Archive for August, 2010


Music Examiner Anecdotes Part 1

At 10.00am on Monday 10th May 1982 I arrived at the Royal School, Armagh, for the first of several days’ examining for what was then called the Northern Ireland Schools General Certificate of Education Examinations’ Board. I don’t recall how many candidates I heard there, nor, indeed, what instruments they played, but I see from my diary I was only there an hour before moving on to St Catherine’s College in the city to hear a few more candidates. That was a significant day for me; it marked my first ever work as a music examiner.

Over the next two weeks, I visited schools across Northern Ireland – from Enniskillen in the west to Portstewart in the north, from Belfast in the east to Armagh in the south – and was to do the same sort of thing in Northern Ireland for the next eight years, my last duty for them being, rather neatly, to examine at the Royal School in Armagh on the afternoon of 18th May 1990. Ten days later I flew to Hong Kong to take up a teaching position and, before the year was over, I had settled in Malaysia. To my lasting and eternal sorrow, I have barely set foot on Northern Irish soil again; it is, without doubt, my favourite place on the whole earth and, I’ve seen rather more of the whole earth than most.

Another significant date was 29th November 1982 when I visited a school in Ilford, Essex, on my first day as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. That relationship with the ABRSM (as it now prefers to call itself) lasted through to the year 2001 when, in rather acrimonious circumstances, I decided I could no longer stomach what I regarded as their fundamentally unfair and unjust way of doing things. Within weeks I found myself examining for Trinity College London and now, a decade on, I am still spending around half of each year travelling the world, examining music students for them. It’s a job I love and, while I miss the camaraderie I had with the ABRSM, there is no doubt in my mind that the Trinity syllabus and way of examining is much fairer to the individual student and so much more musically-orientated.

So, with the best part of 30 years examining under my belt (I also did an extended spell for the University of London and for a remarkably inept organisation called EdExcel), I reckon I must have administered somewhere in the region of 70,000 music exams to as many candidates in Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Botswana, China, England, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, The Maldives, Mozambique, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, The Seychelles, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Wales and Zimbabwe. That’s an awful lot of air miles to clock up, and when I was I on an interview panel for a prospective new examiner a few months ago, I sympathised with him when he responded to the obvious question “Why do you want to be a music examiner?” with the immediate reply, “I like to travel”. It’s not the answer we might have liked, but it’s a valid one. You can’t do the job unless you are prepared to spend a large chunk of your life on the road or in the air; and as all the income is derived from examination fees – which are pretty high by any standards – no matter how far that air journey is, nobody can justify it being in any class other than economy. You have to really like travel to accept that as a working condition.

But what is the right answer to give to that question? After all, apart from the travel, what is attractive about sitting for up to seven hours a day alone in a small, either stuffy or viciously air-conditioned room, hearing a succession of nervous children and even more terrified adults going through their over-prepared (usually) programme of three pieces and giving them their short, sharp and, in most cases, utterly unwelcome tests. They hate you for what you are putting them through, you are working to such a tight schedule that you don’t have any spare time to get them relaxed and, in any case, you cannot have any social interaction with them. After all, in the frenzied atmosphere of an examination room, even the most innocuous of questions can take on a sinister mien. “How old are you?” can be so easily misinterpreted; “My child failed because he didn’t know the answer the question which the examiner asked”, “My child lied about his age because he thought he would get a better mark by pretending he was younger than he was”, “Does the result depend on the candidate’s age?”. Even a simple thing like calling the candidate by name can lead to untold problems; “The examiner mispronounced my name and I was so worried that he thought I was someone else that I didn’t do well enough to pass”, “Why did the examiner call me Loke Yew when all my other teachers call me Lim?”, “The examiner called me Jenny. I hate that name and it made me so angry I couldn’t concentrate on my playing”.

So you’re not in it to meet people. Does it, therefore, offer up a stimulating musical experience for the examiner?

