We want a witness

My holiday reading was inspired by an emergency gift I bought for a friend shortly before she left for a Christmas holiday in Canada: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, published before self-publishing and social media were a thing.

Many thoughts arise during the reading process – all too dull for what is intended to be only a quick post. Maybe something for another time.

Two paragraphs from an early chapter particularly resonated this morning.

Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It’s all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get?

At the very least we want a witness. We can’t stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Attwood, 2001

Review: John Suchet’s Classic FM Book – ‘Tchaikovsky: The Man Revealed’

I was sent a review copy of John Suchet’s latest Tchaikovsky book – Tchaikovsky: The Man Revealed – a few weeks back, originally to coincide with the release of the book. Technically I should have written this before its release. But, what with one thing or another Suchet’s latest composer biog has taken a bit of time to get around to writing about.

I identified personally-held assumptions about the book when I retrieved it from the bubble-wrap envelope – largely because of the prominence of Classic FM’s branding. In that way, the product in my hand holds a mirror up to my own pre-conceptions about who the target audience is for the book, long before I’ve even started reading it.

I share that view because even though I’m an advocate of Classic FM (largely because of the shit that flies around whenever the snobs and the detractors start wading into the argument about all that’s wrong with classical music today), my assumption was that Suchet’s book wouldn’t tell me anything and that whatever it tried to would probably be a little patronising. 

Fact is, I was wrong.

First, because I realised that Suchet’s book was telling me loads of stuff I wasn’t aware of. It also reminded me how much I appreciate having my Musicologist’s Gland tickled from time to time even though I’m sure even John S would concur when I say that the book is the lightest of musicological studies.

It’s an entertaining read. Absorbing. It transports me to another world. It tells a story without clobbering me over the head with academic analysis. It offers a handy overview I didn’t realise I didn’t already have. It also provides a much-needed haven from the usual starting points I run to when digging out information about composers.

This will give the impression that I regard everything Suchet has written as the gospel truth. I don’t. It can’t be. Tchaikovsky histories is problematic by virtue of there endless problematic sources underpinning those histories. But it’s a pleasure to read and gets you into the world of Tchaikovsky, feels good under the fingers and – to the credit of master content-marketers Classic FM – makes me want to explore some of the other books in the series. 

‘Tchaikovsky: The Man Revealed’ by John Suchet is available on Amazon priced at £15.77 hardback, or £10.00 on Kindle. 

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire: Inspiring Musicians Since 1886

Next week sees the first concerts in Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Concert Hall. Every Tuesday from 9th January, weekly hour-long lunchtime recitals will feature musicians from Radio 3’s New Generation Artists.

This is the latest in a series of big announcements coming from the newly minted Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, announcements that project an air optimism and excitement about a city which has in recent years upped the ante in reasserting itself. The story that’s being told now is one of reinvestment, redevelopment, and in part, preservation.

And since the opening of the newly built Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (replacing the concrete carbuncle in the centre of the city) that same story of transformation can be told about music training in Brum.

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, opened on 7th September 2017

A new book by former graduate, professor and Fellow of the Birmingham School of Music Christopher Morley, provides a thorough history of the institution, documenting its various homes, and its present day range of activities.

Royal Birmingham Conservatoire: Inspiring Musicians Since 1886 published by Elliott and Thompson oozes pride in the institution. It also celebrates the talent which has helped power the institution throughout its 121 year history, a history that doesn’t get talked about very often.

Careful picture editing has contributed to a striking sense of drama, helping position the conservatoire as a diverse and inclusive institution.

Amid some of the politically reductive discussions about the value of higher education, Morley’s survey is timely. At the same time as stating relevance of itself, and of specialist music education, the book also illustrates how such conservatoires depend on composers, conductors, and professional orchestral musicians to make up its faculty.

These institutions don’t exist in a vacuum. In places like Birmingham they’re helping reassert a city’s cultural identity. And the effect is surprisingly infectious.

To talk of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire today, must acknowledge the interdependencies with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle, pianist Peter Donohoe, and composer Granville Bantock to name a few.

The cultural ecosystem that these connections helped create project Birmingham as an exciting destination, one that has weight and an infectious sense of self-confidence about itself.



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Read the book then listen to the music

Catherine Clover’s new book – a 15th century historical novel entitled The Templar’s Garden – has at its heart a variety of settings of Psalm 42. It’s also set in Oxford – where Catherine spent her student days and, judging by this video,  where her heart has taken up permanent lodgings.

New College Oxford Choir have produced album – Like As The Hart – featuring a variety of settings by composers (living and dead) intended to accompany the story.

It’s an interesting proposition. One that makes the early music scene feel slightly more accessible to me (my natural home is classical and romantic). The book offers a more three-dimensional experience on a bog-standard album release. The album provides the book with some musical illustrations.

Catherine Clover’s book, like Jessica Duchen’s Ghost Variations produced in a similar vein, is something I’m looking forward to reading later this summer.

Audible’s Channels and Books vie for my attention

I’ve been an Audible subscriber for over a year now ever since a colleague recommended Steve Peter’s brilliant Chimp Paradox. 

Aside from Peters’ copy (and his strangely reassuring voice when he read it out loud), I’ve come to love the relative simplicity of Audible’s offering. Now, it has something new up its sleeve. Channels.

Building on its archive on spoken unabridged book collection, Audible’s Channels offer curated playlists of podcasts, familiars from BBC Radio 4, and a bucket-load of original productions too. A sort Amazon Prime/Netflix for spoken word fans.

So far I’ve binged on Jennie Bond’s 8 part Elizabeth II: Life Of A Monarch, flirted with Wired and The New York Times (the delivery is a little too polished for it to sound like journalism – all it needs is a gentle tweak in direction, I’m sure), clapped my hands together excitedly at the Short Story playlist (curated, I suspect, from the archive of Short Story collections Audible has at its fingertips), and absorbed myself in the Stories Worth Sharing playlist (the Beginning and Middle podcast is a revelation).

Years ago, there was talk and a plan for Channel 4 Radio. I remember feeling disappointed when the plug eventually got pulled. Audible offers an exciting alternative. I really hope it thrives.