10/06/2013 § 4 Comments
As part of the ‘slow burn’ build-up to the release of Waving, Not Drowning this summer, we’re examining what it takes to be a conductor. Here’s a short quiz to help you discover where you are on the spectrum:
1. Do you like the sound of your own voice?
A. Of course, and I have a lot of interesting things to say.
B. Well actually it’s a bit embarrassing, but the more I talk the more I get used to it.
C. Ugh. I sound awful.
D. I am too important to answer this question.
2. Were people mean to you when you were a child, and do you like taking it out on large groups of people?
A. Yes indeed, and it jolly well serves them right.
B. It makes me feel bad, but it’s cheaper than therapy.
C. *sob* How could you be so cruel?
D. I am too important to answer this question.
3. Do you look good in black?
A. Absolutely. Especially black silk.
B. I find it slightly unflattering, but am fond of my silver cummerbund.
C. I dislike dressing up and ostentatious behaviour in all its forms.
D. I am too important to answer this question.
4. Do you like standing on boxes?
A. Yes. A disgusted sneer is so much more effective when delivered from an elevated position.
B. Yes. It helps me overcome my innate feelings of inadequacy caused by my lack of inches.
C. I’d rather hide inside one.
D. I am too important to answer this question. Your impertinence is tending towards the irksome.
5. Can you sing the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony all the way through from memory?
A. Of course I can. And all the other movements as well.
B. Yes, but you probably don’t want to hear it.
C. Errm. Is that the one that goes “da-da-da-daaaaa”?
D. I am too important to answer this question, as I have told you before. My patience is wearing thin.
6. Do you canvass other people’s opinions before making a decision?
A. Other people’s opinions are mere background noise to be ignored as much as possible.
B. It can be useful to hear other people’s points of view, but I like to think I can make the tough calls myself.
C. I prefer to be told what to do.
D. You ask this question of me? Enough! You will talk henceforth to my agent.
7. Do you feel fundamentally superior to other people?
A. What a ridiculous question. Of course I do.
B. I try to give that impression.
C. Oh no. I am of no account whatsoever.
D. Begone, worm!
8. Do you have a large CD collection and a full-length mirror?
A. I have devoted the top two floors of my New York house to them.
B. I do my best on a limited budget.
C. Oh no. I prefer Radio 4, and hate my appearance.
D. Another question? Guards, seize him!
So, how did you do?
mostly A: Budding Wagger. You show some promise, but need to learn that there’s a big difference between talking the talk and actually delivering the goods.
mostly B: Wannabe Carver. You sort of like the idea, but deep down you know there’s no hope.
mostly C: Hopeless Loser. What are you thinking? Get back to the 2nd violins immediately!
mostly D: Great Maestro. You’ve already got it all. Grab your baton and start bossing people around.
PS If you’re a conductor already, don’t worry – this was about all the other conductors, not you. You’re different.
06/06/2013 § 3 Comments
There are many elements that make up a good conductor: musicianship, intellectual rigour, communication skills, an innate feeling for the inner meaning of the great classics, possession of a serviceable full-length mirror.
And that’s not even touching on such crucial areas as polo shirt colours and pencil management.
But sometimes, in order to ascertain exactly how good a conductor is, you merely have to ask one simple question: how do they look when overdubbed with Gangnam Style?
Now that’s conducting.*
*Seriously. The man is brilliant.
29/05/2013 § 6 Comments
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is 100 years old today and people are making a bit of a palaver about it. This is nice. We like it when people make a palaver about music-y stuff, and especially that particular piece, with which I have had a mild obsession since listening to little else while travelling round Italy at the age of eighteen. Piero della Francesca and The Rite of Spring – not natural sofa-mates, but forever linked in my mind because of that trip, on which I also discovered that the whole thing with Mussolini and on-time trains is not an exaggeration.
Anyway, The Rite of Spring. Here is someone much more knowledgeable than me to tell you all about it.