In a word, No. You hear the same pieces (and, certainly in the case of the ABRSM, pretty dire pieces at that) over and over again, often played with the same irritating mistakes and misconceptions as to composer’s intentions. Trinity used to have a dreadful piece in its syllabus by Benjamin Britten called “Moderato” which ,almost without exception, every student thought meant the same thing as “Prestissimo”. And if you think you can get some kick out of performing to a captive audience, think again. Yes, you have to play to the students, but only a few bars of drivel (Trinity syllabus) or a tantalizing snippet from something worthwhile (ABRSM) designed as an aural test. Which means you have to get it right first time round and cannot afford to make a single mistake. It’s surprising how difficult that is and how far-reaching the consequences are if you get it wrong; “I failed because the examiner didn’t play the piece the same way twice”, “He said he’d change the rhythm, but he changed the dynamic as well so I was confused and didn’t give the right answer”. There’s no pleasure in performing under those conditions.

So, apart from travel, what is there to like about being a music examiner? The money, as we all agree, is miserable; you earn more washing up in a hotel kitchen.

But ask any experienced music examiner and they will tell you that, cramped wrists from incessant long-hand writing (you can’t type it out on to a computer as that makes too much distracting noise), stiff joints from all that sitting, over-worked brains from all that mental arithmetic, jaundiced ears from all that listening apart, the job has so many benefits that they wouldn’t stop doing it for the world. Get them to list some of those benefits and the one thing they will invariably suggest is that there is a firm belief that somewhere among those 70,000-plus candidates there may have been one whom the examiner has encouraged to pursue a career. That will have given immeasurable satisfaction both to the individual and the hundreds of music lovers who will have heard that performer…and if that one in 70,000 hasn’t come along yet, it surely will one day, and that’s what keeps us going.

Another benefit most music examiners will describe is that, when all is said and done, it can be a lot of fun.

Fun? Music Exams? What planet are you on?

It’s awfully cruel to say it, but when people are as nervous as they are for music exams (and I have a theory which I won’t bore you with now as to why music exams are more terrifying than, say, a visit to the dentist or an interview with the tax inspector) they do the most ridiculous things. When two or three music examiners are gathered together, its quickly apparent that it is those humorous moments (nearly always at someone else’s expense) that keep us going. Occasionally you regale music teachers with examples, and they politely guffaw (music examiners are a bit like royalty; people feel they have to be nice to us) and say “You should write a book about it”. Of course any such book would be both incredibly boring to all but a tiny handful, and would, in any case, verge on the libellous; after all, the examination room is regarded by examiners as every bit as sacrosanct as the priest’s confessional or the doctor’s surgery; whatever goes on there should not be thrown into the public domain. But that hasn’t stopped some trying to publish their examiner anecdotes. My old colleague, Peter Stevenson, once sent a circular around ABRSM examiners for their stories so he could include them in a book of music examiner anecdotes. It came to nothing. But I did once write a series of radio talks which were broadcast during the intervals of live concert relays which went down quite well. Sadly, from my point of view, an incoming Director of Music Programming decided that humour and classical music should not mix and the plug was pulled.

Those talk scripts have been gathering dust over the decades, so I’m going to bring them out of the closet from time to time simply so that when another obsequious music teacher says “You should write a book about your experiences”, I can point them in the right direction. So here’s an edited – and updated – text of talk one (actually you’ve had quite a bit of it already). The title was “What Do You Want To Play?”

It’s easy if you play the piano. The examiner says “What are you going to play?” and you say “List A”, “List B” or, if your teacher is adventurous (and none of us examiners is under any misapprehension that the pieces have been chosen entirely by the teacher, irrespective of what the poor candidate wants to play – “You can’t play that piece, Jimmy, the examiner won’t like it!”) “List A one and two and List B 3”. Of course Trinity, being the Much Better Board, insists on full titles and composers for every instrument, but this discipline only kicks in with the ABRSM once you deviate from the path of piano (and you can’t help getting the impression they wish you wouldn’t). And here’s where the fun starts.

You quickly become adept at identifying composers from the vocal equivalent of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Bethanan = Beethoven, Moe’s Fart = Mozart, Buggeraller = Burgmuller… you get the idea. But you have to be pretty quick off the mark with some titles, especially where they are in a foreign tongue. Take this Newry trumpeter, born and bred in the Unionist ghettos of Co. Down and with an attitude towards the Pope which makes George W Bush and Osama bin Laden look like bosom buddies. Examiner: “What are you going to play, Billy?”. Billy: “The Yennertennmenothepowp”. Examiner: “Ah! Who’s that by?” Billy; “Er?” Examiner: “What-is-the-name-of-the-composer?” Billy “Er?” Examiner: “If you look on the page you will see a name on the top right hand of the page, just above the first line of music. What is it?” Billy: “37”. Examiner: “Er?” Billy: “Itsaisterdysen” (trans. “It says 37”). Examiner: “Ah. Look just underneath the page number and you will see a word. That’s the composer’s name. What is it?” Billy: “Shiteofshitty”. (trans. None available). At this point Examiner decides to break with protocol and get up from the desk to inspect the music. The curling page of photocopied music, with a nice imprint of a shoe, some evidence of it serving time in room where culinary experiments were carried out, and a large rubber stamp reading “Eastern Education and Library Board” across the first few bars of music, revealed both title and composer. The composer was Tchaikovsky and the title “Enterrement de la Poupée”.

