2018 / 2019

Three cheers this year. Brace for the year to come.


As 2018 comes to a close its time to do the thing that seemingly everyone does now, and reflect on the year. Or at least my year.

It’s a tradition. Convention. A habit. Something I’ve been doing for a few years now. It’s usually interesting (for me), though as in previous years I can’t guarantee that’s necessarily the case for readers.

This year I’ve separated things out into events, artists, and discoveries.

At the end there’s the customary checking this year’s objectives against achievements, and documenting some plans for 2019.

Events

There’s a strange contradiction for arts bloggers, I’d suggest. If you’re a punter then attending events is central to your core offer. That means being in attendance at an event more than being present at home.

That hasn’t been the case for me this year. In some senses I feel a little guilty about that. At the same time it prompts me to reflect on the reasons why. They’re largely financial. I don’t want to plead poverty here, arts events cost money to attend – even in terms of travel. Even if you benefit from ‘invites’, the outlay on getting to events makes a dent, especially if you’re on a reduced income. That outlay is only going to be more for those who live further from cultural hubs. Next year, I’d like to be a little more strategic about events, maximising travel. At the very least, I’d like to see whether it’s possible and to see how that develops my appreciation for the artform.

This aside, a list of memorable performance-related moments from 2018:

Travels

Monte Carlo

The Monte Carlo International Festival was the first of many surprise trips in 2018. The experimental approach to programming (in one case bringing multiple instrumentalists to a recital to provide contributions to a running order) was interesting but perhaps not as successful as it could have been. Monaco is a strange place. Discovered the music of Charles Ives here.

Armenia

The highlight of the year – attending the Aram Kchataturian Music Competition. A trip that challenged many of my assumptions, exposed me to a good deal more cello music than I’ve ever heard before. This is probably where I felt most alive.

It also reminded me that there is a natural disconnection between practitioner and audience which marketing people seek to bridge. Musicians bond over repertoire and technique; audience members seek to fill the gaps in their music-making knowledge and experience. That’s a bittersweet thing: it draws both audience and musician together and maintains a distance between them.

Armenia will always be remembered for the difficulty I experienced leaving the country. “You are fatter in real life than in your passport picture,” said the security guard at the airport. “That picture was taken nearly ten years ago,” I replied. “Yes, but you are still fatter now.”

Karlsruhe

A fascinating trip to an area of Germany I’d never heard of before, to learn about the work of the now defunct Experimental Studio at Polish National Radio.

A trip tinged with a little sadness: I lost my lucky travelling companion of old – Travel Cat.

Katowice

The trip to Armenia was a highpoint because it felt like venturing to a far-away land to make new discoveries. My three days in Katowice, Poland was invigorating: NOSPR concert hall is a joy to behold both aurally and visually. It was a great opportunity to move swiftly into content production mode. The video montage (below) was something I was particularly pleased with.

Trondheim

This really was a last minute trip to Norway. Unexpected. Very interesting. It introduced me to a composer I’d never heard of before – Andre Gretry. I bought my most expensive glass of wine here – £13 – and discovered first hand what it’s like to be somewhere in the world where the light is subdued most of the day. I returned from Trondheim with flu.

Leeds Piano Competition

A magical magical experience.

A week attending the Leeds Piano Competition seeing remarkable musicians, being introduced to unfamiliar repertoire, and revelling in the joyous atmosphere the Leeds audience brings to proceedings. I adore this trip, not least because for a few days I lived like a student again.

Also, winner Eric Lu is a remarkable pianist whose Chopin Ballade was the most amazing live performance I’ve ever heard.

Artists

During a recent conversation with a colleague at the BASCA Composer Awards during which I discussed podcasting rates and the best way to minimise production costs, and so maximise ‘profits’, I was reminded about how recording a podcast this year has brought me into contact with all manner of artists.

During our conversations, they’ve shared their experiences of doing the thing they love and how they’ve maintained that over time. I’ve found these insights invaluable.

Below is a list of artists who have had an impact on me throughout the year; the things they’ve brought to my listening experience and my understanding.

Jonathan Swensen (Cello)

A remarkable musician with incredible focus and energy. His second round performances at the Aram Khachaturian Music Competition were electrifying. I was fascinated by how he managed to maintain such a compelling spirit on stage, and discovered during interview that what we saw in performance was pretty much him in real life.

Eric Lu (Piano)

See above. Lu is an amazing performer. From another world.

Calidore String Quartet

The podcast I recorded with the Calidore Quartet before I headed out to Karlsruhe was enlightening. I had no idea that being a member of a quartet brought with it so much commitment, nor that it was such a fragile experience. The lasting memory from the podcast: “Play every concert as though its going to be your last.”

