Archive for November, 2010


Live vs Recorded Music

There is an animated funny doing the rounds on the internet at the moment in which a musician booked for a wedding is confronted by a Wedding Organizer.  As a large musical instrument is manhandled into the venue, the Wedding Organizer complains to the musician; “This music looks too loud!”.  The musician replies; “Music is something you judge by hearing, not looking”.

A clever little quip but sadly out of touch with reality. 

It was the music video (and surely that’s an oxymoron if ever there was) which finally killed off live performances of pop music; when the attraction is more the heavily edited and produced visuals than the music itself, a live performance is only ever going to be a pale shadow.  Even the terminology of pop fans reflects this; “Have you seen xxxx on YouTube?”, rather than “Have you listened to xxxx?”. But, there again, from its origins in the 1920s as short musical lollipops designed to fit on to a single side of a 78 rpm record, pop music has always been intended primarily for consumption on record, and one only needs to attend a “live” show and see the banks of speakers, theatrical paraphernalia and vast electronic gadgetry – not to mention the performers’ obligatory cheek microphones, like so many miniature face-tattoos, which have no connection to any method of amplification – to realise that the intention is to recreate as closely as possible the recording, even down to the performers miming to it.

Classical music, on the other hand, has always been designed for live consumption and although the advent of the record has opened up the world of this great art to vast audiences who would never otherwise have heard it live, one must never forget that even the most brilliant of recordings can only be a poor relation to a live performance.  I have often held up to ridicule the loony Malaysian “critic” who compared (unfavourably) a live performance of the MPO performing some work or other with a studio recording of Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic – I liken it to comparing the handling of a Perodua Kancil with an Airbus A380; they both set out to do something totally different but they do have in common the aim of moving people from one place to another.  He was not a unique basketcase, and too many so-called music-lovers believe music exists only on disc.

Of course, CDs (or any other type of recording) do provide hours of listening pleasure to us, and our lives would be infinitely the poorer without them.  In my case recordings have opened up whole vistas of musical repertoire I could never have hoped to hear live.  For example, I am a passionate admirer of Stanford’s symphonies, yet I’ve never heard any of them performed live.  My recordings are tantalizing, but until I hear a live performance I will never be entirely sure whether or not these are, as I strongly suspect, some of the greatest British symphonies of all time.  No matter how strong the temptation to regard recorded music as the ultimate musical experience, we must always recognise that it is only a substitute for the real thing, and when the opportunity to attend a live performance comes along, we must grab it with both hands. 

Why?  It comes down to my stock answer when asked if I have heard a certain piece of music.  If, like the Stanford, I only know it through a CD, I reply; “I’ve heard a recording, but I’ve never listened to it live”.  The crucial thing there are the verbs hear and listen – the former implies a passive activity, the latter an active one.  When you hear a recording, it’s there and you need do nothing about it.  In fact, even as a professional CD-listener, I readily confess to being distracted while CDs are playing.  I set the thing spinning with all good intentions, then the Call of the Coffee is heard or the Pull of the Phone, and my mind wanders.  Those distractions do not (or at least should not) enter the concert hall where the environment is carefully crafted to ensure full active concentration on the music.  Only when you concentrate exclusively on the music do you really listen to it.  It’s so easy to take Karajan and his Berlin Phil out of the jewel case and relish the sound while you go about your daily chores, but it takes a superhuman effort actually to listen to music on disc, and I suspect very few do.

Recently, however, I’ve come across a composer who has thus far written exclusively for recordings but is now setting out to promote it in live performances.  For some time now I’ve been aware of the Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi, who celebrates his 60th birthday this year.  I was aware that he wrote film music, primarily for Japanese animated movies (a genre which doesn’t really impinge on my consciousness), and that his audio-recorded soundtracks for these movies have developed something of a cult following.  Indeed, I am increasingly being asked what I think of his music.  The answer has always been, and still is, nothing.  I’ve never heard it (to my knowledge) nor yet sought it out, but when the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra notified me that they were to devote an entire concert to his music I decided to delve further.  I was actually on the point of rooting out a CD when the HKPO told me that he had decided to write his own notes for the concert and that I would just be required to edit them into readable English.  The notes duly arrived.