Now before we go on, we might draw attention to a certain hierarchy of instruments practiced by the ABRSM. Piano first and foremost. Strings second. Voice third. With the very dregs of musical activity – the brass- way down at the bottom of the heap. So while lucky pianists know and love this piece as A3 and cellists and singers have the privilege of calling it the “Doll’s Funeral”, brass players – not normally renowned for their gift of languages – need to call it by the French title. Someone with a sense of humour clearly lives in the darkened room in which syllabuses are set.

Having thus ascertained that Billy is going to play Tchaikovsky’s “Enterrement de la Poupée”, Examiner foolishly decides that a certain educative input would not go amiss, and tells Billy “Ah yes, you’re going to play Tchaikovsky’s Enterrment de la Poupée”. Billy: “Yezised. The Yennertenmenothepowp” (trans. “Yes, that’s what I said [you stupid old Burgmuller], The Entertainment of the Pope”).

As Billy mournfully trudged through this sorrowful and morose piece of Tchaikovskian self-indulgence, Examiner stuffs hankies in mouth before collapsing in a heap on the floor. Does our Billy really imagine His Holiness dancing around his gold-encrusted Vatican saloon to this dirge? He probably does. Full marks that boy, Tchaikovsky’s “Doll’s Funeral” will never sound the same again, nor will one be able to look at the Pope without smothering a smirk.


The DFP Organ Resurfaces

After a year’s silence, the Organ Recitals at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Kuala Lumpur are back. The first one kicks off at 11.30 on Sunday morning the 19th September, and will be an intriguing mix of standard classics (there’s the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor) alongside some way out pieces (there’s some George Shearing as well as Zsolt Gárdonyi’s wonderful jazz take on Mozart). It’ll be fun, lasts about 40 minutes and is an informal concert – which means you can bring hosts of screaming children and not dress up. If you are worried about distracting the serious concert-goers, don’t. It’s free, so nobody can complain that they’ve wasted their money, and it’s not designed to be serious. The full programme is up on the MPO website.

So why a year without any organ recitals at DFP? There is a whole host of reasons why, and it seems only right to lay it all out here by way, not only of an explanation, but as an apology to all those loyal and enthusiastic Malaysian organ fans who have been starved of their fix. There have been three basic reasons.

First, the organ, now in place for a dozen years, has been letting us down with increasing frequency; as, indeed, any machine has a right to do when it goes on for years without proper servicing. True, we have a phenomenal and dedicated technician in Tan Eng Pin, who has, without any prior experience, single-handedly kept the instrument in tune and working over its first decade of life. But there comes a time in any machine’s life when it needs something a little more than TLC, and with so large and complex a machine as the KL Klais, we really need something in the way of a full technical and tonal overhaul, and that can only come from a professional team of organ builders.

Secondly, I have become increasingly disenchanted with the instrument, which was never really designed as a concert hall organ and requires astonishing feats of imagination and inventiveness just to get it to produce an acceptable sound in much repertoire. When you spend your professional life working with a flawed instrument you begin to tire of the effort involved, and while I, like any other musician, have a love-hate relationship with my instrument, I have to say that during 2008, the love died. I was simply hating the instrument and, if you hate something, how can you justify expecting an audience to listen to it? Musicians are transparent when it comes to the stage, and if a player isn’t happy, audiences quickly pick up on it. I think you were best off without me!

