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Harrison Birtwistle

The first time I heard a Birtwistle piece was while watching the last night of the proms on TV in 1995, more by chance than design, and I laughed my head off when I realised that his piece “Panic”, which I enjoyed immensly, had been programmed – this is just my own Schadenfreude since I knew this would irritate a number of the listeners who were there for a completely different musical experience. The performance featured John Harle and Paul Clarvis, who were fantastic. I bought a CD with the piece together with Earth Dances, and instantly realised that it’s the latter piece that is the gem. I can’t understand why this piece isn’t being performed all over the place.

The question of why people in general have problems with “adventurous” music is something that never fails to amaze me. Even more amazing, and quite amusing, is coming across practising musicians that have similar problems.

It is safe to say that the absence of rhythmic regularity is something that will instantly alienate lots of people. But even where there is a degree of predictable rhythmic underpinning, lots of people appear confused at the intentions of the musicians or meaning of the music as a whole. The same people might queue around the block to go and see an exhibition of abstract art where, I would venture, the same questions should arise. But they don’t seem to. (Obviously, there are also the mass of linearly programmed individuals who are unable, or unwilling, to deal with anything at all outside of the mainstream.)

Perhaps part of the issue is the assumption that music should have a recognisable function.

In reality, for many people, music is something that props up memory and association. Memory, sentiment and the reliving of emotions is one side of the equation; the other is association or a sort of modern tribe membership. People buy the latest release by X as soon as it is announced and value it more if it has more association with X, for instance being personally signed. All of us, at all ages, exhibit this behaviour to a degree, but for some people, this is what music means. But clearly, music in itself (i.e. sounds in time and space) has very little to do with what is happening here.

Back to Birtwistle.

I have to be careful how often I listen to pieces these days. I came across a documentary of the Joffrey Ballet reconstruction of the original Nijinsky choreography for the Rite of Spring – and this was just fantastic. The costumes, the primitive dance movements and the music together took everything to another level, compared to the music alone. An interesting observation made by Marie Rambert, who danced in the original production, is that while the well known success de scandale occurred at the Paris opening, the London shows went by without any controversy.

For one reason or another, I have listened to the Rite of Spring in part or as a whole so many times over the last few years that I’ve reached a stage of serious ear & mind fatigue. This is obviously my issue and something I need to address, and I am afraid of the same thing befalling Earth Dances. But maybe it’s back to the old challenge: experience it, as far possible, as though it is the first time.

Anyone bored enough to be reading this probably won’t mind my being indulgent and talking self. After three years in Glasgow, I came back to London in late July 2019 and took the opportunity to catch as much music and visit old musical and personal landmarks. I should stress that Glasgow is a really fantastic city, with great players and warm people. But it was great to be back.

Things started with a gig at Cafe Oto with Peter Urpeth, Ollie Brice and Terry Day on the day Oto were switching on their air conditioning for the first time – and it was really hot. There may be recorded evidence of this gig at some point soon.

My retrun also coincided with Louis Moholo’s hectic European tour with the fantastic Five Blokes esemble so I caught them at Cafe Oto and at Church of Sound in Clapton where (Lord) Byron Wallen and Steve Williamson joined the band. Bra Tebs (Louis) loves Steve’s playing so it was great to see them together again.

I was lucky to catch Sarah Gail Brand’s quartet album release also at Cafe Oto, which was fantastic.

Claude Deppa kindly invited me to sit in with the Grand Union Orchestra on a South African music evening where the horn section included Louise Elliot, who plays like she is from South Africa.

At the Southbank Centre there was a Thomas Ades day which began with a student presentation of some of his chamber pieces (including a false start in a piece with a wandering clarinet player when the cello player broke a string in the first five minutes) and ended with Thomas Ades conducting Holst’s Planet Suite in the evening with flair.

At the Barbican I caught incredible trumpet player Hakan Hardenberger playing Haydn and a contemporary piece, to a sadly half full hall.

So, the joys of London: unlimited musical and artisitic / cultural happenings, which is something I have missed. And also closing my eyes on a bus and hearing various different languages floating around. My favourite are the kids who can easily switch between London Speak and their parent’s language, since the parents are usually less adept at bridging both worlds.

