Wednesday, 17 April 2013

I've moved!

I haven't been posted very much to this blog recently, and I decided a few weeks ago to try something new, so for the moment I've moved on from the The Music News and am posting at a new blog called Artistic License (

This is partly because I wanted to feel free to post about things other than music and partly to learn a new tool (i.e. WordPress), which I've since realised has a lot of potential for creating a simple but effective website alongside a blog (for instance, I can embed my CV into a page via Scribd). That plus the ability upgrade and invest in features like premium themes and customised designs means that WordPress is a bit more suited to what I might want to do in the next few months.

Please take a short hop over to my new blog and start following my updates there! I'm also still on Twitter and LinkedIn, and now have an page featuring my info and contact details, so please get in touch with any comments about my new site.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Mozart and crime

It seems that our obsession with Mozart and the supernatural powers of his music are never-ending. Classic FM reports that in New Zealand '"The Mozart Effect" is hoped to deter criminal activity and antisocial behaviour in the area.' Mozart's music - it's not reported exactly what - will be played by speakers in specific areas of town to try and deter anti-social behaviour and criminal activity where increased police patrols have worked.

This may work - I certainly have no idea whether it will or not - but doesn't it seem strange that rather than try and solve the problem directly they are resorting to the potential 'humanizing' effect of music that is nearly 250 years old? This idea - that great art, particularly music, can civilize and educate us - still holds a surprising amount of weight, especially given the ideologies musical propaganda was enlisted to support in the twentieth century. The theory that listening to what some of us consider to be high art can improve the actions of our fellow humans is attractive, but I am not sure that the reality of art is quite so simple.

Even if this scheme does work (although I do wonder if that might just be because the culprits aren't big fans of Don Giovanni) shouldn't we stop and think for a moment about how music affects our behaviour, and consider the lessons of history, rather than simply leading another cheer for Wolfgang?

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

In Praise of Hyperion (and Indie Record Labels)

In December I attended a Hyperion recording session and had the chance to sit down with Steven Isserlis, Robert Levin, and Simon Perry (the director of Hyperion), among others, for lunch on the first day. Since then I've thought about that session and what we talked about over the five days of the session a lot, but some of my reading over the past few days made me consider it again, and I thought I'd put some of my thoughts down onto (digital) paper.

In his excellent book A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002), Timothy Day writes that 'nearly all independent labels issued a wide miscellaneous repertory ... The small independent labels could not afford the greatest artists, so they exercised their skill and cunning and identified markets for other repertories, for unknown music,' (p.136). Reading this made me think of Hyperion, which 'became renowned for recording lesser-known works' (Wikipedia), as well as unusual or new versions and interpretations of pieces. After a brief look at their website, amongst several pages of offers and deals I found this fantastic page: 'Please, someone, buy me ...', which features 'our "top ten" albums which no one - at all, worldwide - has bought from us for the longest period of time.' I promptly paid £2.80(!) to download an album of English Clarinet Concertos, with Dame Thea King, but could have bought the album by post for the same price. I confess that I haven't had a chance to listen to the album yet, but I can't possibly see how buying around 60 minutes of music for less than a large cup of coffee could be a mistake. I also suspect that I am going to be returning to this page again and again. Hyperion's 'Please, someone, buy me ...' page is the best example I've seen of the Long Tail effect in action in classical recording, and it really is something to be admired. I had never heard of Frederic Lamond, or his Symphony in A Major, which is also currently discounted by Hyperion on the same webpage, but I also want to explore music other than that which occurs over and over again even in the music course at Oxford, and I am glad that someone has recorded it so that I can.

This brings me back to what Simon Perry was saying in December. As someone with an intimate knowledge of the recording industry, he argued that services such as Spotify, alongside widespread piracy encouraged by use of YouTube and file sharing sites, are doing real damage to the recording industry, and labels such as Hyperion. He has made a clear decision not to place any of their music on Spotify, as it simply does not pay them enough for the privilege of having Hyperion's catalogue as part of the service, and is not the only one questioning the validity of the streaming model. Is that really such a surprise when the most anyone pays for it is £10 a month - for which one gains unlimited access to what is effectively limitless amounts of music? He was also aggravated, unsurprisingly, byt the idea that people who had purchased music from Hyperion were posting it online for others to listen to free of charge: while he respected the fact that many were simply trying to share music they loved, he also made it clear that they do not own the right to distribute it to others for free. Whatever the philosophical problems we have with the 'work concept', or the practical issues with have with wanting to share our tastes with others, surely we can agree that if people take the time to record music that we listen to, we should be willing to pay them for their services?