That, of course, is a composer’s view. But what of the conductor’s? Well, this is what Stravinsky had to say:
“Its reputed difficulties…actually no more than the simple alternation of twos and threes, proved to be a conductors’ myth. Spring is strenuous but not difficult, and the chef d’orchestre is hardly more than a mechanical agent, a time-beater who fires a pistol at the beginning of each section but lets the music run by itself.” (from Memories & Commentaries by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft).
Do you believe him? Here’s a percussionist talking about playing the piece under him (admittedly Stravinsky was a lot older when this recording was made, and one should always take orchestral players’ reminiscences with a pinch of salt, but…):
And here’s some video of Stravinsky conducting the Firebird so you can make up your own mind about Igor’s waggling credentials:
So. Is conducting The Rite of Spring hard? Is a piece of string long?
That’s a strangely non-committal answer, I know. Stravinsky does, I think, have a point. A lot of the ‘difficulty’ is in the complexity of the cross-rhythms, and the fear of the consequences of derailment – so if you’re the kind of conductor who can do that, then it’s no more difficult than a knotty quadratic equation, and certainly no more complicated than a lot of pieces written since. And the complete lack of rubato lends credence to his assertion that you’re little more than a time-beater. But the sheer size of the orchestra, with the weight of sound that brings, can make the whole thing a cumbersome experience, like negotiating a slalom course in a juggernaut. You do need to be on the ball.
But that’s true of any piece.
What’s probably hardest of all, given the ubiquity of the piece nowadays, is to inject the necessary ‘thrill factor’, to try and make playing and listening to it as close to the visceral, gut-wrenching experience it would have been when it was first written, but without resorting to lunatic extremes of tempo.
For the orchestra? Well, yeah, it’s still pretty hard – if they can play it, you can conduct it, as long as you don’t get in the way.
Incidentally, “As long as you don’t get in the way” is (a) true of most conducting and (b) not as easy as you think.
Anyway, a pleasant half-hour on YouTube this morning threw up these. I especially like the last one.
Stravinsky talking about it:
The famous excerpt from Fantasia (Stravinsky hated this, by the way):
The Rite of Spring is so simple a 5-year-old can conduct it:
Breaking the silence – a bassoonist speaks:
This one’s for the real nerds. Thirty-seven different versions of the famous “Augurs” chords, from 1921 to today. It becomes quite mesmerising after a bit:
The internet is a strange place:
Do feel free to share your Rite of Spring experiences below. Do you love it? Hate it? Never heard it? Who is this Stravinsky bloke anyway?
UPDATE: I knew I’d forgotten one.
21/05/2013 § 1 Comment
It occurred to me the other day that in writing a book about conducting I am deliberately limiting my audience. This is generally considered to be a bit of a duff idea, as apparently you want to sell as many copies of your book as possible. Who knew?
So in the intervening time between now and the book’s publication (patience, patience – all good things come to those who wait) I could usefully occupy my time by educating those of my potential audience who might not know anything about the craft.
The first thing you need to know about conducting is that it’s bonkers. I could go on all night about how completely and utterly depraved you have to be to want to do it.
Seriously. Tonto. Loop-the-loop. Certifiably fishcake.
Let’s extrapolate. Imagine any other activity, ooh I don’t know, let’s say skateboarding.
You love skateboarding. You did some skateboarding yourself when you were younger. But no matter how much you loved skateboarding, you were always fascinated by the idea of not skateboarding. And the first time you tried not skateboarding you fell in love with it.
There were all the skateboarders, whizzing around, having fun with their frontside 540s and their varial kick flips (no, really, those are actual things) and you’re standing in the middle of them, not skateboarding but showing them how to skateboard.
How are you doing this?
Why, by waving your arms around of course.
And do they pay attention? Looks like they’re just skateboarding to me, getting on perfectly well without you.
Ah yes, but that’s because you don’t know the first thing about not skateboarding. They can of course skateboard perfectly well, but they wouldn’t be able to do it nearly so well without me in the middle, deploying my carefully honed not-skateboarding skills to show them how to do it.
