BBC Proms Diary 2018: Well-Tempered Socially Constructed Bach

As I write, I’m listening to Andras Schiff’s late night Prom from last week – the second book from Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier.

It’s the first thing I’ve listened to today. No news. A little bit of gentle morning banter with the OH before he heads off to work. Just Bach.

Music at this time of day – an active choice as opposed to anything curated by a radio station – is an intense kind of experience. The musical equivalent of a highly productive 5am conference call with the States.

If I’m really honest, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever had a conference call with the States, not one person there nor everyone at the same time.  The analogy still holds up though: listening to the live performance of such an intimate and discursive work, first thing in the morning before you’ve heard anything else, creates such an intense kind of focus – the sort of experience you want to have continue for the rest of the day.

I spent yesterday afternoon learning about (or at least getting an introduction to) social constructionism in coaching.

Put very simply, this is the idea that we create our own sense of identity via the interactions we have with others.

I was resistant to the notion at the beginning of the session. Sometimes such learning experiences within the coaching world can feel eerily familiar, or in some cases a cashing-in opportunity on the part of the presenter. But there is something in this that’s prompted a lot of thought the morning after – in an unexpected area too. That’s good coaching. 

A friend of old is staying with us at the moment. We haven’t seen one another for a while. Consequently those times when we connect has a significant impact on my thinking. The experience is something similar to listening to Mahler – made even more intense if the gap between now and the last time we saw each other is wide. Whether its partly down to the coaching learning session yesterday afternoon, or just because of where I am professionally at the moment, the presence of certain people can sometimes be an unexpected and valuable reflecting back experience. Their presence can unwittingly shift me into a thinking state (as opposed to a critical one). 

Applying social constructionism in a pseudo-analytical way, it is important to stress that the friend in question isn’t actively prompting me to reflect back. Merely, his presence and the thoughts which emerge in me (what was yesterday described as a ‘context’) contribute to creating a reality in the moment and also now (well, strictly speaking I think the process of writing creates this moment of reality). 

This approach does of course let us both of the hook so to speak. He is not responsible for the thoughts that arise as a result of our metaphorical connection, just as I’m not. I think I’m right in saying that I’m not technically personally responsible for the resulting reality either. But I’ll revisit that another time. 

The real point here is the reality that was created as a result of the connection. And in this case its a vague sense of self-doubt which, if not kept in check, could escalate into full-blown guilt, followed by a considerable wave of anxiety.

Specifically, this is the idea of what I’ve been writing about over the past few weeks – actually let’s just be honest, the most recent years. I’m talking about the ranty stuff, the pissing and moaning, the calling out of the nonsense and unfairness. The snobbery, the inverse snobbery, misogyny, and various other grit in the classical music engine which has to a greater or lesser extent got my goat. I’ve used that as fuel for the blogging fire.

But is that doing me any good? Am I, in fact, digging my own grave? And if I am and I don’t stop now, will the grave be so deep there won’t be a rope long enough to lower the coffin gently to the bottom?

The friend’s presence reminds me a private observation I’d made a few months ago. There is a paradox about the classical music world and orchestras in particular: orchestras can look big and grand and important on stage; the sector they represent is surprisingly small which is itself a tiny part of a much much larger entertainment industry. 

In this way it’s possible to say that if what I’ve written has the power to dig my own considerable grave, then given the sector is so small there’s every chance that I finished digging the grave years ago and that the coffin is already in it.

And … I’m reminded of something else. Creating content about the subject I love – a ‘friend’ in my life just as, in fact, as any actual person – is an activity I pursue not for those who are already a part of the classical music world, but those who aren’t.

This helps me reconcile one other rather odd paradox.

Writing a blog – any writing come to that – does demand a slight detachment from the group. If you thought about everybody who might read what you’re writing you wouldn’t write at all. So you need to be detached. At the same time, this Proms season more than any other, I recognise an underlying need I have to be accepted by the bubble. And yet, the people I’m writing for aren’t part of that bubble anyway. And that essentially means that writing about a world you’re seeking approval from for an audience who don’t know they even want to be a part of that particular world, is a surprisingly lonely experience. Necessarily lonely too.

BBC Proms 2016 / 59: Leipzig Gewandhaus, Beethoven 7, and a Touch of Class

We’ve passed a critical point in the Proms season. There’s less than two weeks to go until it’s all over and my classical music world returns to something approaching normal.

This is not something to be sad about. All good things must come to an end. That way we can all have a much-needed break and, when the good thing returns we appreciate even more because of the time it’s not been around.

But more than that (and other similarly tired clichés pedalled by my parents), this point in the Proms season coincides with a change in the weather and as a result, everyone’s mood.