Thirdly, support from the management fell away during the 2008 season to the extent that I felt I was continually hitting my head against a brick wall. Artistically, there was absolutely nothing on offer; in fact, there were very strong obstacles being placed in the organ’s path. The organ chamber recitals had long ago been ruled out by successive artistic managers who made it virtually impossible for MPO musicians to participate in these concerts (one deliberately programmed other events against planned recitals), and my determination not to have the organ put into a ghetto, but to bring it alongside other instruments in the mainstream chamber series, was universally thwarted by those whose job it was to oversee the artistic management of the hall. Assistance from DFP management had not been much better. Requests to invite visiting organists of repute were met, as was continued appeals for a meeting to discuss plans for overhauling the organ itself, with total indifference.

So what’s changed?

In the case of nos 1 and 2, nothing. The organ is still decrepit and being held together by string and glue applied by the redoubtable Tan – its one airing in the 2009-10 series marked by yet another system failure. Tonally it’s as impractical and valueless as before, with its lack of proper bass pipes, its hideously ill-voiced reeds and its eccentric preponderance of soulless string tone over nice chunky German flutes making it as impossible as always to register. Nevertheless it is an instrument which I know intimately and, to be frank, I’ve missed playing it and enjoying the intellectual challenge of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

In the case of no.3, signs are more hopeful. All the top management both artistic and administrative has changed, and while the MPO GM confesses to total indifference to the organ and the CEO is unwilling to commit to outlay on the organ, they do have the advantage of being both supportive and dedicated, and even if they do nothing, one feels an obligation to repay support and dedication.

On top of that the organ is, for the first time for two seasons, slated to be used in a number of MPO concerts, so it’s important to get it used as much as possible so that faults develop, if possible, before rather than during public concerts. I’m working on an Organ Page on the MPO website which will give details of concerts in which the organ is involved, as well as programmes and timings for the free recitals. On top of that, I’ll be getting the web man to add details of the specification and design for those who are interested in such things, and from now on, a copy of the specification will be available to those who attend the recitals. I’m also toying with the idea of listing my registrations up on the site, as I know this interests quite a lot of people. Most importantly, I’m keen to have as much input from audiences as possible – we need to try a different tack if we are to keep organ music alive and kicking in Malaysia – and if we can collectively persuade the powers-that-be that the organ is a valuable artistic (and not just visual) asset to DFP, that should help resolve issues 1 and 2.

And now for some history about the organ, which might explain why this situation has come about and why, to all outward appearances, the DFP people are throwing away a valuable asset. I was involved in the creation of the DFP almost from the very start. I remember when being shown some of the first design sketches for the interior of the auditorium that an organ was drawn in. This, I was informed, was artistic licence, there was no intention of adding an organ to a hall of such size and, moreover, it was not felt that there would be any public acceptance of an instrument perceived by many to be the preserve of the Christian church. When, sometime later, I was told that an organ was to be installed and, more than that, that the instrument itself had already been ordered, I was advised that it’s prime purpose would be for visual stimulation rather than to play an integral role in the artistic life of the hall. For this reason, no professional organ consultant was brought into advise, and the choice of builder, design and specification was entrusted to a lady whose main qualification for the job seemed to be that she lived fairly close (in Singapore) and played the organ in a church there. You only have to look at the specification she drew up to know that concert hall organ design was not her thing, and when word of it got around the organ community there was horror with more than one person ringing me up from the USA or Europe urging me to intervene. At that point, my involvement had nothing whatsoever to do with the organ, and I was not in any position to say or do anything. More than that, quite a lot of what I learned and was told was –and remains – confidential, so not only was I not allowed to pass on my concerns, but I wasn’t even able to acknowledge that I had any!

So the organ appeared and was opened by Simon Preston in a concert with the MPO. Even at that stage, it was obvious that it was inadequate to sit with the orchestra and was unsuited to solo work. However, in the first season a series of organ recitals was planned with star organists from the UK and elsewhere playing the standard repertoire you get in organ recitals in Europe and America. These proved to be a pretty dismal failure; at a time when the hall was enjoying 100% audiences as the norm, the 40% or less which came to recitals (and we saw the figures dropping dramatically) were unacceptable, and these guest recitals were quietly dropped over the succeeding seasons. At that point, with such a valuable musical resource apparently left to wither on the vine, I suggested I might apply to be organ curator, and put forward a case for a job which nobody had ever considered in the first place. That’s how I came to have this rather odd combination of being the man who writes everything for the concert programmes and advises on musical matters to various departments, and, at the same time, is the Resident Organist.