See what I mean? Fishcake.
So over the next few weeks, in a subtly graded (=completely random) series of posts, I’ll be sharing some insights into what it takes to be a conductor, why we need conductors at all, and why you should buy my bally book if you want to find out more about it, and even if you don’t.
To whet your appetite, here is some of my favourite conducting ever.
And here’s the good bit: in the first ever Waving, Not Drowning giveaway, I’ll be giving away a signed copy of Waving, Not Drowning to two lucky readers. Simply email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the name of the piece that Frasier is conducting. The correct answers will go into a hat (probably a bowl, actually, but you know what I mean) and I’ll pull one of them out.
But, so as not to exclude those who don’t know much about classical music, there will be another way to win a copy. Simply complete the following in witty and incisive fashion and send to the same email address: “Frasier Crane would make a brilliant conductor because…” Entries, strangely for this kind of thing, can be as long as you like. The decision of the judge will be final, etc etc. You know the drill. If I can’t decide, I’ll put my favourites up on here and you can vote for them.
Closing date for this thing is…ooh, I don’t know, let’s say next week some time. Oh go on then: midday (BST) on May 30th 2013. Feel free to spread the word.
09/05/2013 § 7 Comments
A thing happened yesterday that made me so chuffed I could have auditioned for the part of Thomas the Tank Engine without makeup or costume.
It was an absolutely tiny thing, but at the same time rather large in its own way.
The thing was not, surprisingly (because those who know me will be aware that I have long desired, in common with many others who couldn’t wait for the resignation of Sir Alex Ferguson, the resignation of Sir Alex Ferguson) the resignation of Sir Alex Ferguson. The resignation of Sir Alex Ferguson had nothing to do with it.
That paragraph, by the way, not only makes sense in its own strange way if you read it right, it is also a convoluted and rather rickety example of the kind of writerly clever-arsery of which the late Douglas Adams was the master, although if he’d tried his hand at it you would not now be shouting “Get on with it!” at your computer. And it’s appropriate that I should choose to write it in relation to the thing that happened, because it is with the late Douglas Adams that the thing has to do.
I’ve written in this small and irregularly tended corner of cyberspace of my overwhelming love for the aforementioned genius. And I mentioned, for those who have no desire to click on that link, the book that I think I love most of all. It’s a little black book, and it was based on a startlingly simple but original premise.
1. Think of a place name.
2. Think of a situation, experience, feeling or object in life that has no word to describe it.
3. Match 1 with 2.
In the hands of Adams and his writing partner and general all-round comedic good guy John Lloyd, this produced such delightitudes as:
Gretna Green (adj.) – a shade of green which makes you wish you’d painted whatever it was a different colour.
Hull (adj.) – descriptive of the smell of a weekend cottage.
Royston (n.) – the man behind you in church who sings with terrific gusto almost three quarters of a tone off the note.
And many more besides. You get the idea.
As it also had an extremely entertaining index, the rarity value of which cannot be calculated, The Meaning of Liff (for that was the name of said book) was an entirely excellent thing.
It spawned a sequel, The Deeper Meaning of Liff.
Some years later, but not before producing the really rather wonderful Dirk Gently novels, Douglas Adams, at the ridiculous and unspeakably unfair age of 48, died.
And soon, in his memory, the sequel will have a sequel: Afterliff.
In producing Afterliff, John Lloyd decided to put the Liff franchise out to tender, as it were. He invited people, nearly all of whom, I’ll wager, aren’t called Douglas Adams or John Lloyd, to submit their own Liffs. This, like a proper saddo, I duly did.
And now here’s the thing.
I completely forgot that I had done this.
Then, yesterday, shortly after reading about the resignation of Sir Alex Ferguson, I received a “Congratulations! You may already have won ten thousand pounds!” email. Except that it wasn’t ten thousand pounds, it was the inclusion in Afterliff of two of my submitted Liffs; and, unless it was an elaborate and utterly pointless hoax, it was from a real person not entirely unconnected with the publication of Afterliff.