The bedding plants are giving us their last show of colour. The sun is still shining brightly, but the air has cooled dramatically. People have either returned from holidays in a good mood, are about to go on a late holiday or, in some cases are still on holiday (and therefore giving the rest of us a holiday).

It’s as though we’re all used to the summer conditions by this point in the summer too. We’re not hastening the end. We’re just basking in the familiar. When something first becomes familiar it is the most glorious thing.

But there’s a hint of impending newness about things too. The Other Half puts this down to the counter-intuitive sense of renewal that this time of year comes packaged up with. The autumn term beckons with new well-worn textbooks, new exercise books, and an untouched pencil case. More than spring, autumn is the time for a new start.

All of this is very descriptive and possibly a little florid, but it sets the perfect scene for Beethoven 7 – in my opinion, Beethoven’s finest – which I listened to as I walked around Regent’s Park at lunchtime.

Colleagues had commented on how I was ‘looking well’ – one even reckoned I was ‘looking thinner’. If this was the case, I was eager to capitalise on the aerobic exercise regime I’d established (albeit accidentally) when I was at the Edinburgh Fringe last week.

Regent’s Park was packed full of people making the most of the last rays of the summer. Deck chairs, shades, and a multitude of tanned bodies dotted around the green expanse of a grand Royal Park.

It’s what opens my favourite ever film (which may not necessarily be the best film, I hasten toad): Touch of Class. Divorced mother of two Vicky Alessio has to juggle the demands of a single parent, her career copying the latest fashion designs, and looking after a myriad of pets. One sunny afternoon in Hyde Park she bumps into Steve Blackburn – an American in insurance, complete with wife and two children. The pair end-up falling in love and having an affair.  They go on an initially awkward weekend away to Malaga, after which they set up a bolthole in 70s Soho. It’s a bittersweet comedy romance.

But before everything ends in tears, there’s time for a number of illicit escapes to their salubrious Soho escape, including one mounted during a performance of Beethoven’s 7th symphony at the Royal Albert Hall which Steve is attending with his wife.

During the unfeasibly long performance Steve appears to have time to leave the Royal Albert Hall in a black cab, get to Soho,  have an awkward conversation in which he tries to break up with Vicki, have sex, and then get back to the concert just in time to hear the final bars of the symphony. Quite some achievement.

I’ve always loved Touch of Class, in part because of the interplay between Vicky (Glenda Jackson) and Steve (George Seagal), but also because of the visuals. London always looks more glamorous in film. The newfound chic of the capital in the early 1970s only makes the whole thing even more irresistible. It was probably quite a grim city to live in back then, but every time I watch it I want to get a taste of it.

Jackson was spotted in the Cleopatra sketch on the BBC’s Morecambe and Wise Show. She was given the role by writer, producer and director Melvin Frank. Jackson went on to win an Oscar for her role. And the whole bittersweet romantic, Oscar-winning story starts in a Royal Park in central London and places Beethoven 7 at the heart of a critical moment in the development of Steve and Vicky’s ultimately doomed relationship.

Hyde Park is a little too far from work for a lunchtime stroll. Even with my new walking regime, I’d never be able to get there and back in the space of an hour. Regent’s Park is far closer and is a perfectly passable alternative to Hyde Park.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus’ Beethoven 7 with 90 year-old Herbert Blomstedt was serviceable if a little raggedy in places. The second movement lacked the deadness I’ve come to expect from the work, but the basses did deliver in the all-important ‘grinding’ bass line towards the end of the last movement. The beginning of the last movement felt uncertain, and whilst I know Blomstedt had been keen to reflect the same attention to the ends of movements pianist Andras Schiff had during the Emperor Concerto earlier on (ie letting the woodwind linger whilst the strings finished playing), there were times when it all felt surprisingly rough as though corners were being cut.

I wasn’t altogether disappointed. Beethoven 7, satisfying as it is, isn’t one of my must-listen-to works – hearing it is enough.

My mind was on other things. I was distracted. This happens every year around this time. When the end of the Proms is in sight I end up not so much reflecting on how full the tank is, but obsessing what I need to do in order to fill it up. Familiar questions arise. Who really cares about the copy I’ve written over the summer? What impact has it made? How will it help me in the future (if at all)? What the hell am I going to do next? Will I be saying EXACTLY THE SAME THING NEXT YEAR AS I AM NOW. Dear God, I hope not.

That’s when I start dreaming about wonderful it would be if I could just magic up something completely fictional and get off the blogging bandwagon.

I realise as I’m heading down the main avenue back towards Portland Place that what I’m really after is to be paid to do what I’m doing here: to write a column and be paid for it. OrBuried deep in that goal is one very clear assumption: that what I’m writing is interesting. And, as we all know, just because I think what I’m saying is interesting doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else does.