An Award-Winning Writer

Always at this time of year there is a plethora of awards being handed out left, right and centre. I, myself, have had to vote for awards here, there and everywhere – for best CD of the year, for best performance of the year, for best up-and-coming young musician of the year, and so on – and so it comes as a pleasant surprise actually to receive one from an unexpected quarter. In its Year End round-up of the Arts Scene in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post named me as “the most consistent aspect of this year’s classical concert scene”. True, it did rather temper the honour by suggesting that, handing it to the writer of programme notes rather than a performer, was “a touch outrageous”, but I accepted it with a good grace and feel honoured that my work in Hong Kong – I’ve been writing the notes for the HKPO since 2004 – has been recognised. It has, however, prompted me to cogitate a little on the work of the writer in the music world. I’ve always had a problem explaining to others exactly what my profession is.

If I tell them that I am a musician, they immediately assume I’m a performer and ask me what instrument I play. I could tell them that I play the organ, but as almost every organist I know is terminally dreary, I don’t like to tar myself with the same brush – even if I am myself terminally dreary. (And, as if to prove a point, I’ve just been interrupted in the writing of this post by a 35 minute call from an organist in London who wanted my views on how to play a couple of bars of one of Mendelssohn’s most dreary organ pieces – one which even he had the good sense to discard – and wouldn’t take seriously my earnest urgings not to play it at all.)

If I tell them that I am a musician who writes, they immediately assume I compose. And, to be perfectly frank, there’s nothing in the world I’d want to do less. Composers are, in my experience, either chronic alcoholics or utter weirdoes, or both, and the world is awash with ghastly new music which gets played (if at all) once and is then passed over by all except the composer who feels that it’s worth sending round to anyone unfortunate enough to have their names listed in some list of music critics. To feel that I might be one of that barmy army of congenital third and fourth raters who not only foist their horrible attempts at composition on others, but have the nerve to think that it might be worth hearing, is too much to bear.

So I tell them I am a professional listener. That really gets them. After all, like driving, just about everyone thinks they do it, so they don’t appreciate that anyone might do it for a living. More than that, as with driving, as everyone can do it badly, they assume that bad is the norm and have no perception that there are advanced skills to be learned before you can do it professionally. (Just go on to the roads and you will see what I mean; whether it’s the spotty youth in his Dad’s Lamborghini in Singapore, the nerdy student in his souped-up Proton in Malaysia or the blatantly halitosis-laden taxi-driver in Hong Kong.) Yet the one thing driving all my professional life is listening. As a critic I have to listen intently to pick up the salient points in a single sitting (if it’s a concert review) or in a concentrated period of time (if it’s a CD review). As an examiner I have to listen with extreme concentration in order to produce a fair assessment of what may be the deciding test in someone’s career. And as a commentator on music (which is what a programme note writer is) I have to listen in order to guide the readers through the maze of what they are to hear, be it a dreary organ performance or a ghastly new composition. I have tastes – likes and dislikes – but they have to be set aside when it comes to guiding others through the music; my job is to encourage others to listen and enjoy, not to get them to pre-judge according to my own tainted taste-buds.

Listening to music for a living is no easy task, and it has taken years of hard work to develop a good pair of ears. Nobody teaches you how to listen (perhaps they should – it would certainly help built up a solid audience for music in the future) and nobody appreciates the sacrifices that have to be made before you can really listen to classical music. I cannot, for example, sustain any sort of conversation when there is music going on in the background – it acts as a magnet to my ears and holds them close, obscuring all non-musical sounds – so attending parties is an activity long lost to me. Similarly, I cannot concentrate on financial transactions when there is music playing, which rules out most shopping centres or malls. I can’t go to gyms, since physical exercise has now become irremediably associated with pulsating rock music. Travelling on long-distance coaches – once the highlight of my life – went the day they introduced in-coach hi-fi. When I drive, the radio has to be tuned to talk radio only, which means no radio when driving in Malaysia. When I am put on hold by a telephone operator, I drop the call, for invariably some music is thrown down the line at me. And as for visiting bars or dining in almost any restaurant, that’s a pleasure long gone. Indeed, it was my hideous experience in a KL Delifrance which finally brought home to me just how different my approach to listening was from that of the vast majority of my fellow man. Obliged to ask the manager to turn off the loud rap music playing at lunch time, I suggested that the lyrics – “You f****** c********* have f***** your mother******* mothers” – were possibly inappropriate to the families gathered there, only to be told, not only that nobody else had complained, but that he had never noticed the words before, and doubted whether anyone else had. Looking at happy Muslim, Chinese and Indian families all chewing their imitation meat in boiled bread-type sandwiches, limp lettuce leaves and cocky cockroaches peeking out from under the soggy crusts, I realised that he was right; people simply don’t listen.

 So, as the possessor of a rare and thankless skill, I find it all the more welcome to be honoured and awarded. Thanks, SCMP, I’m approaching my nest programmes with renewed vigour. (And if you want to read those Awards in full, you can find them in the South China Morning Post arts pages for 17th December 2010.)

11 Responses to “An Award-Winning Writer”

  1. 1 Peter Almond
    January 3, 2011 at 12:06 am

    Hi Marc. A spot-on start to your 2011 blogs! To anyone who doubts the truth of Marc’s comments on active listening, I suggest they listen to any piece of music three times im a row as follows: 1) with background noise (this can include anything from other music to pneumatic drills engaged on road works) 2) with no background noise (as far as possible) but with the eyes open and 3) with eyes shut tight and in as quiet an environment as you can achieve. You ought to be amazed at the the difference!! To maintain genuine active listening over anything more than the very briefest time period takes experience, practice and superhuman concentration, but believe me, the rewards you will gain are immense and your understanding of music will never be the same.