Look, I know it’s not a six book deal with Random Penguins, but to me it’s a particular form of validation.
I may not be Douglas Adams. I may not even be someone who knew Douglas Adams.
But I am at least someone who will share space in a publication that would have been written by Douglas Adams had he been still alive, although of course had he been still alive there would have been no need to ask other people to contribute to the book, because he would have written it himself, or, rather, he probably wouldn’t have, because he was a little bit notorious for the serial non-writing of books.
But I hope you know what I mean anyway.
As I say, I’m not entirely unchuffed.
Which definitions, you say? Well, you’ll just have to buy the book, won’t you?
Now all I have to do is think of a word for the experience of receiving an acceptance for something you’d forgotten you’d submitted.
23/04/2013 § 1 Comment
Olivia, Freya, Tom, Holly, Willoughby, Phoebe, Laura, David, Leah, William, Katy, Dovydas and Niall. Remember the names.
I get to work with all kinds of musicians. It’s one of the perks of the conductor’s job. But this Saturday promises to be a bit special.
Because this Saturday I get to work with Olivia, Freya, Tom, Holly, Willoughby, Phoebe, Laura, David, Leah, William, Katy, Dovydas and Niall (they’re so good I namechecked them twice).
They’ll be joining the London Phoenix Orchestra on the stage at Cadogan Hall for a performance of Eric Coates’ Dambusters March.
Not just any old performance. While we’re not looking for accreditation from The Guinness Book of Records, I’d be surprised if the piece has ever been played with a larger percussion section.
Olivia, Freya, Tom, Holly, Willoughby, Phoebe, Laura, David, Leah, William, Katy, Dovydas and Niall (one more time) are between 6 and 16 years old, and they all have hemiplegia. Word on the street, from colleagues who led a workshop/rehearsal with them at the weekend, is that they also have irrepressible energy and a penchant for cheekiness.
They should fit right in.
Hemiplegia is a condition that affects children in a similar way to a stroke, weakening one side of the body to varying degrees. For the one in a thousand children who have hemiplegia, there is no cure.
HemiHelp is the charity that provides support for children with hemiplegia and their families. Saturday’s is their 10th ‘Children Helping Children’ concert.
You might not have heard of HemiHelp. I hadn’t. With the profusion of charities in this country, some of them very prominent, it sometimes seems as if a charity has to shout ever louder to get noticed. But HemiHelp, without making a fuss, does extraordinary work for extraordinary people. Please spread the word. Shout, if you need to.
You can buy tickets for the concert here.
You can learn more about hemiplegia and HemiHelp here.
While you’re there, give them some money. They need and deserve it.
18/04/2013 § 3 Comments
There has been much excitement surrounding the announcement of the Proms programme today.
As far as I can gather from Twitter, they’re devoting the first month to Wagner and then seeing how it goes.
But the most ground-breaking step is the choice of Marin Alsop to conduct the Last Night.
Imagine that. They’ve chosen a conductor.
Here’s what the founder of The Proms, Sir Henry Wood, had to say about women in his book About Conducting, which was published in 1945, the year after his death:
I find that their work is of the greatest value … but when the proportion of women players rises I find they do not put their backs into it as when less represented; and if women are in too great a proportion, I find their presence is apt to slacken the standard of the male element …
I am all for women wood-wind players; they have sensitiveness and sympathy, and so often ‘feel’ a solo passage with that true artistry born of an inner emotional feeling …
With the fine players we have among the gentler sex, we surely could produce a women’s orchestra equal to any other in the country; but from some past experiences I rather believe they muddle their direction and management, and so get nowhere of any worth … A women’s orchestra requires efficient male management, and a male director of courage and wide experience.
Funnily enough, I can find no reference to female conductors in the book.
Those were the days, eh?