Archive for January 11th, 2010


New Year, New Blog, New Music

Some years ago I was on a radio discussion when, quite out of the blue, the lady chairman asked us what our New Year Resolutions were.  I was sitting next to her so I had to answer first and, without any kind of forethought I just said that my New Year Resolution was Not To Make Any New Year Resolutions.  She looked horrified; clearly regarding me as a real kill-joy and motioned that I had to explain.  My off-the-cuff response was that, with that as a New Year Resolution, I couldn’t do anything but break it straight away and thereby invalidate any other Resolution.  That got more laughter than I expected, and have kept it as my guideline ever since.

So this new blog is NOT the result of a New Year resolution

Well, it couldn’t be anyway, since it was first conceived in July and, with modern technology being what it is, it has taken all of 6 months to get up and – in its own funny way – running.  It’ll presumably take another six months before anyone reads it and even longer before anyone posts any response.  My target readership I assume to be as technologically inept as I and will probably fume and shout in response to my utterances but not have the foggiest idea how to put  reactions on to the blog.

But I do have a sort of New Year resolution which comes to mind in early January every year when I peruse the huge mountain of forthcoming programme, CD and other notes I am expected to write over the next few months.  I promise myself I will flag up and new works which appear during the year and give them my very special consideration.  It’s really exciting to think that there are new works not even written which I will write about and, hopefully, hear before the year is out. Will a great masterpiece emerge in 2010?  Will our listening experience be enriched by something written this year?  I live in hope, but experience shows that disappointment is the most likely outcome.

Certainly it was with 2009.

Among the regular concert series for which I write the audience notes are the exciting Spectrum concerts at Singapore’s Esplanade, which often involve brand new music by young composers, and the ground-breaking Forum for a Composers which Kevin Field masterminds in his sterling efforts to encourage Malaysians to write serious music (presumably in an attempt to undo the damage done by decades of Ramlee-mania in which the inane and shallow in music has been a source of national pride).  I feel my duty is to provide the audience with a kind of verbal road-map to help them untangle to aural complexities which young composers feel is de rigueur, and to this end I have always believed that the most important thing is to get the composers themselves to explain what they are attempting to achieve in their music.  And that’s where it all falls down.

I’ve just been sent the six submissions from the Malaysian composers.  They were supposed to comment on their new piece and give a bit of biography.  In the latter area, I’m amazed how little they seem to know about themselves (I can put that down to a-typically Malaysian reticence), but more seriously, few of them seem to have any idea what their music is trying to achieve.  Few of these young composers can string more than a couple of words together, and some appear to be barely literate.  Some, on the other hand, try so hard to impress that they submit a pile of gobbledegook which doesn’t even begin to make any kind of sense.  Last year, I remember adding a comment to one Spectrum note I submitted, which largely used the composer’s own submission, advising the Esplanade not to allow the programmes to be handed out until the audience was locked in the hall; the note being sufficiently depressing to drive anyone who read it in advance straight into Harry’s Bar for something more uplifting.

You could argue that, if you write music, it’s because you don’t write words.  An argument that falls down when you look at the gloriously coherent writings of, among others, Telemann, Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner, Milhaud, Vaughan Williams, Boulez, the list is endless of literate composers, capable of expressing themselves cogently on paper.  You could argue that these Malaysian composers do not have English as their first language.  Again, in the past one did submit a note in BM which was even more incoherent than most of the English ones.

The fact is that if composers can’t organise or set out their thoughts in words, one wonders whether they can do so effectively in music?  Is there a correlation between the ability to express ideas verbally and to express them musically?  I strongly suspect there is, because I am quite sure that most of these pieces will prove to be as incomprehensible and obscure as their written explanations.  A few in the audience will nod sagely and say how profound the music is (there are always posers around in a concert) but a look at the struggling members of the MPO as they grasp the lifelines Kevin Field’s all encompassing conducting throws to them (in these concerts one is painfully aware that, unlike programmes of Strauss, Wagner, Mahler etc., were Kevin to keel over, the orchestra would immediately grind to a halt) reveals that this music is neither pleasurable nor accessible.

Does music have to be?  No, of course it doesn’t.  But it must have some coherent train of thought so that an audience can grasp its basic message and, hopefully, want to delve further into it through repeated listening.  Sadly, if a composer can’t begin to express basic ideas through language, one wonders how he (or she) can hope to do so through the undeniably more complex medium of musical notation.

January 2010