From the start, I decided to approach the use of the organ in an entirely new way. Realising that we couldn’t possibly cater to an audience with traditional organ music, I marketed the organ as a machine, as the biggest musical instrument in Malaysia and as something which could both whisper and thunder. In that, l was taking the organ back to its early days in Arabia where it’s original function was merely as a box of musical and sound tricks. It seemed appropriate, not least since in the early days of Islam the organ was seen as a symbol of great wealth (rather as a Mercedes Benz is seen today); I couldn’t resist the parallel with an oil company in an Islamic country also flaunting its great wealth. Such marketing worked more than we could ever have imagined, the first recital seeing people actually turned away at the door and others also finding the hall full to capacity. We attracted an audience from far and wide, one famous Hollywood actor making a point to stop off and hear a recital when he was filming in a nearby country. More than that, the children came pouring in and developed a great interest in the machine, and a couple of fantastic family fun days and children’s concerts sealed the place of the organ in the Malaysian musical psyche. On top of that there was the organ chamber series in which I unearthed a huge range of hitherto unexplored repertoire involving organ with various orchestral instruments, which attracted interest from around the world (including at least two unsolicited new scores), and, the icing on the cake, the Discovery Channel documentary in which my star pupil, Leonard Selva from Penang, gave a wonderful presentation about the organ and its background.

Unfortunately, a change in management and artistic direction rather put a stop to the advances we made. Well-intentioned moves to formalise what were essentially informal concerts, and to promote the organ once more in its discredited European way (with solo recitals featuring Buxtehude, Langlais, Franck and other dullards) saw audiences slump and, just at the time when we were needing to inject some funds into the instrument, it was made clear that the interest in the organ was insignificant and couldn’t justify any further expenditure.

So that’s what happened in KL. Let’s hope we can put the clock back with this new series of free recitals, and get the organ back into its rightful place as the fun centre of activities in the hall.


An Asian Slant

The Nation, one of Thailand’s English-language newspapers, ran a review of the Mahler 3 performance which took place in Bangkok recently. It contained the curious assertion that the use of a male voice to sing the solo usually ascribed to a female gave the event a uniquely Thai slant, the idea being that the Thais have a particular fondness for cross-gender; after all, this is the land of the lady-boy. The review was written by a Canadian music critic passing through Bangkok, so perhaps it seemed from his angle a clever observation to make and he didn’t really think through the somewhat offensive way the comment could be read. But there was a hint – no more than that – that the comment had actually been made by the Thai conductor, in which case such a decision has rather more serious implications.

I’ve noticed a tendency for Asian orchestras to try and find some “local” slant to the performance of western works. I remember years ago the MPO performing a piece by the Belgian Flor Peeters in which the Latin text was replaced by one in Malay. It seemed quite a good idea at the time, but I realised that if anyone had actually heard the words – which I doubt since the organ, brass and drums were all going away at it like the clappers, drowning out the poor choir – they might have found it all vaguely ridiculous and, possibly, an affront to Malaysian sensitivities. Then there was the infamous attempt by the SSO to sing Mahler’s Lied eines fahren gesallen in Cantonese; a performance which showed pretty conclusively that Mahler knew exactly what he was doing when he set his texts in German. (Remarkably, BIS even recorded the performance and, if you want, you can hear what a nonsense it all is by buying the disc.)

The only successful “Asianisation” of a western masterpiece (and put that phrase in your pipe and smoke it) is in opera. Back in 1997 the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts staged Così fan Tutte in a performance which cleverly reflected the Hong Kong of the time, complete with handover celebrations as the place reverted to Chinese rule.

I wonder why there is perceived to be a need to do this sort of thing. I can, perhaps, see the point in opera when to set it in a context rather more familiar to the audience can help the appreciation of the plot, but with abstract music, does such “localisation” serve any purpose? Perhaps it even does some damage in that, as with the Thai male alto (I know that’s tautology, but few even in the musical world are aware of it), it alters the composer’s vision for the work. It may alter it for the better – as our Canadian critic seemed to suggest – but it alters it all the same, and I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.

There’s a hoary old cliché about music being an “international language”. Like all hoary old clichés it’s got a grain of truth about it, and certainly it should rise above national interests to the extent that it can be appreciated away from its home turf. Elgar, the quintessence of Edwardian England, works quite nicely in Singapore, Malaysia and even non-former-colonial Thailand, without the need to “Asian” it up. Shostakovich goes down a bomb with Australians for whom the Communist Party to which he subscribed (despite the best endeavours of his apologists to deny this truth) is an anathema, and they don’t see the need for a conductor wearing corks round his dry-as-a-bone to prove that this is non-Commie Oz. Even in drug and sex crazed Amsterdam, I’ve never seen The Seasons performed by a coke-sniffing tart (although, come to think of it, it has come pretty close at times).