An essential function of writing programme notes is that the writer makes the reader WANT to listen to the music.  I try to do this even with Chopin, whose every note I find execrable, but when a composer describes his own music as “pleasant”, “delightful” and “magnificent”, I switch off, assuming that such words are an attempt to instil preconceptions into listeners’ minds and prevent them forming their own independent opinions.  However, I realised that Hisaishi had written his notes in Japanese and the translator may have added a gloss to it or, more likely, failed to translate what would be perfectly normal Japanese idioms into English equivalents.  All the same, I left it as it was and, I have to say, were it not for the very fervent advocacy for his music from some quarters, I might have done the same to his music.

But, while my ears are precious and I don’t like them being polluted by the force-fed noise which is what so much music designed to be heard on record rather than live is all about, Hisaishi has clearly decided that his music deserves the legitimacy of a live performance and, as such, deserves being listened to.  I won’t be running out to buy the discs before I hear the music live, but when I’ve attended the HKPO concert on 8th or 9th December (follow the HKPO link to book your own tickets) and if I do like what I hear, I will certainly buy the discs to remind me of how the music sounded live.  Surely, that’s the best way to approach listening to music on record.


My Favourite Composer

Conservatories and other music finishing schools are pretty good at putting the final polish on a musician’s skills as a performer, but they miss out on some vital aspects of training for a life in music which otherwise take decades to learn.  They don’t generally seem to teach students how to present themselves on paper – either in writing their biographies or explaining their programmes – and they don’t teach them how to present themselves on stage – stage etiquette is sadly lacking from nearly every young graduate from a music school.  But the most important lesson that they don’t teach is simply how to cope in a society where the concept of a classical musician is alien.

There have been some comments coming into this blog from frustrated Malaysian musicians who feel society is against them.  Parents, they believe, do not see music as a serious profession, schools do not encourage students to promote their musical talents and Malaysian society, from the top to the bottom, has now become so arch-conservative that any hint of anything which is not religiously or culturally rooted in the soil of the country (a soil, one hastens to add, which the country’s leaders are only too happy to destroy in the name of commercial progress) is, by definition, alien and therefore wrong.  Few in the wider artistic community who look at Malaysia today can fail to recognise a certain intellectual regression which, as a recent TV documentary so vividly revealed, means that the only Malaysian artist who ever attracted any measure of international acclaim – namely P Ramlee – would stand no chance of emerging from today’s hidebound cultural mores.  But it’s not just Malaysian society which fails to recognise the value of a classically-trained musician, and a bit of proper training at college or university would certainly prepare young musicians to cope with the sort of things we meet in everyday life.

Here’s a typical situation; this one happened to me on a flight in southern Africa when, against my better judgement, I accepted the overtures from the person sitting next to me and thereby allowed a conversation to open up.  He was, he proudly told me, a diamond merchant and was making a fortune out of Africa; clearly a man for whom large amounts of cash, obtained at whatever price in other’s suffering, presented the total horizons of his existence. A man of shallow ethics, negligible morals and totally non-existent artistic sensitivities; in short, a typical businessman in today’s money-obsessed society.  Of course, the inevitable happened and I was asked what I did.  Now, I’ve been a musician for 50 years and I still dread the question.  Here’s how the conversation progressed.

“I’m a musician”.

“Hey that’s great!  What instrument do you play?”

“Er.  The piano” (I don’t, but say you play the organ to anyone and they think you are a sex fiend.)

“Hey that’s great!  You in any group I’ve heard of?”

“I don’t actually play in a group.  I’m a classical musician.”

“Hey that’s great!  Kinda like Beyonce?”

