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Wednesday January 04 2006

Last night I popped round to see Martin Anderson.  Martin Anderson lives a walk away from me, and he also runs Toccata Press and now Toccata Classics, i.e. he puts out books and now CDs.  Quite a guy.  How he does all this without starving to death, I do not know.  I was collecting a CD which I hope to be blogging about soon, and also, as it turned out, a book.

Martin said something rather surprising to me while I was there, which was: why don’t I do record reviews myself?  (He does lots.) I dismissed the idea out of hand, for the reasons I will now write about.  I think I am probably right, but see if you agree.

My reasoning is based on the fact that, almost by definition, classical music is music that starts its life by being written down.  It is a manner of music making which predates recording.  It is written, and then it is interpreted.  Nowadays music is “writerpreted”, or whatever you might call it, i.e. the composition process and the finalising-as-an-object process are one and the same thing.

If sound recording had existed in 1600, maybe the whole complicated rigmarole of musical notation as we now know it would never have been bothered with.  All those complicated lines and dots and key signatures!  We would merely have listened to composers interpreting their own stuff.  There would have been subsequent recorded versions, as recording got better, by other and maybe more expert musicians – “cover versions” as we call them with recorded music – but this basic separation between what the composer “composed” and what was later played would not have existed.

Consider the authentic movement, which consists of a great throng of people all trying to guess what the first performances of things actually sounded like, or what they were meant to sound like.  And think how marvellous it would be to have authentic tapes of Mozart or Beethoven improvising at the piano!  (Or Shakespeare reading a sonnet!) This would, as I am sure I have blogged several times before, now mean far more to us than mere photographs.  Photos would be of the face of these great ones.  Recordings would be of the things themselves.

Anyway, sorry about the digressing, but this two-stage process in the making of classical music recordings is what disqualifies me, I believe, as a serious judge of the quality of such recordings.  Simply, I am not good enough at understanding the written bit.  I remember reading – reading words, which I can do with great ease - about how Daniel Barenboim said that when he performs a piece he wants to communicate the “shock of reading the score for the first time”.  This is the ultimate in score reading.  Barenboim looks at all those squiggles and literally hears them!  I just see squiggles, and only hear it if I work out what it is, that is, connect the squiggles to sounds that I am already familiar with.

It gets worse.  What exactly do they mean by things like “moderato”?  Well, something like “moderately”, but moderately compared to what?  No, I just don’t know the language of musical composition well enough.  And, not knowing it well enough, I am in no position to say how accurately the interpreter is interpreting it.  That, it seems to me, should be one of the core skills of the recording reviewer.  If I become the global celebrity I would still quite like to be, I could surely contribute worthwhile “what I like and how it sounds to me” type pieces to something like the BBC Music magazine or Gramophone.  But being on their regular team of reviewers would be way, way beyond me.  There are some territories where I can just about bluff along well enough, but classical music CD reviewing is definitely not one of them.  That world is already stuffed with people who have been trained to the eyeballs in score reading and for that matter in interpretation, but just can’t quite make a go of interpreting as a career (given that only a tiny fraction of such people ever can), but who can review CDs in a way and with a depth of knowledge that I never could.

Martin rather airily brushed my doubts aside.  Most of the time, he said, I don’t have the score.  Where would I find it? – he said.  He has a point.  There is more to reviewing recordings than bothering only about fidelity to the written score.  There is the matter of whether the music is beautifully or exciting played.  And even I can usually tell when it’s not in tune.  In general, I can tell you whether a particular performance excites me, the way that the Christian Thielemann Bruckner 5 that I wrote about yesterday did excite me.  But maybe Thielemann got to me by doing things differently to the way that Bruckner himself would have wanted.  Now, maybe I and Thielemann are right about how to play Bruckner 5, and Bruckner himself was wrong.  This is a perfectly valid opinion.  Composers are by no means always their own best interpreters.  But if I am to say that in a review, I need at least to know about what Bruckner himself had in mind, and I cannot begin to read Bruckner’s mind if I cannot even read his score.