Lewis Wright (Percussion)

Fascinating man who grew up just a few miles from where I did in West Norfolk. The first of many insights this year about how creating stuff takes time. Sati from his release of duets with Kit Downes is something I’m still playing a lot.

Australian Chamber Orchestra

The podacst with Richard Tognetti from the Australian Chamber Orchestra was a bit of a shot in the arm. Feisty. Spirited. Opinionated. Massively refreshing compared to the often hand-wringing air the classical music world falls back on. It prompted a musical discovery too – the ACO’s recording of Mozart’s last symphonies. Jaw-dropping.

Sophie Webber (cello)

Sophie features in a podcast to be released early in the new year. We met following her contacting me about her recording of Bach cello suites earlier in the year. What I really admired about Sophie (in addition to her playing) is her awareness, ability and track record in managing her own career, generating interest in her work. No easy feat. A demonstration of what musicians have to do to generate income from their talent.

Discoveries

It’s been a pleasure to revisit some of these discoveries for this post. If I had to pick one in particular, it would be Philip Sheppard’s Fall from Earth, very closely followed by Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony.

Worth mentioning Ethel Smyth and Elizabeth Maconchy. I can’t pick out single works that I’ve really connected with necessarily. Rather, that one conversation with a podcast contributor – Dr Sophie Fuller at Trinity Laban – opened the door on a whole collection of women composers who I’ve yet to listen to in-depth. What I’ve heard so far excites me. And that’s all down to Dr Fuller.

2018 Objectives

What was on the list for 2018? Here’s a reminder.

  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

Pretty much succeeded on nearly all of these objectives including the launch of the podcast, cracking the fear of money and not panicking about work. There have been one or two video commissions too, and the blog has secured some funding for its ongoing development (many thanks to supporters, especially the ‘in-kind’ ones) and, I now realise, its been legitimised in my mind.

My relationship with the blog and the content on it and my Twitter account has changed quite a lot over the past year. It’s easy to look at other writers on the subject and worry about the differences between this blog and theirs. Yet, there’s something to celebrate there I think. Maintaining a distinctive voice and style is vital. I’ve become more settled in my preference for journalling, reflection, and reasonably strong(ish) views. It’s been fulfilling to focus on listening discoveries. The travelling has fuelled my writing and I hope that’s something I’ll expand on in the new year.

2019 Objectives

Here are some of the things I’ve planned out for 2019.

  1. Be more strategic on selecting arts events to reflect on; outline what links content discoveries; resist getting irritated by the wheat and the chaff.
  2. Focus more on building content around coaching on the Thoroughly Good Coaching website; ring-fence time spent on Thoroughly Good (Classical Music) content and maximise that time.
  3. Tackle the garden; grow plants from seed; build replacement decking (this is a massive undertaking – so let’s not hold our breath here).
  4. Increase revenue by 35%.
  5. Use buses whenever is possible; reduce London travel costs by 25%.
  6. Keep the impact of Richard Wilson’s 20:50 at the Hayward Gallery’s Shape Shifters exhibition in mind with everything you say and do in 2019.
  7. Continue producing the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast, but experiment with different hosts: truly ‘produce’.
  8. Meet more people. Visit new places; travelling is where I discover the most.
  9. Write more articles; you’re as good as anyone else who does so.
  10. Drink less wine.

Education, education, education

Fascinating day yesterday. Notebook fully utilised. Observations. That kind of thing.

If you need a headline it’s the unwitting tussle about higher education. My company for the day held the view that gaining a degree was akin to acquiring a much-need shield. I on the other hand held the view that studying for degree is the first step on a never-ending journey of discovery, a relationship which will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

I was disappointed when I discovered what I was up against. I didn’t seek to change the other party’s view. To do so seemed disrespectful.

Broadly speaking, the day’s conversations confirmed what I had previously privately denied: not everyone sees higher education the same way I did when I embarked on my university career.

I approached my choice of music degree (mixed with a range of European history modules) with a sense of openness. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished that degree. How could i? I figured the best strategy was to just follow my nose and see where it led me. Unlike the likes of Elaine Bedell (and my peers) I wasn’t blessed with clarity of vision at the age of 19 years old about what I absolutely wanted to do. That same approach has been the foundation of my career. The flip side is that coming up with a strategy demands knowing something innately. That takes time. My approach to knowledge acquisition is necessarily suitable for all.

Back home last night, I sink into a searingly hot bath with a large glass of reassuringly cheap wine and scroll through Instagram. University pal Pete Faint is posting pictures of what he’s listening to. Vinyl (predictably). Last night it seems, it was Acid Jazz.