“No.  Not a bit.  More like Mozart and Beethoven.”

“Hey that’s weird!  I don’t know about that other guy, but I’ve heard of Mozart! You mean you actually dig that old-fashioned stuff?”

“No, I play it”

“Weird.  You’re joking aren’t you?”


“Do guys ever listen to that anymore?”


“So, what’s your favourite composer?”

“Excuse me, I’ve really got to use the toilet.”

It’s that last question that gets me every time.  If they don’t know who Beethoven is, what’s the point of taking this any further?  Yet it is asked of everyone who shows any inkling of an interest in classical music.  I was at an awards ceremony in Penang last week and overheard one of the audience asking a child who had won an award what her favourite composer was.  To the child’s eternal glory she replied, quick as a flash, Bartók, which clearly flummoxed the woman who was probably expecting Mozart since wasn’t he, too, a young kid who did well in music?  I remember when I was first asked the question.  I was four and a Great Aunt of noble birth peered at me distastefully through her pince-nez and asked me imperiously who was my favourite composer.  My answer was Purcell; based on the fact that my favourite pastime was putting my collection of matchbox cars on a 78 record with the legend “TRUMPET VOLUNTARY – PURCELL” on the blue label, and then watching as the needle arm swept them off.  (Clearly presaging my move in later life to Malaysia where musical performance takes very much a back seat to the apparently culturally acceptable pastime of carnage on the road.)

Ironically, of course, while Purcell was the only composer of whom I had heard at the age of four, the Trumpet Voluntary was by Jeremiah Clarke, but by the time I learnt this, I had discovered the Voluntary on the Old Hundredth and Dido and Aeneas – genuine Purcell – so I hadn’t actually lied to Great Aunt.  Jeremiah Clarke, interestingly, never featured on my list of favourite composers.  The next time the question came up, I had just started piano lessons (I was five), and my answer then was Grieg.  My teacher had taken me to a children’s concert in the Festival Hall and Moura Lympany had played (what else?) Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  I’d loved it, and had demanded to learn it at my next lesson (I was fobbed off with some other Grieg, but had enjoyed that too.)  Indeed, I liked Grieg right up to my university days when my lecturer advised me, in no uncertain terms, that “Grieg could not compose”.

Over the years my answers to the inevitable equation have included, incredibly, Vaughan Williams (at nine I had enjoyed the Wasps Overture – unaware that just about everything else was unmitigated crap), Rachmaninov, Percy Grainger, Wagner, Lutosławski (after my first and unforgettable encounter with the Paganini Variations – the only work during a performance of which I’ve actually fallen off my seat in sheer excitement) and Messiaen, and it was only after I’d left university and was out on my own as a musician that I summed up the courage to say that I didn’t have a favourite composer and that all of them – with the exceptions of Chopin and Liszt, my two bêtes noirs – were worth listening to. 

Only in the last decade or so, enriched with decades of experience in the field, have I found out at last how to respond to that dreaded question.  I always enthuse over Wolfgang Dasistein-Grossescheidt (1890-1964), a totally fictitious name (I hope) and so unexpected that the questioner either pretends to know about him, say “An interesting choice” and then change the subject so that their ignorance is not exposed, or asks you all about him, giving you the chance to spend the next hour indulging in a fantasy of fabrications and imaginary detail which prevents any likelihood of further conversation with your unenlightened questioner.

It took me half a lifetime to learn that skill; surely that’s the sort of thing they should be teaching students at music conservatoires.


A Bought Orchestra?