You Live & learn. This is a statement that often comes with a pinch of .. condescension. As though life will help deal with your naivety. This may just be my defensive take on it. However, another angle is to realise that living gives you the opportunity to learn (we can maybe argue about what that actually means) new ideas and also to re-evaluate existing ideas. If I wanted to sell books in airports, I’d say life is a classroom that never closes. And this is true. The only limitation on this is your own openness and alertness. I raise all this in connection with the lessons I learned (or should have learned) from actors whilst performing on a touring theatre production. I was part of the pit band, and the first, and perhaps biggest lesson was that it wasn’t all about us, the musicians. People had come to experience Shakespeare. The second lesson, as this was a relatively long run, was the energy and invention the actors were able to continually bring to it. The production started with a market scene and Ricky Fearon (I’m sure he won’t mind me name checking him) started the action and set the tone for the whole show, no minor feat. He had several parts and I remember him saying that his favourite of the characters he was playing kept changing. As the curtain fell, he was already thinking how he’d play them differently the next night. In contrast, once the show settled, I started moaning internally (and, let’s be honest, externally) about having to play the same music each night. In the event, all the musicians would rise to the occasion, but we didn’t, or at least I didn’t, start each performance with total enthusiasm. I knew this was lazy thinking on my part, but I still kept on being bored at the idea of playing the same set. Another thing that became immediately clear was that the actors were all much more intellectually and emotionally involved with what they were doing and were you to challenge them on performance decisions they had taken, they would be able to easily defend their positions. I may be wrong, but I don’t think we musicians scrutinise our art in the same way, especially when not performing our own material.

But life’s lessons are constant and can be very small but very effective, if we take them on. After all, isn’t it all about trying to continually undo the knots in our psyches that we’ve had from early life? I assume we’re born un “knotted” , we acquire insecurities and irrationality in our formative life, and then we spend the rest of our lives trying to get rid of these.

So, what was the point in this rambling, I wonder? You don’t need shelves of self help books etc claiming to have definitive answers (there are no answers, folks), your experiences have lessons a plenty.

Oblique Strategies

I stole this title from somewhere, perhaps one of the early Jane Campion shorts.. but maybe not. But I did steal it… actually, I have just remembered: it’s from Richard Linklater’s “Slacker”. A character in the movie has a pack of cards with messages that she invites people to select from at random, and she refers to these as “oblique strategies”.. it’s not plagiarism if you declare your sources..

The last time I ventured in this direction was to suggest that I’d finally, after years of trying, solved the “practise music at home and maintain good relations with your neighbours” riddle. The earlier suggestion was that I took liberties with the space / time continuum in my front room and thus created a large practice room in a hidden and unused dimension. I did suffer some time lapse anomalies every time I entered and left this “space”, but these were minor. I also suggested at this earlier time that it had come to my attention that my landlord would occasionally come and hang out in my (or his, to be fair) flat during the day when I was out, and wander around in his underwear. This raised the slight concern that he may blunder into the hidden dimension and once aware of it, would probably be compelled to report it to Nato.

Obvioisly this is all nonsense, I am just trying to make cowardly amends for having a pretty blank gig diary at the moment. But this will change and there will be less of this rubbish on here quite soon..

Another oblique strategy occurred to me whist thinking about my Castaneda books, in particular, “the journey of the dream body”. Anyone who has read the books will know that they are very thought provoking and whether or not taken literally, they are full of fertile ideas that one could at least think about whilst navigating their lives. The premise of the journey of the dream body is similar to, but more advanced than, the concept of lucid dreaming. As we all know, most of us are helpless spectators in our dreams – if there is a driver at all, it is the unconscious mind that does whatever the hell it sees fit to. So you can be walking along with one person who gradually becomes someone else, in a landscape that is changing in a seemingly arbitrary way. Lucid dreamers, to my knowledge, try to set up a task before going to sleep, such as meeting other lucid dreamers at a chosen location, and they all compare notes, during their waking hours, to see if they experienced the same thing. The Native American “seers” in Castaneda’s books took it a lot further. One trains oneself to wake up the dream body from the actual place one went to bed, by first training oneself to open the eyes and look at the hands. Once “awake” in this fashion, one sets out with purpose and carries out tasks that one wants to, rather than being blown about by random events as in ordinary dreams.

So the oblique strategy would be to get the dream body to do all the music practice. Choose the material to be covered before hand, and then wake up (i.e. really wake up) having done the work, without disturbing the neighbours. I guess one might , whilst practising using the dream body, possibly disturb the other dream bodies wandering around, but that’s something that would need to be looked into as and when.

Obviously, I’m trivialising the whole matter: apparently almost every encounter that Castaneda had with Don Genaro was actually with the latter’s dream body.