It shouldn’t be such a novelty that, here in south east Asia, we can do western classical music just as well as the Europeans. We certainly shouldn’t try to disguise the fact. The MPO could wipe the floor with most European and American orchestras, while both the SSO and HKPO equal, sometimes better, a great many of them. The Siam Philharmonic – a scratch body created just for the Bangkok Mahler 3 – might not be in the same league, but they don’t have to resort to gimmicks to be taken seriously. I hope the Canadian critic was just having fun with a natty nuance – I certainly wish I’d thought of it – but it does have a serious side. Asian orchestras must not slip into the habit of belittling their efforts in performing core western repertoire because of a wholly incorrect belief that they can never do it quite so well as the Europeans; if anything, an awful lot of them do it better.


A Sad Day for Music

What a sad figure I’ve become in my late middle age! Here I am on my own in Bangkok, and on a Saturday night I can think of nothing better to do than settle down in my apartment and watch the television. I’m a self-confessed news junkie and could normally sit in front of BBC World News all night long, watching it chase its tail as the same old stories go round and round with little or no embellishment. But after a hard day’s examining piano candidates, I don’t feel quite in the mood for any more reality. My heart still bleeds for those 300 or so desperate souls lost in the Pakistan floods, not to mention the thousands of ruined lives by the horrendous China oil spill, but I hope they will accept that, just for one evening, I’d like my mind to be transported elsewhere. So it’s time to flick through the non-news channels. Movies (five channels) present an uninterrupted and indigestible diet of gun-toting Yanks making up for their lack of brains by shooting out those of others in graphic detail. Not for me, I want escapism, but not of the totally brain-dead variety. Entertainment channels? One is yet another programme about sharks biting people (what’s this obsession with blood and gore?) while on anther channel two hirsute American yobs abuse each other while doing something unmentionable with motorbikes. Nothing there to entertain me. Back home my two-year-old daughter monopolises the television with CeeBeeBees, JimJam and Playhouse Disney, so I can live without that for a while. So it has to be sport. Acquaintances of mine who know about such things tell me the World Cup has, at long last, come to an end, so there’s a hope I may find a sports’ channel not showing football. And on my fourth touch of the remote control I strike lucky. ESPN (what does that stand for?) are showing what appears to be a feed from a CCTV camera where some kind of athletics meet is about to take place. There’s a grainy image from a fixed camera set as far back from the field as possible showing all sorts of people milling around and a soundtrack (presumably also taken from the CCTV feed) in which weak strains of a sort-of brass band seems to be rehearsing something. I’m not a particular enthusiast of athletics, but suddenly I realise this is a field in Malaysia (you can always tell it’s Malaysia because of the saturation adverts for American fast food companies – the only other countries where everything is covered with MacDonald’s, Burger King and KFC posters are in west Africa, and I can tell this is not one of those) and I’m keen to see what it’s all about.

It becomes almost hypnotic. This same fixed camera and distant sound track stays for five, maybe ten minutes. No commentary, no banner to suggest what it is ESPN are about to show us. It is intensely boring, but curiosity gets the better of me (and anyway, it’s far more entertaining than football) and I stick to it. Eventually – and I’m absolutely sure this is what happens – someone holds up a card in front of the camera which is then, slowly, re-focussed, and I see a close up of Colonel Sanders and his Kentucky Fried Chicken, which gradually slides to the side to make room for the immortal legend “KFC Malaysia World Band Championships”. Horror of horrors! This isn’t coverage of a sporting event but of a musical one! I’ve railed against parents and especially school principals who treat music as a competitive sport rather than an intellectual pursuit for years, but I never in my wildest dreams thought it would ever come to this. Here is a respected sports’ broadcaster actually dedicating prime time on a Saturday to a band contest. It should, for the sake of my blood pressure, immediately get me switching over to those Pakistani corpses floating by or those Chinese fishermen suffocating in the sludge, but it doesn’t. Like Frodo to Shelob, I am inexorably drawn into the clutches of something which I know instinctively will be evil beyond endurance. And so it turns out to be.