Blogs – and this one is no exception – are not for those in search of reliable facts, incontrovertible truths or balanced arguments. Responsible bloggers (and I hope I’m one) do try to check their facts, write responsibly and be as accurate as they can while expressing opinions which are entirely and singularly personal. But, without the filters of sub-editors, editors, legal advisers (a body of people to whom much of my copy seems to have been sent in the past) and, most especially, a critically-alert and educated readership which is part and parcel of writing for the print (and broadcast) media, a blog can never be quite so reliable. Decades of working as a journalist, writer and broadcast script-writer have made the double-checking of facts and careful balancing of arguments second nature, and although the freedom of the blog allows me to say things I would never commit to the discipline of print, I hope I keep a certain standard of decency and accuracy in what I write. I don’t expect it of all the others out there, but I do expect from certain quarters, so when I was directed to a blog from the Daily Telegraph I assumed I’d find truth, accuracy and decency, even if I also found a strong personal opinion.

(For the benefit of the vast majority in south east Asia who live in ignorance of such matters, I should here explain why the Daily Telegraph would lead me to expect high standards. Interviewed on television recently the actor Harrison Ford said of American breakfast television news that “you can always find a news programme telling you what you want to hear”. The British press is much the same. There are numerous different daily papers each offering up the same news but slanting their reporting and their comments in a myriad ways to cater for most levels of political acuity, cultural background, social standing and intelligence. There are broadsheets (offering expansive and detailed writing), tabloids (punchy and dealing primarily in headlines) and the ones in the middle (I forget what these are called, but titles like The Guardian take this form), there are those assuming a predilection amongst the readership for liberal thought, for firm adherence to the establishment ideas and for those who like to see naked and buxom flesh intertwined with headlines.  In short, British newspapers provide news in just about any coating you want.)

Amongst the UK press, the Daily Telegraph has long been my paper of choice. I don’t side totally with its politics, but I am more in tune with its opinions than any others, I relish the broadsheet layout and I adore its focus on literate and educated writing. I assumed those standards percolated through to its bloggers. So I was amazed to read in one Daily Telegraph blog something which, while neither inaccurate nor dishonest, struck me as at the very least disingenuous.

Writing about the Singapore Symphony’s recent tour of London, the blog (by Damian Thompson) included this amazing pair of sentences; “I suggest that the SSO under its Chinese-born maestro Lan Shui could become one of the great orchestras of the 21st century. To be fair, so could its regional rival, the Malaysian Philharmonic – but the latter was bought rather than grown, if you get my drift.” Yes, Mr Thompson, I get your drift, and it’s wildly, wildly off course.

We’ll come to the astonishing claim about the SSO in a moment, but what shocked me was that bit about the MPO being bought, and the obvious insinuation that, because of this, the orchestra’s musical worth is diminished. What bloody rot! What professional orchestra has not been bought? Do the musicians of the SSO pay their own way? Do the Berlin Phil, the Vienna Phil, the New York Phil, the LSO, the LPO, the BBCSO play for free? Of course they don’t. Every professional orchestra comprises players who have been bought, in the sense that someone has given money to pay their fees/salaries. It might be an airline, it might be a broadcaster, it might be a national government, it might be an imprisoned Canadian fraudster or weirdly reclusive twin-brothers (sorry to bring up old sores, Mr Thompson), or it might be an oil company. Sorry to disabuse the Daily Telegraph blogging community, but orchestral musicians don’t do it for love, they do it for money and very few of them really care where it comes from.

The insinuation is obviously that the MPO is somehow a fraudulent orchestra; its players don’t come from Malaysia and have only been enticed to Malaysia by vast sums of petro-dollars. But aren’t English football clubs the same? Are there any Mancunians in Manchester United, west-Londoners in Chelsea or cockneys in West Ham (I don’t think there are any English either, but I don’t follow football and care so little about it I can’t be bothered to check my facts), so why adopt a different standard when it comes to orchestras? If Manchester benefits by having a gum-chewing Scot and 12 foreigners earning vast sums of cash running about on its ground once or twice a week, surely you can’t begrudge the benefits that befall Kuala Lumpur from having a coffee-drinking German and 100 foreigners playing on its stage five or six times a week, each earning a fraction of what a single Manchester United player does.