This is one of the fundamental reasons why pop music is, unlike classical music, “pop”.  All of us can review it equally well. All of us have in front of us the information we need to say whether it is good or bad, by which I of course merely mean whether we like it or don’t like it.  If it is a cover version, then provided we have the original to hand, we can describe with a hundred percent confidence what the differences are between, say, how Damaged Fruit Higginbottom did the original and how the Rolling Stones did their faster, less emotive but more raucous and drum-dependent suburban white boy version.  Everything we need to know, we know.  The pop music printed version industry is strictly an add-on afterthought to the central pop music productive process.  Many (deservedly) major pop stars can’t even “read” music.  They just play it, and their mates record it, perhaps by helping out with supplying written parts, e.g., to backing singers or instrumentalists.  But printed scores are the classical music productive process.  You can’t not know about that bit of the process and expect to be a capable reviewer of classical music recordings.

I would go further, and say that the composer-score-performance-recording progression is damn near to the defnition of classical music.  Persisting in writing classical music, on paper, which other people then “interpret”, and maybe also record, is now to persist with an obsolete artistic technology.  The way to make music now is to make it and record it.  Far simpler, far cheaper, and in a whole host of ways far, far better.  That is the future of “classical” music making, the inverted commas being there because it won’t any longer be “classical” music, just music.  The instrumental skills of classical musicians now need to be taken straight into the recording studios, a process which has actually been going on for some time.  And yes, a written score may very much help that process.  But it is there to help.  It is no longer the process itself.

Obsolete artistic technologies often have life in them, sometimes centuries of life, and life of tremendous vigour.  Look at organ music.  Look at painting, for goodness sake.  Photography was invented over a hundred and fifty years ago, yet still picture makers persist with their brushes and their canvasses and their vari-coloured tubes of glop, occasionally to great effect.  I daresay that every so often, someone somewhere still makes a magnificent stained glass window.  You can’t dismiss a work of art merely by pointing out that it is done with obsolete and unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive methods that most people no longer bother with, the way you can dismiss a piece of “science” (i.e. not-science) if it is being done within the confines of an obsolete and superceded theoretical paradigm, like flat earth theory or creationism.  There is zero scientific validity in refining the epicycle theory of the solar system or in theorising ever more minutely about exactly how God made eyes.  Zero.  Whereas a stained glass window might be genuinely magnificent and just what you want.

Nevertheless, a capable artist is at least aware of what the latest techniques consist of, and has thought seriously about why painting is still, for him, a better bet than photography, or organ music composition on paper is for him better than taking a computerised piano accordion on legs, such as the Japanese now thrash out by the thousand, into a recording studio, or maybe just rejigging his personal computer until that is, for all practical purposes, also an organ.  Or any other instrument he might fancy.

Learning this electronic and computerised stuff should now be the core curriculum of musical education.  If the God-that-doesn’t-exist-but-you-know-what-I-mean played a bastard trick on me and made me a music teacher, I would start by bringing a tape recorder (or whatever these things are now - MP3 recorders? - into the classroom.  That would be my core instrument.  Forget bloody recorders, as in those idiot tubes with holes in them that you blow down.  The idea would be to get the kids, not to perform the way I like, but to record the way they like, and to distribute it all around the world on the internet, however the hell you do that.  I don’t know how you do it, but they probably would, between them, or have sisters who did, or something.  The point is, those are now the questions.  And as with scientific paradigm shifts, all the previous musical styles and ways of doing things – classical, jazz, carol-singing, rap, girl-group close harmony (a style I much admire by the way), even recorder playing if anyone still wanted to do that, etc. – would take their place in this new musical dispensation.

And if God-bastard made me a drama teacher, I’d start with making movies.  If a “school play” emerged, fine.  But that would not be the objective.

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