The CCTV quality of the telecast remains, but it is enhanced (if that’s not too strong a word) by a roving camera down on the field, which shows plenty of close ups of sweaty young people moving aimlessly about, some holding brass instruments at impossible angles, some throwing batons high in the air and then – clever camera work this – seeing them drop on the ground some distance away, and a number of officious track-suited bods rushing hither and thither continually talking into the microphones attached to their earpieces (these, I learn later are the “judges”, but what they can possible be judging when they are so busy talking to someone on the phone, escapes me). There’s a commentator who comes to life only after each commercial break and is clearly totally out of his depth both with the nature of the event and the country in which it’s being held (his reference to a “low sitar” having nothing, I eventually surmise, to do with Ravi Shankar, but everything to do with the town of Alor Setar). The game is given away at the very end when the awards are handed out and the public MC thanks ESPN for their live telecast “to 300 million people around the world”. (I don’t know who’s to blame here, ESPN for such an outrageous lie or the MC for actually believing it.) I imagine KFC have paid a handsome packet to ESPN for this very long promotional show (after all, the KFC logo and name appeared on every single shot and in every single speech), while ESPN have trousered their whack and put minimal resources into the actual show, giving the telecast such an appallingly amateurish flavour that anyone chancing on it will think that all this music nonsense is just so much rubbish and they will give it a miss in the future.

But all that’s by the by, as they say; if ESPN and KFC want to pally up to each other, let them. What disturbs me profoundly is the whole concept of what we saw. For a start, the World Band bit seemed extreme, to put it mildly. The bands I saw all came from either Indonesia and Malaysia; true, a South African gent did wave his arms around in response to a naïve question from the commentator, but he was obviously a Cape Malay, and was only an audience member anyway. I know a lot of people in Malaysia and Indonesia don’t acknowledge the existence of any other country, but even they would surely baulk at the “World” tag when it involved just two neighbouring states. Then, it seemed this was an event dominated by Muslim youths, which made it doubly odd that most bands seemed to have an American Christian hymn in their repertoire (all those I saw played the “Shaker Hymn” as well as various other excerpts from Copland’s Appalachian Spring). The music, however, wasn’t really audible via ESPN’s feed, and if the bands were any good or not, I have no way of telling.

But this was in no way anything to do with music, no matter what the authorities would have us believe. The musical instruments were there merely to fulfil the same function as a python in a striptease routine; an exotic prop, ultimately discarded. Dressed in the most curious of uniforms – lurid colours, flouncy trousers, enormous shiny epaulettes, young boys wearing vast feather headdresses, one band wearing bowler hats like so many misguided Orangemen (is there any other kind of Orangeman?) – these bands strutted and pranced around the field, running backwards with their instruments held in the air, jumping up and down with their instruments between their legs and, in short, doing just about anything but play them. What distant strains of music did reach the single microphone seemed to indicate that intonation was not part of the scheme of things, and tuning largely an irrelevance. I’ve seen marching bands in the US, Ireland and Norway – not to mention the great champions of them all, the British army – and very impressive they have been with their tightly choreographed movements and outstanding musical synchronicity. This had nothing to do with marching bands: Prancing bands seems a better description, it being more in the manner of a cross between a down-market Rio Carnival and a Gay Pride rally through the slums of a provincial Indian town.

What it was all about defies me, and I hope this comment will have caused enough offence amongst those whose children follow this curiously unhealthy pursuit, to get them to write in so I have some way of knowing what it is all supposed to be about. Obviously there’s big money in it – US$10,000 going to the winning team from a school in Balikpapan (funnily enough I was there recently trying to persuade them to do Trinity music exams and coming away with the impression that this was a very musical town) – but from where I stand, there is a very grave danger that some people may well see this as a musical event, in which case it will have done irreparable harm. On television it came across as ludicrously amateurish, and it seems designed to expunge any brainwork from music as a cultural pursuit – after all with music you have to listen and think, but when you’ve got lots of outrageous costumes and plenty of pointless movement, you don’t have to bother with the thinking bit any more. There was even an inane slogan, “Re-invigorating the Colour of Music”, or some such piffle. But the real worry is that this is the kind of thing schools promote because it gives them some musical legitimacy; It would be a very sad day for music indeed if this was so.

August 2010