There is also the suggestion that, while the SSO has “grown” to achieve the level of excellence Damian Thompson observed in it, the MPO was born great, which further devalues its current claim to greatness. Many who are born great have to work hard to live up to expectations, whilst those who achieve greatness have none of that kind of pressure on them. That the MPO has managed to stay a great orchestra even after some of the appalling things it’s been through (periods of bad management, unfortunate personnel choices, problems with Music Directors, not to mention political and community opposition) surely only legitimises the initial greatness which Kees Bakels created with a bit of help from Malaysia’s off-shore oil reserves.

Damien Thompson attended the SSO concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall last month and was clearly impressed. So, I am pleased to say, were most of the London critical fraternity. I was supposed to be there but, at the last minute, family issues kept me away. However, long conversations with colleagues in London who did attend attest to the fact that the SSO clearly raised its game.  Most I spoke to would never go so far as to suggest it was one of the world’s potential great orchestras, but clearly the SSO has it in it to do rather better than its Singapore norm. 

Once an orchestra can be great in the eyes of its domestic audience – as the MPO undoubtedly is concert after concert – it is well on its way to being a great orchestra in the eyes of the world.  But let’s not forget that greatness comes with a price, and to achieve greatness at home and abroad does mean your players, in effect, need to be bought.  And that’s a truth no blogger can deny.


The Future of Classical Music?

Three very different things that cropped up recently have caused me to ponder over the future of music. The first came from the Hong Kong Philharmonic who wanted notes to support a concert they were doing for students highlighting the different periods of musical history. I’ve been growing increasingly sceptical of the value of dividing music up into historical periods. True, it makes sense to find stylistic similarities between composers who lived roughly at the same time, but it can prove a damaging distraction. I’ve lost count of the students who, lumping Domenico Scarlatti, J S Bach and Purcell together as “Baroque” composers, think they are stylistically the same. In fact, Bach is probably closer to Brahms than he is to either Purcell or Scarlatti, but slavish adherence to the clear division of historical periods prevents them from recognising this.

That said, there are certain very loose connections which link music written at certain periods, and we can define those periods quite easily. Baroque, for example, began when Monteverdi started writing his operas around 1600 and finished when Bach died in 1750. Classical, too, ran its course until Weber started getting all Romantic in the early 1820s. But then we run into difficulties. Music theory books, still the common currency amongst those who follow the English musical education system, all seem to date from the 1930s when the Second Viennese School was all the rage, and so they conveniently end the Romantic era in 1900 and call everything that has come after “Twentieth Century”. That doesn’t hold water any more, and only those who never listen to music would still accept there is a definable period we can call “Twentieth Century”. Does anyone really feel there is any validity in linking Debussy, Elgar, Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss with Birtwistle, Boulez, Messiaen and Cage? For the HKPO, which was representing the “Modern era” with a Shostakovich symphony, I wrote of the First World War having shattered both society and music into thousands of fragments from which society has only recently recovered and music is still in the process of recovering. This makes it possible to define the Romantic era as ending and the Modern era as starting with the end of the First World War (1918); which is also, conveniently, the date of Debussy’s death – who I would argue was an unequivocally Romantic composer – and the end of Rachmaninov’s real career as a composer (what he wrote in America after 1918 is really only a nostalgia for a long-lost age). It also helps explain why music written since 1918 does not possess those common stylistic traits which so handily link the music of previous eras. 1918 appears a particularly specific date, but it does seem the most logical, and allows for the later works of the Second Viennese School as well as the music of both Messiaen and Shostakovich to sit amongst more appropriate company.

I fervently believe that it was the First World War which changed music possibly more dramatically than anything else in the history of the art (my old tutor, Arnold Whittall acknowledged this in his splendid book of Music Since the First World War), so it would be good if music text books might begin to shake off that horrific appellation “Twentieth-Century” and recognise that for the first 18 years of the century, we were still firmly entrenched in the Romantic era.

