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 Martin 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.

 

Interviewing Southbank Centre’s Elaine Bedell at YPIA

On Thursday evening I hosted a session for YPIA spotlighting the Southbank Centre’s Chief Executive Elaine Bedell.

During the session she discussed her career and provided advice on how to get on in TV and the arts. I’ve captured some of the points that really resonated for me below.

  1. Say yes to people always; be someone people want to be with, always
  2. A negotiation depends on both parties having a shared need or want – anything less isn’t a negotiation
  3. Be your truest self; don’t try and be what you think people want you to be
  4. Wanting to work in the arts isn’t enough now – you need to look with ingenuity and for business opportunities
  5. There should be a closer relationship between media and the arts
  6. Appointing TV people in arts management is a good thing – TV could do with recruiting more arts people
  7. Knowing early on in your life what it is you want to do is possibly the greatest help you can give yourself
  8. Pitch two ideas, not three
  9. Pitch with confidence – start by pinning your shoulders back – pitch with energy
  10. Avoid complexity when pitching
  11. Pitching is a leap of faith – it may not work – knowing how to pick yourself up from a rejection is key
  12. Live performance is ‘where it’s at’ right now – its an escape from our on-demand world, offering real-life social interaction of the kind of that digital denies us

Some personal reflections arose from our discussion that might be worth sharing in addition.

  • Elaine was an incredibly compelling speaker – she held my gaze throughout the 90-minute session. Such individuals are the polar opposite of those who suck all the joy/energy from the room. But, the outcome of Elaine’s innate ability to command attention was that I felt exhausted by the end of the evening. She inspires people to pitch to her. That energy demands personal resilience.
  • There were moments during the session when I felt pangs of inadequacy too (a self-coaching exercise in itself). Elaine identified what it was she wanted to do at a relatively early age – during freshers week at Leeds University when she joined the Broadcasting Society. As far as I could make out, we both of us come from a similar background, but I was envious to learn of her single-mindedness at a point in time in my life when I don’t recall knowing what I would be able to do. She had focus at a point in time in her life when I don’t remember having it myself.
  • I like the idea that the arts could benefit from the business experience of a media professional who takes a data-driven approach to content and the commercial opportunities that arise from it. The arts adopting a more commercial stance doesn’t necessarily mean the downfall of the arts – Snape Maltings over the past few years is a case in point.
  • Content is business, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Popular content is generating revenue for someone. The key is identifying who the content is or might be popular with, and how much revenue can be generated by it. The people who generate the content aren’t necessarily the people who know its monetary value.
  • I like that Elaine regularly walks to work, and has a preferred seat on the bus. My kind of chief exec.

 

Pictures: Yasmin Hemmings, YPIA

 

Different things to different people

In recent years, John Lewis and Partners has created a bit of a festive monster.

The retail brand’s 2018 Christmas advert illustrating the life of Elton John in a series of sentimentalised vignettes cut to ‘Your Song’ has a far more ambiguous message than in years gone by.

On Friday nights Gogglebox some dismissed it saying there is insufficient Christmas spirit about it, as though Christmas is something that can be manufactured and distributed accordingly like a gas.

Other commentators complain the advert is inaccurate: John Lewis doesn’t sell pianos; the cost of the piano is wrong; it’s unlikely such a small boy would be as excited to get a piano. At one stage on the day of the advert launch (the day all hell broke loose in Westminster the morning Dominic Raab resigned), some were defending John Lewis against the naysayers by thanking the organisation by underlining the importance of music education in the UK.

We’re unable (or unwilling) to play host to ambiguity it seems. We have no available time to reflect on what something means for us, demanding instead that we’re told what to think by someone else. If it’s billed as a Christmas advert then it should say Christmas and if it doesn’t it’s crap.

I see it as a well-loved institution inviting the viewer to consider one aspect of Christmas – giving – with an eye on the longer term.

The idea resonates with me. I’ve grown rather tired of the idea of giving presents as a way of fulfilling a need in the recipient; similarly, gifting to meet explicit wants. I’m now increasingly of the mind that gifts are gestures – the beginning of a journey. Some of those journeys don’t always get underway. Of those that do, the best gifts of all are the ones that keep on giving for the rest of our lives.

The John Lewis Christmas advert is a remarkable platform for Elton John to drive streaming revenue and sell his farewell tour of 2019. You wonder whether he actually needs something like John Lewis and Partners to do that. Perhaps John Lewis needs Elton John, more than Elton John needs John Lewis.

But I appreciate the ambiguity. It makes it possible for the advert to mean different things to different people.

I see a heartfelt message about the gift of music, its effects on us as individuals, and the role it plays in our everyday lives, something all of us regardless of genre take for granted in an on-demand world.