I have previously been a strong critic of the recording industry's business model, and I still firmly believe that things need to change, but listening made me realise that I have been rather too blasé about the impact of these developments on music. I had argued that piracy, and streaming or distributing music for free, or nearly free, was now part of the fabric of musical culture, and that the industry needed to accept it and move on, rather than struggling against the inevitable. Whilst I still don't think we can suddenly turn back the clocks and stop piracy, I have also realised that it is important to keep stating, as I have already said, that musicians and labels deserve to be paid for their work - and that unless they are, we are quickly going to end up in a very different musical landscape. If people aren't willing to pay for music, then labels like Hyperion aren't going to be able to produce it, especially music in less demand (at least in the short term), or with greater difficulties attached to it.

Of course, part of the difficulty is that there is a divide between popular and 'art' or 'classical' music in the effects piracy and streaming have had, and the possible methods to counteract them. Pop music can, by its very nature, make money more easily than music with a smaller audience, and artists have realised this and begun concentrating on tours and live music as their major source of income, rather than records. Because of this and other revenue streams (such as merchandise), pop musicians can actually gain from giving away their records for free, by profiting from the attention it gets them.

However, less mainstream music does not have the same options open to it and in the 'classical' music world the problems are exacerbated by the divisions between areas of musical life. Record labels cannot make money from the tours artists undertake with the same repertoire, and recording groups are less unified - conductors, orchestras, and soloists often come together for a single concert within a season, or a single album. That is not to say nothing can be done - recording and releasing an album before, rather than after, touring internationally with the music, for mutual benefit, is still an option in a large number of cases - but it is more complicated. Furthermore, the huge extent of the 'classical' repertoire, its inherent division between composer and performer, and greater time and resources much of it demands compared to pop music means that recordings are still very valuable in giving the opportunity to hear rarely performed music, but also more expensive to produce. It is for precisely that reason that small, innovative labels such as Hyperion, which allow us to explore more unusual areas of music than the big labels or broadcasters (such as Classic FM and their hall of fame - it has some great music, but I'd like to spend my life listening to more than just 100 thanks), must be supported by continuing to fight piracy and working to create sustainable business models. For their part Hyperion should be praised, as I suggested in the title of this post, for seeking out new business ideas, and fighting a blind acceptance of popular opinion and taste that would make Adorno turn in his grave, and which sadly seems to be growing more common.

When we take a step back it does not take much to realise that £10 per month represents a ludicrously low valuation of what Spotify offers - i.e., access to as much music as it is possible to consume. Of course, it is priced that low to compete with 'free', which has come to be many people's expectations of the cost of listening to recordings, but if we disallow that currently unsustainable option, then surely it becomes reasonable to expect people to pay a higher, more realistically valued, price for what they are getting? I would be very willing to pay more than £10 per month to have access to a high quality, fully indexed, comprehensive catalogue of 'classical' and popular music that was available on demand, both on and offline, and I hope that other people would be too. Ultimately, if the money can't be found somewhere then we may find our choices disappearing along with record labels. In the meantime, thank you Hyperion, for recording music beyond the obvious choices, and for you ideas that led me to such a bargain.

Postscript: I may edit this post in the next few days, but just wanted to post something as it had been so long since I last did so.

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Arts: a Moral Issue?

Everyone knows that not all is well with the UK and world economy at the moment. Unemployment is high, we're in a double dip recession, and the government is cutting budgets across the board. As a music student about to leave university the situation can seem particularly bleak at times, especially as the arts have been hit hard by the cuts over the last few years. Central funding for both performance and education has been cut, the government's plan to replace it with philanthropy doesn't seem to be working, institutions and artists have lost confidence in subsequent culture secretaries, and organisations, especially small regional ones, are struggling.

I firmly believe that culture is an essential part of our society. The arts are part of our humanity, helping us to communicate, further debate, and express our emotions, whilst also providing entertainment and an escape from our everyday lives. Furthermore, participation in activities like drama and group music-making can encourage teamwork and leadership skills. There is no doubt in my mind that the arts (and not just in their western forms) make the world a more interesting and vibrant place.

On the other hand, the arts are far from being the only part of society that has been affected by the cuts. Government spending has been slashed across the board, including welfare and benefits, defence, and the NHS, while public sector pay has been frozen, and both tuition fees and the retirement age have been raised. These changes are clearly having an effect on many people's basic living standards, and it is that which, for me, raises a moral issue regarding arts funding. While the arts are valuable, I am not sure they have the same widespread, direct impact on quality of life as these other spending decisions do for many people. Arts funding does have an impact on people's livelihoods, and we shouldn't forget that, but does it really have the same impact on so many people's basic standard of living as something like disability benefits, or the same potential rewards as spending the money on poverty relief programmes would?