    Peter A (a terminally dreary organist from London!).

  2. 2 z.m
    January 3, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    couldn’t agree more with peter. tried it. it’s a whole world of difference.

  3. 3 Chang Tou Liang (Singapore)
    January 3, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Congratulations and Happy New Year, Marc!

    No statue has been erected for a music critic or professional listener as yet, but there’s no harm waiting… and hoping. Here’s to a fruitful 2011 for listening!

    • 4 drmarcrochester
      January 3, 2011 at 6:08 pm

      Many thanks for your kind comments and I look forward to our paths crossing many times this year in the concert hall. But I have to correct you on one thing. That hoary old chestnut about there being no statues erected to critics. There are several dotted around the place, one of Edward HAnslick in Prague (Although I can’t remember precisely where) and one in Canada (of all places) erected to George Bernard Shaw. I found a picture of the latter and have pasted it up to porve my point. But I think we deserve more!!!

  4. 5 Peter Almond
    January 3, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Hi Marc, It was very remiss of me not to have congratulated you on being nominated ‘the most consistent aspect’ so I suppose I’d better relent and buy the first round when we meet later this week! It’ll be an absolute pleasure, of course. Oh, and don’t yet give up hope of a statue; there’s still the 4th plinth at Trafalgar Square…..

    Peter A

  5. January 4, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Congratulations and Happy New Year!

    About the way listening to music, sometime I also close my eyes in live concert or at home turn off the lights and cover the annoying blue lights on HiFi. Yes that does make a difference! Blind people are more sensitive in hearing. But most of time at home I open my eyes while listening, reading music or non music related stuff…as I’m not a professional listener, at least, yet.

    Wish all music lovers a great 2011 ahead with great music to listen to!


    • 7 Peter Almond
      January 5, 2011 at 2:48 am

      Hi Vincent,

      Thanks for your interesting comments. I’ve just ordered a pair of high quality headphones and am looking forward to hearing how they perform. I’m sure we have all developed a method of listening that suits us, but since I made the conscious effort actively to listen to music rather than just hear it, I’ve had to develop new techniques and utilising headphones is the latest!! It may work for me ; it may not. Time will tell.

      A very happy, healthy and successful New Year to you and all readers of the ‘Dr Marc’s Blog’. May you discover plenty of new music and new joys from that which is already familiar to you.

      Peter A

      • January 6, 2011 at 11:49 am

        Hi, Peter,

        In fact, most of time I’m on a headphone setup (SACD Player — headphone amp — Sennheiser HD600). I do have a bookshelf loudspeaker setup, but to get the same level of fidelity on a new loudspeaker setup, I have to sell all my CD/SACDs…

        Headphone is great, especially for solo or small scale repertoire, late night at bed, but for symphonies, the sound stage is not comparable to a good loudspeaker setup. The reason is that most recording are made for loudspeaker setup instead of headphone.
        Happy discovering the world of headphone listening.


      • 9 drmarcrochester
        January 6, 2011 at 1:01 pm

        Flying to London yesterday I took out my portable CD player and noise reducing headphones much to the amusement of the SIA stewardess who told me “I didn’t think people used those things any more!”

        If you want quality it has to be around the ear not in it.

      • January 6, 2011 at 3:43 pm

        Ha, I got exactly the same response when my colleague first saw my portable CD player in office.

        SIA has very good classical music collection in their in-flight entertaiment system. Many new releases, both CD and DVD. I watched a few concert DVDs on my way from Lucerne back to Singapore.

        Big headphones (covering the ears) are capable of reproducing realistic sound stage comparable to loudspeaker system using binaural techniques. But very few CD is recorded in such way.

  6. 11 Peter Almond
    January 9, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Ha ha!! That’s nothing!! You can both just imagine the looks I got when I took from the overhead locker my ‘hi-fi-of-its-time’ pride and joy; a 1930s HMV wind-up portable gramophone and the set of 5 x 12″ 78rpm records that makes up Beethoven’s 7th symphony. As I explained to my incredulous neighbour, you need a heavy tonearm to cope with turbulence, but I’m not sure that either he or the cabin crew completely believed me. Anyway, it all came to nothing when I discovered, to my chagrin, that I’d left my boxes of steel needles at home on the kitchen table. After all that faffing about and I couldn’t even use my toy!! Although there was a used one in the tonearm, I clearly couldn’t afford to take chances and possibly ruin the silent surface of those shellac records. Arturo Toscanini was in fine form when he recorded the 7th, and it must be preserved…

    Anyway, to be only slightly more serious. I’ve now collected my Bose headphones and they will be test-run sometime this weekend. The short demonstation I had in store was most encouraging. I take Vincent’s point concerning the intended mode of reproduction, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay. I rather doubt whether the sound engineers who produced the recordings to which I’ll be listening had considered my neighbours’ occasional bouts of guitar practice, swearing or ecstatically vocal amorous activities, so the equipment’s admirably efficient noise cancelling properties will help considerably my butterfly mind to concentrate on the matter in hand! I’ll let you know how I manage with them.

    All the best to you both.

    Peter A

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January 2011


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