christmas Day? Come to think of it, why shouldn’t they still be listenable-to, relevant or moving on Boxing Day?

I listened again to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols again today during a walk to nearby Blackheath and back.

One of the carols that stood out for me in both broadcasts was a piece by Judith WeirIlluminare Jerusalem.

At just over two minutes long, I like the carol’s brevity and the way the close harmonies move seemingly effortlessly as one (homophony for those not already aware of the terminology).

What particularly grabs my attention and keeps me hanging on for more are the neat harmonic conclusions at the end of each verse. The progressions are tight, almost to the point of being throw-away. And the conclusion of each verse has an addictive quality too. There’s something unresolved. I end the short carol wanting another verse. I walk away bereft.

Weir’s carol is the equivalent of a canapé served on a slate at a press launch. My technique has always been to grab, chew and swallow as quickly as I possibly can so that I have an opportunity to grab another. Obligation inevitably drives the waiter to press on. I’m left looking for the next slate and the next opportunity.

Although aware of Judith Weir and her significance in the UK specialist music scene, I was unaware of Illuminare Jerusalem until a couple of days ago. It was the concluding chords that caught my attention, and prompted me to listen again today on Boxing Day. It amazed me to discover the carol premiered at Nine Lessons and Carols in 1985. I’d never heard it before. Why on earth wouldn’t we listen to carols beyond Christmas Eve or Christmas Day morning? We might as well do.

I confess to knowing little more about Weir or her works. I know she’s prolific, but I can’t recall any others. Shame on me.

Occasions as the Nine Lessons and Carols succeed in doing is raise awareness and trigger further research. It seems utterly bizarre to me that I can know of a person because her name is familiar in certain circles but at the same time have absolutely no sense of what her output is.

My lookout. A project for 2018, I think.


Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts.

If you’d like to define your level of support please use this PayPal.Me link.

My Perfect Christmas Gift

Underneath this tree there are pants, socks, a surprise book about dogs, a construction kit, a tea-towel with Prince on it, and tickets to ENO’s production of Chess next year.

Don’t worry. The recipient doesn’t follow me on Twitter. He doesn’t read this blog either. Grounds for divorce, I say.

Most of the gifts I’m giving this year to the other half are pre-determined. Lists were exchanged earlier this month. I considered a ‘the list’ project plan with a list of deliverables.

There’s no problem with that: I’d rather spend money on stuff he wants, than take the risk getting ‘surprise gifts’ that end up sinking without a trace.

Mindful of that risk, I instead channelled my ‘big statement’ gift-giving into two (perhaps) predictable presents.

I gave the first one last night as part of a Secret Santa project. Inevitably it didn’t turn out to be especially secret – the recipient worked things out swiftly.

“I’m giving you this because it’s something you wouldn’t normally listen to. It’s also something you must listen to.” It was the first book of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.

I worried it wouldn’t land well. Only time will truly tell. But in the moment I was pleased. I felt like I was sharing something important to me with someone else.

Along similar lines, the gift to my next door neighbour. Isabelle Faust’s (what I think will become if it isn’t already) landmark recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. A highlight of my year at the BBC Proms, and a recording that still invigorates me whenever I hear it.

Over the past six months I’ve loved the renewed energy I’ve had writing this blog, the new friends I’ve made because of it, and the new ideas that have emerged as a result. I see that as my unexpected gift this year. I’ve no real idea how exactly it can’t it came about. But the opportunities it’s afforded me is something I value a great deal.

The energy I’ve found and deployed for my writing has come about in part by those who read it and those who contact me because of it.

Regardless of what’s under the tree for me today (and I have no idea because the OH doesn’t really use social media), I’m rather pleased to be able to appreciate the impact this blog has on me.

My kind of gift. That’s down to you.

Thank you. Merry Christmas.

Baby Driver, John Adams & Christmas TV

Caught about fifteen minutes of a programme on Channel 5 featuring Rustie Lee, Joe Pasquale, Richard Coles, and a woman I don’t recognise. All of them embarking on a trip to Lapland to ‘find’ Santa Claus.

Very low-rent. A sort of Real Marigold Hotel on Tour but without the retirement premise or the budget. Utterly absorbing. Had to stop myself from watching it live – wanted to save it for a bit of daytime viewing. Perfect Christmas TV ‘filler’.

For all the bleating about there not being enough to watch on television at Christmas, and the embarrassing hand-wringing some broadcast organisations do about viewing figures being down on previous years, I do wonder whether people overlook what the real joy of Christmas television has always been.

Flicking through the Radio Times at Christmas time was never about finding excellent programming which had to be watched. It was always about responding to the programme listings and seeing what could fill-up the hours of free time the school holidays afforded. That meant taking a risk on things, often seeing comparatively simpler offerings – some of it cheesy, most of it quite cheap. I wonder whether we’ve overlooked that original joy.

In the space of only a few years, we’ve all become incredibly fussy about what we watch, ranking big budget productions as a safer bet over lower-budget affairs.

I loved the first season of The Crown on Netflix and assumed I’d binge this Christmas on the second season. Two episodes into the second season and the shine has rubbed off a bit. The drama seems a little flabby. There’s an arrogance to the story arc in each episode as though someone somewhere is saying “This will do – all they want is nostalgia.” Big budget doesn’t necessarily mean better. So if there’s no guarantee of quality, why not stop being so precious about the need for ‘quality’ and take a risk? That way you’re managing your expectations and leaving yourself open to being surprised at the outcome.

Baby Driver: a two-hour film for a bitesize generation

Later, we watched Baby Driver on Sky. The direction, editing created a symphonic kind of storytelling. Efficient. Punchy.

A two-hour film for a generation brought-up on bitesize content.

Baby’s fascination with the rhythmic patterns of everyday speech, his curation of source material, and creative excursions made me think of Bela Bartok’s work traversing Eastern Europe collecting folk songs, and more recently John Adams’ work with tape loops.

In addition to the obvious musical references in the string of montages throughout the film, music was celebrated for the power it has to focus the mind and stoke the imagination.

 


Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts.

If you’d like to define your level of support please use this PayPal.Me link.