I like the fact that Christmas is referenced but not front and centre. And what it leaves me considering is that whatever it is we strive to achieve at Christmas, we might strive harder to sustain all year round and beyond.

Review: Our Classical Century, Gershwin Discovery Concert, and The Prince and the Composer

I was dubious about Our Classical Century when I attended the launch event a few weeks back. I couldn’t really discern the impetus for the season, beyond it being a way of bringing Radio 3, BBC Two and BBC Four closer together and providing genre-based content to populate the new BBC Sounds world.

What I saw of the opening episode of the Our Classical Century series and what I heard from the panel discussion at the launch raised more questions about the season’s over-arching editorial strategy. Skepticism led me to conclude that the year-long classical music features and documentaries season was probably not made for people like me.

Our Classical Century is the BBC answering calls for classical music outside of the Proms season to be better represented in terms of scope and quality. In that respect, it’s a good thing. But, it also illustrates the fundamental problem the broadcaster faces. By advocating classical music to new audiences the BBC necessarily has to create programming that appeals to the widest possible not-necessarily knowledgeable audience.

That means the end product will always fall short of the kind of content classical music buffs will naturally seek out, because it’s sharing knowledge buffs already know. Just by virtue of the programme being made by the BBC, people like are always going to be disappointed it doesn’t go far enough.

It certainly can’t be said to be dumbed down programming, not by any means. But, there are moments in Our Classical Century feels as though it’s been pulled in so many different directions at the commissioning stage, that in the end there’s insufficient time available to go in deep.

I’m still not entirely convinced about co-presenter Lenny Henry’s contribution to the programme necessarily works either. I get why he’s there, but there are moments in his everyman role when his presence on-screen actually feels a little awkward. The energy returns whenever Suzy Klein appears. No surprise, Klein is an experienced broadcaster. Unexpectedly, Henry’s delivery feels a little too earnest.

Based on the first episode, the Discovery Concerts that compliment the four-part Our Classical Century series promise to be a more fulfilling watch.

A lot of this is down to the format: an unashamed visual programme note providing historical context, and spotlighting detail in the work, before a live recording performance of the work in question.

In the case of the opening episode – George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – the detail revealed around the opening clarinet solo and writing for saxophone trio felt like the right amount of under-the-bonnet stuff to satisfy people like me and feed the curious and the unfamiliar. That the programme didn’t shy away from spending 45 minutes analysing it this way was a real boon. Presenter Josie D’Arby is particularly good too, combining genuine curiosity with an infectious warmth. She is adept at establishing great rapport on screen that looks authentic.

The BBC has also repeated John Bridcut’s documentary about Prince Charles’ love for the music of Hubert Parry – The Prince and the Composer – from 2016. It’s always a pleasure to hear John’s voice –  and his eye for visual storytelling makes for compelling viewing. I had no idea until I watched this documentary that Hubert Parry wrote any symphonies. As Prince Charles points out in the documentary, that means there’s a wealth of unfamiliar music to explore for the first time.

Our Classical Century continues until June 2019 – broadcast dates available on the BBC website.

 

Architecture. Art.

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Trondheim reduces the heart rate.

The gentle undulations of the water introduce a new rhythm. Breathing gets more deliberate. Footsteps become more resolute. The subdued light – diffused by a dense carpet of cloud – makes introspection and reflection inevitable.

Amidst all of this, the city’s Nidaros Cathedral parts of which are nearly 2000 years old an imposing and ominous focus.

Inside an information screen provides an animated story of the building’s construction.

The story begins with a modest-looking box-like structure – a church built to memorialise the burial place of Olav II of Norway in 1070. Over the following 2000 years the same structure grows into a more majestic statement with spires that pierce the sky. Multiple lightning strikes sees new extensions being built. The building that emerges embodies a sense of pride, resilience and determination.

The story emphasises an often forgotten truth: change is always occuring. That perfection, perhaps even completion, can only be an aspiration, something that most of us struggle to reach and few ultimately reach.

Nidaros Cathedral was officially ‘completed’ in 2001.

During my Trondheim trip, I’ve arrived at a deeper understanding of why I sometimes struggle with writing. Digital demands immediacy – either that or quantity.

Quality takes time.

The finished product certainly deserves time. Why not take a little more time? Why not give yourself permission to take a little more time?

Also. Art doesn’t exist in a bubble. Art isn’t an escape. Art isn’t another land.

Art occurs when we participate in it. That makes us as the audience member an integral part of it. Art prompts questions. Being attentive to the answers demonstrates how effective art is. Art extends beyond classical music or opera. Art draws on a multitude of knowledge and experience that enriches life. It must.