I am not suggesting that we should abandon the arts - they are part of our culture, and we should continue to push for them to be supported, while if we ceased to fund the arts entirely then many more people would be without work. However, if as artists and arts organisations we want our arguments for funding and attention to be respected it is important to recognise that there are other issues at stake. In an ideal world the arts, benefits, and schemes to tackle poverty and inequality would all be fully funded, but sadly that is not the case at the moment. Personally, I sometimes struggle to reconcile requests for expenditure on art with the knowledge that many people around the UK are struggling to make ends meet.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Initial thoughts on conducting

It's now been 2 years since I first started conducting, which seems like a good point to reflect on what I've learned and put into writing my initial thoughts on what conducting is actually about.

First of all though, what isn't conducting about?

  • It shouldn't be an ego trip - the point is not to make yourself look good but ensemble sound good - and it's not about asserting the superiority of your point of view to the exclusion of everyone else's.
  • There isn't a magic solution or system that will enable anyone to suddenly conduct really well.
  • It's not about learning and then repeating a set of gestures for a specific piece - you can't learn a 'right' way of conducting a particular work. Similarly although there are 'schools' and systems of conducting, it isn't enough to learn and then copy a specific conducting style - your gestures have to be individual so you know what it is they're meant to communicate and can adapt them depending on the response of each ensemble.
It's also important to recognise that conducting as we know it today (as opposed to the role of a music director) is a fairly modern idea, having first developed in the nineteenth century. Berlioz and Liszt were among the first conductors in the sense we would recognise, and therefore there is much music where a first step must be to consider whether a conductor is necessary at all.

So what is conducting?

  • Ultimately it is about doing what is necessary to make an ensemble sound as good as possible and helping musicians play to their full potential.

So first of all, it involves choosing the right repertoire for each particular concert and group, based on factors such as the venue, standard or players, and type of concert. Choosing the wrong music might not matter, or just be slightly unfortunate but it can be a major issue, and it's one of the things I've found surprisingly difficult.

  • I think one of the most crucial elements of conducting is flexibility - every piece, ensemble, and even each rehearsal needs a different approach in order to get the best results, and the nature of that result is constantly changing as well.
  • At the same time, that flexibility has to be paired with a strong certainty about the musical result that you're trying to achieve, and an overall conception of how the piece should sound. A conductor has to adapt their gestures in order to get as close to the ideal result as possible, whether that be simplifying them to make the beat clearer or changing them completely if they don't have the desired effect - thinking on the spot is important as well!
  • It is about making decisions - despite the frequently repeated idea that conductors are in service to the score and the composer, what we are really there to do is making interesting, exciting, stimulating performances, and as not all the information to do so is in the score that entails taking responsibility for making choices about the music and creating an interpretation.
  • Conducting means enabling the musicians in the ensemble to work together effectively. Ultimately the conductor isn't actually making the music, the players are, and conducting is about helping them work together to create an effective performance - to do this it's important to understand what they players need from you before and during rehearsals and performances.
I could go on, but I think I'll leave my thoughts on this particular topic there for now, and maybe update this post if I'm struck by any new thoughts.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Music and silence

This weekend some thoughts about performances and concerts struck me that aren't regularly discussed but that I think are very interesting, and worth examining briefly. As well as doing some conducting at the National Concert Band Festival (where I heard my old group, Northamptonshire County Youth Concert Band) I also went to see some shows put on in Oxford by friends of mine (A Little Night Music and Hansel and Gretel - both fantastic). In each performance it was the end that really struck me.

It seems to me that the very best performances often create a very special, almost magical, atmosphere as they draw to a close - whether they end softly or with a bang (although I guess it is more common in the former). The audience's attention is captivated so completely that they remain under the spell of the music for a few seconds after it has finished, held in place by the continuing effect of what they have just heard. I don't think this is necessarily a return to reality from escapism - music often forces us to confront various aspects of our lives, whether directly, as in Britten's War Requiem, or through the experiences we associate with particular works. Instead I think it's more of a return to the present from the temporal ebb and flow of the music, and maybe also to a different, less intensely aesthetic perception of our surroundings - but this is really just speculation on my part.

Of course, there are also some exceptional performances where the audience immediately explodes into applause, but I think those times when that special silence descends makes us realise how much power we have as musicians to capture people's attention. For me, it also serves as a reminder of why I love music, and why I chose to study it - it can be easy to lose track of that sometimes when I'm fighting through essay deadlines or struggling with a particularly dense section of a fugue.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Minimalist Design

I've been going to some careers fairs and thinking about marketing and advertising recently, and one of the companies that struck me most was M&C Saatchi. Their adverts stood out from everyone else's, as did their slogan 'brutal simplicity of thought'. This reminded me of a blog post by Antrepo (a design consultancy) which featured product packaging redesigned in minimalist fashion. The results are quite striking - in almost every case I prefer a more simplified design to the one that is actually in use, and it made me realise how complex the original designs are.