When I talk about Acid Jazz to the OH I wriggle with excitement. Pete introduced me to it back in 1993. A stream of albums. Urgent stuff. Committed performances. Precision studio recordings committed by musicians playing live. It’s not music that evokes a mood, so much as commands my attention. It’s an immersive experience – like stepping into an art installation that swirls all around you. There is colour to be marveled at. Rhythmic clarity. Progressive harmonies. Unrivaled textures.

What I was listening to the first time in 1993 was seemingly the complete antithesis of what I was studying – a shot in the arm.

But was Acid Jazz and the symphonic works of Brahms, Britten, and Dvorak I was studying as part of my degree really that far apart? I’m not so sure today.

I remember the Wednesday morning tutorial when one of my music lecturers (the legendary Denis McCaldin) introduced the work of Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players in a recording of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Colour, edge and an urgent kind of rawness. Economy of resources revealed the mastery of orchestration. We were able to hear detail for the first time. Leanness brought excitement.

In recent months I’ve been reminded of a piece of faulty thinking I’ve fallen foul of for most of my life. It’s a simple thing: if I know about how to do something, or I have an understanding of something then the value of knowing it is immediately reduced solely because I now know it. I’ve looked at numerous things in my life through that prism. Knowledge about music is one such example.

Both these musical introductions – one from a lecturer, one from a peer – have come about because of higher education. Both are perennials, planted young, which have taken hold, and over time gained strength. They were not assets – a means to an end. Am I really the only one who thinks that? Am I a member of a dwindling minority?

Picture: Pete Faint

Filling in the gaps

New habit (ish). Not listening to the radio or watching the TV news at any point during the day. If I am working at home then generally speaking I’ll either bask in carpeted silence, or allow random thoughts generate searches on Spotify.

Yesterday, I went from Joseph Horovitz’ Captain Noah (yeah OK, via BBC iPlayer Radio), to his Clarinet Sonatina, to David Bedford’s Ronde for Isolde, Gregson’s Festivo, Davies’ Galaxies for Wind Band, Gregson’s concerto for tuba and orchestra, before Dvorak’s Wind Serenade, before stumbling on Bernstein conducting the New York Phil in a rip-roaring studio performance of Smetena’s Bartered Bride overture and three dances. Terrifying.

I love how random back-of-the-head thoughts can generate music choices that aid focus whilst, from time to time, command such attention that something new can be discovered. Yesterday was an exciting day of listening.

Today, different.

Emails in the morning. Print deadline sought after for a review, website work (lots of fiddling around with logos for the homepage), more emails, purchase orders confirmed, and a bit of fumphering around with a funding application.

Slumped on the sofa around 4.30pm to hear Mark Carney deliver the terrifying reality about a no-deal Brexit – did anyone need further clarification of the blindingly obvious? Then a knock on the door from a neighbour collecting a parcel. He comments on how I’m ill again. I struggle to know how to deal with this.

I realise that I’m providing more detail than I would normally. But the point is this. After a much-needed dose of self-care on the sofa (The Thorn Birds, episode one, Amazon Prime), I end up in the bath listening to Bartok’s fourth string quartet. Spikey. Uncompromising. Dark. Difficult.

There are some pieces of music that succeed in filling in the gaps left by every day life. I didn’t know I needed to hear it. Didn’t appreciate the extent to which I would appreciate it hearing it either.

Being Well-Prepared

I’ve taken heart from two independent events today.

The first was reading software developer Jonathan Beckett’s blog about how he thinks blogging is back.

Beckett is a brilliant blogger. Observational. Warm. Succinct. Consistent. Regular. Old School.

Apologies to him for what follows. It’s basically me aping his style.

I vaguely remember a moment in time when he said he wasn’t going to blog anymore. I felt a pang of demotivation when I read that.

I’m pleased to discover he’s returned to it to it again. It’s invigorated me in my own practice – focussing on writing for oneself rather than trying to satisfy others. That’s the only thing you can do as a writer: write for yourself. Anything that arises, as a result, is a bonus.

The second was meeting up with cellist Sophie Webber. We sat down to record a podcast in nearby Blackheath. She bought me crepe monsieur which I reluctantly allowed her to pay for. She was terribly complimentary about my blogging.

She also turned out to be one of only a handful of podcast contributors who understood how to conduct a conversation rather than performing the role of interviewee. It’s so very important to me that, from time to time, that spirit of peer-to-peer conversation is conveyed in the podcast. I’m not going to spell out why here, otherwise some radio producer working for a broadcasting organisation will nick the idea and pass it off as their own.

I’ve listened to some of the podcast back – the first 15 minutes. The levels are the worst I’ve ever recorded at, but the spirit of the moment is conveyed (there are even emergency vehicles screaming past from time to time). Even so, there’s little to fiddle with in terms of editing. Should go out later this week. Very much looking forward to putting it out. There are lovely pictures to accompany it.

