Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Review round up: Dr Dee (ENO)

This week has seen the opening of Damon Albarn's 'Dr Dee' at the ENO and the reviews of both the production and the album seem somewhat mixed. This is actually a revised version - it was first staged at the Manchester festival last year - in its first extended run, with performances at the Coliseum until the 7th of July.

In some ways it is really no surprise that there are differing views, as this is an unusual experiment, combining a pop musician with a pit orchestra and other elements of 'classical opera'. It seems that opinion is divided on what to refer to it as: is it an opera or musical theatre, and where does the album fit in? As a result how you view 'conventional' opera, pop music in general, and Doman Albarn's style are all significant factors in how you will view the production. That reviewers' opinions affect what they write is obvious to a certain extent, but productions like this tend to bring prejudices and tastes to the fore. While some (such as Kieron Quirke and Rupert Christiansen) value the creativity and artistry of the staging, others thought it the opera was indistinct, that any good numbers were let down by other poor songs. Michael Church in particular felt that Albarn 'blew his chances to do something original with the musicians at his disposal'.

On the other hand, there are some common themes: most reviewers criticised the lack of drama and a cohesive, intelligible narrative, which was not helped by the lack of surtitles (which are standard in the vast majority of ENO productions). There also seemed to be other production issues, such as inaudible vocals (which are amplified - demonstrating the enormous skill and technical ability required for opera singers to be heard over a full orchestra), although these may get ironed out.

Despite the criticism I think the ENO should be applauded for trying to do something new and different with opera. It's also not really a surprise that the album which has also been released isn't an unqualified succes - this production is clearly built around visual as much as audible elements, so a potential lack of variety and cohesion is not surprising.

If you like Damon Albarn's voice and style, have an appetite for something new, and don't mind feeling left a bit out of the loop while watching then it seems like Dr Dee might be for you.

Edward Seckerson (thumbs up)
Michael Church (2/5 stars)

Andrew Clements (3/5 stars)

Daily Telegraph:
Rupert Christiansen (4/5 stars)

Evening Standard:
Kieron Quirke (4/5 stars)

Franco Milazzo (thumbs down)

BBC (album not production):
Martin Aston (thumbs up)

NME (album not production):
Eddie Smack (5/10)

The Scotsman (album not production):
Fiona Shepherd (4/5 stars)

Cherwell (album not production):
Samuel Parsons (thumbs down)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Blur & Twitter

Blur, who are performing a concert in Hyde Park at the close of the Olympics, are going to stream two of their new songs via Twitter on the second of July. This sounds like a good idea to me - it's something that I don't think has been done very often and Twitter has the potential to draw in new viewers very quickly.

On the other hand, I'm not exactly sure why Blur are doing this. As a marketing idea it appears to be part of the current trend to give your music away for free, in order to draw people to live events or merchandise. But Blur have already sold out their Olympic concert, and the only other gigs they have coming up are some smaller warm-up dates, and they don't even have an album about to be released.

It's still a cool thing for them to be doing, but I think it would be far more useful for groups about to release an album and go on tour, especially those without the backing of vast advertising campaigns (or perhaps to replace those campaigns and therefore lower costs). We'll see whether this idea takes off or not, but I can see it being quite useful, and a possible way for Twitter (and Facebook) to make money.

Sky news: Blur To Debut New Songs Live On Twitter

Spice Girls: The Musical?

Well this is certainly an interesting story: it seems that a Spice Girls musical is imminent. I'm not really sure what to make of this to be honest.

On the one hand, I'm not really very keen on their music (aside from in a 90s nostalgia kind of way) and musicals based on pop group's songs tend not to be the most sophisticated of artistic endeavours - musical theatre has much more to offer as an art form than a plot tenuously linking together a selection of hits. On the other hand, Jennifer Saunders is very funny, and therefore this could be too.

We'll just have to wait and see how it turns out I guess, but I'm sceptical. At least it adds a slightly different twist to the band reunions which have been happening so often lately.

Spice Girls Reunite For Launch Of New Musical

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Music education and Out of the Blue

Over the past few days I've been doing reading for an essay on music education, and after going to a concert by Out of the Blue this evening I've been thinking about how teachers can make music more interesting.

Out of the Blue's performances and arrangements are wildly popular - this year they have expanded their New Theatre concert to two nights, and tonight's was absolutely packed, with a very diverse audience - and it seems to me that their style of music could work very well in classroom music lessons. In fact it presumably already does, given the number of school workshops they put on. They combine pop music with musicality, great vocal technique, interesting harmonies, and fun (!) - surely all things that should have a place in classroom music lessons. Admittedly their arrangements would have to be simplified, especially harmonically, but that is certainly possible -  in a large choir you could have several students on each voice part, and even then there would be room for rhythmic, textural, and textural interest. You could also increase the difficulty gradually, and accommodate different skill levels.

Judging from the reaction of younger members in tonight's audience singing music in this style would be very popular, probably more so than a lot of the music children have to learn, which is either too traditional or dumbed-down to be interesting. I'm willing to bet that teenagers would find dancing around, showing off and singing pop music in Out of the Blue style a much better use of their time than singing more classical choral music or boring pop arrangements to a piano accompaniment. This would demonstrate creativity, composition, and performance skills in a very different light to classical music, and doesn't have to involve notation, sophisticated technology, instruments, or any in-depth musical knowledge on the part of students. It is also be far more likely to be fun and relevant for most students than Bach, Beethoven or Brahms, and could still lead on to complex discussion about what music means and how it works - are Out of the Blue's or the The Gargoyle's arrangements the same pieces or different in some way?

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to implementing this kind of music in lessons is individual teacher's skills and ambition, and this is something that a lot of my reading has kept leading me back to. It seems a shame that the teaching profession has become so devalued recently, when so much knowledge, talent, skill, research, and time is needed to put together great lessons, especially in music, which has many unique challenges as a subject. If we want music in the classroom to be more relevant to students then we need to find new ways of engaging them, and it seems that in Oxford, at least, the solution was right in front of several thousand people's eyes tonight.

Update: these quotes from a post in the Guardian by their 'secret teacher' seemed appropriate here: 'to plan an outstanding lesson can take hours. I can't do that for every lesson I teach. Sometimes I stand in class delivering a lesson I know isn't as good as it could be. I know how to make it better. I just didn't have the time to do it ... All work for students needs to be scaffolded. That means be done for them. The very notion of giving a student a task they might fail is considered child abuse. Every task must be completable within about ten minutes.'

It seems that ultimately, and unfortunately, a lot of the problems with standards in schools can only be solved with money: if we want better lessons we need to give teachers more time to plan lessons, which means we need more teachers. On the other hand, it seems like the current climate isn't helping either, as the need to continually meet better targets, and to not let any child fail anything actually hinder progress. If we consider these comments in light of what surveys show pupils think about music lessons - that they are often boring, with little creativity involved - then maybe we should try challenging students more, and giving teachers the time and resources to provide the stimulating lessons pupils need.