Of course, there are other issues at play in the packaging and design a company chooses for any particular product - food has to include nutritional information, and brands want to have an identity - but I think there is a lot of room for greater simplicity. If brands want to stand out then simple and beautiful design is one way to do so. I suspect most consumers are so used to being overwhelmed with advertising and marketing information that they don't properly register most of what is presented to them anyway, and a 'brutally simple' minimalist design - at least on the front of the packaging - would actually stand out better than clutter.

On the other hand, I also suspect this contradicts a lot of the advice that major corporations receive. Great design is rare enough that companies such as Apple and Dyson can make it a defining feature of their brands, and charge much greater sums of money as a result.

Destroying Pianos & Modern Musical Culture

I read this rather interesting BBC article on destroying pianos the other day: BBC News - Will your piano end up in the dump? It was fantastic to read something in the mainstream national media dealing with the sociological aspects of music history, as it is so often swept under the carpet and ignored.

The huge demand for pianos at the turn of the twentieth century is a significant point in the history of amateur music making, which goes back to the second half of the eighteenth century, when pianos were first manufactured in London. I've been doing some reading on this recently for my Keyboard Sonata essays, and it's fascinating how many aspects of our current musical culture can be traced back to some key developments around 250 years ago, such as the beginnings of public concerts, the development of the musical canon, and the appearance of a divide between popular and classical music.

The current move to digital music consumption and production is the next big shift in our musical culture, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next few years. I suspect that it will be rather less than 100 years before today's digital keyboards become obsolete.

Monday, 22 October 2012

The Media News

This is just a quick post to say that I've decided to cover a slightly more diverse range of topics in the future. I've had to take a slight break from this blog in the last few weeks because of work commitments, and in the meantime I've realised that I want to include more about my interest in technology and other forms of media. I'll still be mainly writing about music, but there will be more posts on other topics as well. I'm going to use this blog still, rather than creating a new one, for the sake of convenience. There should be some more posts on the way in the very near future!

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Can't you hear yourself? (The X Factor)

I was watching The X Factor last night and thinking briefly about some of the issues behind what must surely be the most popular music programme on TV at the moment. I'm sure that most people don't give such things a second thought, but I find the questions that pop music and TV raise in relation to music fascinating.

Although I find programmes like The X Factor to be at the very least frustrating, and often completely exasperating to watch, it's clear that a lot of people love it, and there still doesn't seem to be any shortage of applicants. Of course, the auditions themselves vary hugely in quality - in fact, a lot of people enjoy watching the terrible auditions more than the final rounds - and for me that raises very interesting questions about self-awareness and hearing in relation to music. Why is it that some people think they are singing in tune and with good tone but sound awful, while others are very good but don't really seem to realise it, seeming shocked when people like what they hear? It often seems as though people simply cannot hear themselves when they sing.

I think there is a common issue lying behind many of these auditions, which is not lack of pitch recognition or musicality (although they are clearly problems for a significant number of applicants!), but lack of musical or auditory self-awareness, by which I mean the ability to proactively and critically listen to themselves, and the sound they make in relation to others. I suspect this stems from two main factors (although I must proceed with the caveat that I don't really know anything about the musical backgrounds of the contestants for definite).

Firstly, the majority of the contestants seem not to have had any genuine, sustained musical or vocal tuition, in a group or individual context. I'm also not sure that many of them have ever spent very much time singing with other people. When I look back on my musical training so far, self-awareness appears as a constant theme, although it didn't necessarily seem so at the time, especially when I was younger. This is because whether it is developed consciously or not, self-awareness or proactive listening is important for someone to become a skilled musical performer. Without being able to judge how you sound and compare it to what you want others to hear it is much harder for a performer to either improve their skills or perform music to a high standard. It is this proactive listening that you learn when comparing your performance to that of a teacher in a lesson, or when trying to match intonation and tone quality with the other members of a choir. If contestants on The X Factor have not had musical training or spent time developing their listening skills then they will often not have learned to really think critically about what they hear when singing. Therefore they will not be able to get an accurate sense of how they sound to other people, or improve very significantly, which goes a long way to explaining both why they are bad, and why they don't know how good or bad they are.

Secondly, the format of the auditions means that the vast majority of applicants sing along to a backing track. I suspect (although again I don't know for sure) that most of them therefore practice by singing along to the track in question, which means that they probably don't focus enough on how they actually sound. When working with recordings it is easy to get lost in passively following the track, and therefore assume you are putting across a particular performance rather than analysing what is actually happening. This can result in a rather nasty surprise when trying to perform in a different context.

These two factors do not provide a full picture, but I think they are intriguing starting points for an explanation of why people seem to completely misjudge the nature of their abilities and performances on talent shows. (Although I suppose I could just be over thinking the whole question - maybe they know they're bad and just want to get on TV?)

We hear lots about how music can help with fostering team work and cooperation, but there seems to be less about how it can help the individual. Surely the fact that music-making can improve self-awareness, an important skill in every area of life, is another argument in favour of increased musical participation in schools, and something that deserves to be considered in music education?