As I write, I’m listening to Mathias Halvorsen’s Well-Prepared Piano Volume One via Bandcamp. It is a fascinating experiment, bringing together the wonders of John Cage’s imagination with the wonders of Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier.

It is a joy to listen to. Boyish. Childlike. Lego-like. His various alterations to the piano sound seem to bring out the essence of each piece, amplifying each’s defining characteristics to a near grotesque levels. It’s like going on holiday to another country and visiting a groovy museum on a rainy Sunday afternoon when everything else is closed.

Will write about it in the next few days. I just need to catch up on some work-related stuff. Because, finally after nearly a week, the flu has disappeared. I can’t tell you how lovely the sense of relief is to be able to confidently say that.

About that Mylene Klass/Classic FM/Classic Brits thing

A few words about the Mylene Klass / Classic Brits / Classic FM bollocks this week.

1. Classic Brits is fine. It’s about as much an awards show as BBC Music awards is or was (I’m not sure whether the BBC are bringing it back this year – I hope not). Awards show are basically industry wonks getting extended advertising to raise revenue streams. I don’t like the content – it’s not intended for me- so I won’t watch it. Equally I don’t really give a fuck about it.

2. Criticism of Classic Brits and its content is reverse snobbery. That’s not on. Classical music experts should be better than deriding other genres or trying to get a programme that increases the reach of those genres stopped. There are countless individuals in the music industry who derive income from playing genres you’re making a judgment call on. That’s one of the ugly sides of the classical music world I struggle to be at ease with.

3. The interview with Myleen Klass in which she referred to ‘orchestra snobs’ could be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Some in the orchestral sector see it as a direct attack on them as members of orchestras. It could just as easily be a statement about classical music/orchestra purists. The point is not really about whose being criticised as much as the way in which tribes are created when the comments are made and then subsequently used to fit agendas. In this post-truth we need to be alert to it occurring and who’s skewing things.

4. Klass’ comments about opera and tuxedos were massively cack-handed. The interview itself didn’t really make any sense. It sounded a bit garbled. And yet someone still managed to get a newsline out of it, which everyone bit on and then promptly went wild about. That could be just as much an illustration of someone out with rusty knives to get at Myleene or Classic FM.

5. If the comment about opera wasn’t cack-handed, then Myleene was deliberately trolling the rest of the classical music world. If that’s the case then somebody briefed her to do that. I hope to God it wasn’t anyone at Classic FM. I can’t imagine it was. That said, the interview was published on the CFM website and then tweeted by CFM management. Odd given they sponsor the Association of British Orchestras and support the London Symphony Orchestra (and various other UK orchestras).

6. People reacted with fury on Twitter – I saw vitriol, condescension, and anger. The root of that emotional response is perfectly understandable, but the tone of the argument did end up making what Myleene said appear like a bit of truism. When I challenged four people about that (two publically and two privately) the reaction was a little muted. Two suggested that the way the conversation has morphed into a laugh about tuxedos and ball gowns was evidence of the right way of dealing with it. Disappointingly this only serves to illustrates how tribes within the music industry have become entrenched, and within one of those tribes cliques have emerged. Laughing at one another could be seen as thinly veiled sneering – also a bad thing.

7. Classical music isn’t elitist. Nor is the UK clientele elitist. But there are snobs everywhere – those who make judgments about you based on the amount of academic study you’ve completed, or those who decide whether you’re a serious fan or not according to what composers you listen to (there are other examples of snobbery). Classical music doesn’t exist in a bubble – it is music. We forget that. Cliques form around shared beliefs. It is cliques that threaten classical music, not the genre itself nor lack of audience engagement.

8. This point goes wider than the Myleene Wotnot, to include some recent interactions I’ve had online. My expectations are high from performers and I think, I’m all honesty, I have set them too high without realising. I seek to advocate and celebrate to popularise the genre that has been a lifelong friend. But I’m less inclined when discussions are hostile or dismissive in the public arena. In those moments I feel as though my intent is either being overlooked or ignored in favour of a personal agenda projected onto a discussion. I’m committing to reminding myself of what others (good) intent is at every stage in a heated discussion. I hope the noisy shouty people will try and do the same.

9. People complain about the death of music journalism. Yet I see there being an increase in the amount of discussion going on about the genre. That is a good thing. Just the other day I said to a friend that I can’t imagine writing for anyone else but Thoroughly Good. The moment I write for money I’d have to pause before expressing a potentially strong opinion. Sustaining discussions and commentary on blogs helps keep the relationship between writer and artist healthy, and the resulting content authentic.

10. Classic Brits is in June sometime on ITV. I won’t be watching. So you’ll need to find the broadcast details yourself. Oh, and you there, Classic FM. Don’t let this happen again. I expected a whole lot more frankly. Do it again and I’m writing to your parents.