Not long after having dispatched the HKPO notes, I found myself in Penang chatting over tea to Raymond Tan. He writes songs and music aimed particularly at young children and learners, and he asked me about my views on tonality; was it dead? I have to say I reacted with a certain horror. The idea that tonality was dead was a mantra repeated monotonously (that’s a lovely piece of irony) by composition students whilst I was at university in the 1970s, it was a phrase much in vogue amongst “radicals” during the 50s and 60s, and is a statement that actually goes back to the very early years of the last century. I had thought that the idea had been firmly laid to rest when Boulez effectively discovered that music couldn’t exist without tonality, albeit not in the traditional sense, and that the new generation of composers since the Second World War – Adams, Reich, Glass, Pärt, Tavener, the lot of them – had actually rediscovered tonality and were busily reinvigorating music through it. But then my mind passed to the gruesome Contemporary Chamber Music concerts Kevin Field directed for the MPO some years ago and, more particularly, to his promotion of music by Malaysian composers.

The MPO Forum for Malaysian Composers has long been held up as a great contribution to Malaysian cultural life, but I have always fundamentally disagreed with its purpose. Malaysia is simply not ready to breed composers of value; experimenters, adventurers, yes, but composers with a real message to pass on to the music-loving public, no, not a bit of it. And the reason is clear. If we look at two very different countries, Australia and China, we see composers only now beginning to emerge. Forgetting for the moment Percy Grainger, very much a one-off in anybody’s books, it’s only been since the 1950s that serious composers have really emerged from Australia, yet classical music has been around there for the best part of a century, the first professional orchestra in Australia (the Melbourne Symphony) founded in 1906. In China, symphonic music has only existed since the 1930s and while the last decade has seen the appearance of Chinese-born composers on the world stage, the vast majority of those have been trained, and most still live, in the west. This tells us that it takes decades of musical activity in a country before genuine composing talent emerges. Yet Malaysia has been in existence only since 1963, and professional music has been a part of its culture only since 1998. There’s a long way to go before the country can hope to breed a worthwhile composer. The MPO would do better to devote its energies and resources into creating and nurturing new conducting talent; there’s none around at the moment which can fill the void left by the departure of Datuk Ooi Chean See.

But I digress. The Malaysian composers promoted so enthusiastically by the MPO all seem to seek their inspiration from the worn out and discredited systems of 50 years ago, and get very angry when audiences don’t seem to respond with the statutory; “Oooh. You are clever writing music which sounds so horrible it must be intellectually way above our level!” They revel in abandoning tonality – Boulez went there, did that, even bought the Tee shirt before giving it all up as a bad job – and in attempting to shock by use of what they regard as anti-traditional elements but which, by their very nature, are firmly inspired by the very traditions they purport to eschew. It worked when music was looking for somewhere to go after the Second Viennese School petered out, but has no relevance whatsoever today, now that music does seem to be heading in the direction of new tonality. Love them or loathe them (I’m firmly in the former group), the minimalists and their later manifestations have found a musical genre which is accessible to the casual listener but intellectually stimulating to those who delve deeper. It does what it should – immediately attract but continue to absorb after repeated listening – and for those idiots who utter the silly platitudes that “Mozart shocked in his day”; no he didn’t. He was writing music which was designed to attract his audience, while at the same time expand their horizons. That surely is the purpose of all new music, and we are only beginning to get back to that situation.

Then, just I felt that the future of music was beginning to shape itself up nicely, along came a third piece of the puzzle which has set me thinking all over again. International Record Review has sent me in my monthly batch of discs to review, one of John Scott Whiteley playing his own organ music. Now I have great admiration for John Scott Whiteley. He’s held a single job for years while I’ve been flitting around doing odds and ends, and he’s done wonders working steadily and solidly with the music at York Minster. He’s also a jolly fine organist and, for good measure, a very nice fellow (or, at least, he was when I last met him in the early 1980s when we were training as ABRSM examiners together, and I doubt whether he’s changed radically since then). But I’d never realised he was a composer. That’s something I didn’t know. But I know it now. In fact, I know so much about his thoughts, aspirations, background, intentions, influences and output, that I can almost regard myself as an authority. The only thing is, I’ve still not heard a note of it (and you’ll have to buy the magazine to see what I think of his music once I’ve got round to listening to the disc – follow the link to order your copy!). My immense knowledge of the complete works of JSW comes from the booklet which accompanies the disc. It has to be the most appalling piece of conceit, self-aggrandisement or verbal soul-baring – call it what you will – that I’ve ever read. There is more information here than you get with whole tomes of learned treatises on JSB. We know when and where he wrote each note, who was in his mind when he wrote it, what influenced him; the only thing we don’t know is what he had for breakfast each day he was composing, but I am pretty sure I know the answer. JSW seems to have lived off a diet of café au lait and croissant, with the occasional piece of fromage and baguette thrown in for good measure. When it comes to Francophilia, he’s up there way ahead of the pack. And the astonishing this is, when his tutors (Bryan Kelly and William Lloyd Webber) accused him of being too influenced by the French style, he bristled with indignation and suggest he would far rather be described as an “internationalist”. What’s his game? Page after page of this self-indulgent drivel draws attention to his unfettered admiration for French music, his determination to follow Pierre Cochereau (a man as French as they come) in his organ writing, and lists influences which are, almost without exception, French. What is about organists that makes them think there were only ever two periods of musical history – North German Baroque and French Romantic – and that if they are to write music, it must copy one or other of those, preferably the latter, because it promotes the dazzling virtuoso toccata which always pulls in the punters?

As I say, I have no idea what JSW’s music is like. But if his voluminous navel-gazing is anything to go by, he writes pastiche French stuff for organ and choir and is proud of it. I don’t see the future of music as being this, even if it does entertain and attract the listeners. Going over tired and tested methods from previous times can work (look at Brahms, look at Stravinsky, look, for goodness’ sake, at Flor Peeters – a dire composer, but at least one with a very distinctive voice) but it needs to be spiced up by adding something new and original. If torn between the desertion of tonality or the propagation of it through mere re-living former glory days, then I think I’ll give up music altogether and return to my old job as a bus driver. It will give me a lot more excitement.


QUalifications? Who needs them?

Items about music in the Malaysian press always stir ambivalent feelings in my soul. My initial delight that music is considered important enough to warrant attention is soon tempered by my dismay at the singular inability all Malaysians seem to have when it comes to using English coherently in relation to music. There was a good example in today’s New Straits Times. In a well-balanced piece with the frightful headline “Have you got the X-factor?” one read; “Music listeners do not review your resume when they listen to your song. They don’t care that you received a Grade 8 in ABRSM.”

The sentiments are beyond reproach, but “Music Listeners”? What on earth are they? I accept that Malaysians are forced into being a nation of Music Hearers – you can’t go anywhere without the incessant background (and not so background) wail of the latest hits, often with lyrics which would set the most moderate of clerics beating a path to a Fatwa were they ever to stop and listen to them – but “Music Listeners” is a new one on me. At least we were spared the obligatory “rendition”, a word which has strong resonance with painters and decorators and members of the CIA, but means nothing at all to serious musicians. And, for once, “song” was used correctly (it’s a vocal piece; Malaysian writers regard it as a general term to describe music). I rather feel the writer meant “audiences”; which implies an altogether greater level of involvement in what one hears than does the passive “listener”.

But such reflection on semantics diverts attention away from the message, and once I’d negotiated the verbal obstacles, I was set thinking about the thrust of the essay. It’s an undeniable fact that students and teachers are so focused on amassing qualifications that they forget all about the basic skills of being a musician. Grade 8 (or any other grade for that matter) from the ABRSM, Trinity or anyone else (not least those cowboy operators who prey on gullible Asian teachers and parents with totally baseless – but cheaper – qualifications) is a pretty pointless qualification. It has no value beyond its function of demonstrating to students, teachers and parents that certain skills are being taught and learnt correctly. It certainly shows that solid and worthwhile work is being done, but it doesn’t confer on anyone the right to describe themselves as a musician. So, if putting “Grade 8 ABRSM” on your resume doesn’t impress an audience, what does?

Formal diplomas do have the benefit of being recognised by those within the profession (although I bet hardly anyone outside the music profession has the foggiest idea what the letters FTCL stand for, yet this is the ultimate musical diploma), but they impress only those who like to see a sterile collection of letters after a name. This brings to mind a colleague from my days in North Wales who collected diplomas simply to be able to put more letters after his name than anyone else. I suggested to him that, as a Scot, he ought to sit for the Associateship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He had never heard of it and became convinced that it was so exclusive it must be something special. He asked professors and learned academics about it, and it was only when one of them pointed out quite what those letters would be that he realised he had been the subject of a Rochester Spoof; he learnt the hard way that not all letters after a name look good in the eyes of the public. (I often wish that I could relate this story to all those hundreds of Hong Kong youths who waste so many precious years in the blind pursuit of a pointless diploma just to have letters after their names; they can easily end up looking like Associates of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.)

So, if qualifications don’t impress audiences, what does? Sit in any concert audience and you’ll see that most people avidly read the biographies of the soloist in the programme book (not so many, I regret to say, seem so intrigued by the learned notes about the music over which the great writers of our time have sweated blood). And what do these biographies – written, it has to be said, by the artists’ agents or even the artists themselves – tell us? They certainly don’t mention qualifications, and most don’t even mention their training (unless they were taught by a Famous Name). What the biographies do is list those other artists and venues with whom or at which the artist has performed. These can run on for page after page; I am often tempted to suggest it would be best to list any Famous Names/Places with whom and where the artist hasn’t played. Indeed, when these biographies became so long that they threatened to use up all the available space in the MPO programme books, we decided to take drastic action and edit them ourselves (much to the horror and anger of the artists and their agents). I even took to double-checking the facts – something agents never do – and found several which, shall we say, stated ambition over actual experience; one young violinist claimed to have performed alongside a conductor who had died before she was born. (I gather she had, as a child, played the violin while listening to records of the Great Maestro, so she wasn’t actually being untrue.) But when I started to cut these lists back, concert-goers with whom I spoke expressed regret, and I realised that it was these seemingly dreary lists which were what interested them most. What audiences like to read when encountering a new soloist is what experience they’ve had. For an audience, a musician who has played under the baton of Herbert von Karajan or at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, has valuable experience and is worth listening to, whereas an FTCL, LRAM, ARCM, LRSM, DipABRSM, LLCM, FLCM, ADCM, FRCO(CHM) points to overindulgence in the Alphabet Soup. If it comes to a straight fight between Klemperer/Albert Hall and BMus (hons), the dead German and the Victorian edifice win hands down every time.

Of course, there’s another factor we can’t ignore in this part of the world. Malaysian audiences – at least those at DFP – are immune from this, but in Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent Singapore, Ethnicity is what matters. If you’re Chinese (by looks rather than birth) you’re a sure-fire winner. Put Lang Lang or Sarah Chang up there and, grotesque performances aside (and both churn out more than their fair share of those to Asian audiences), the audience is driven into a frenzy of ecstasy; on their feet before a note has been played, cheering and climbing over each other for autographs. I’ve not noticed the same thing with European audiences and European musicians or, indeed, African/American Audiences and African/American musicians, but perhaps I’ve never been in the right place at the right time.

All that really matters is the performance itself. Audiences’ ears tell them what they like and what they don’t, and no amount of letters, grades or degrees will sway their opinion one way or another. Qualifications in music have their uses – don’t get me wrong – but they have no value in that ultimately essential arena where musicians have to promote their abilities to an audience. If you think a Music Listener is interested in your qualifications, you need a good kick up your Associateship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

November 2010