Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Post Referendum thoughts

Those of us who believe our future lies in collective cooperation rather than individualistic nationalism, and think the wellbeing and reform of the EU is the single most important political issue of our time, need to start thinking about the longer game.
It’s no more anti-democratic to fight against the referendum result than it is to continue to be a Labour supporter after the Conservatives win a general election, or vice-versa. We need to mobilise to fight for an open, inclusive, European Britain.
Effectively we are now in a two party system incapable of representing this view. Both are split down the middle: 58% of conservatives voted to leave, 42% to remain; and 37% of labour voted to leave, 63% to remain.
Neither can therefore stand at the next general election on a strongly pro-European integration ticket - whether at the time of such an election this means reversing a process underway, or starting a new process to rebuild something lost.
Britain needs a new political structure. 
The Conservative and Labour parties must split along their European fault lines – pragmatic Labour MPs on the right joining with progressive Conservative MPs on the left to create a new centrist party – with economically sound, socially inclusive, and pro-European policies, either to join, or in coalition with, the Liberal Democrats – the only party committed to staying in the EU.
Were such a grouping to attract the votes of most of the 16 million who voted Remain it would win a landslide victory at the next general election. It took only 11.3 million Conservative votes to create a majority government in the last election, and the 17 million Leaver votes would likely split between the rump Labour and Conservative parties and the fringe extremists. 
I hope our current MPs have the courage to reshape politics in this way.
I pledge my vote in the next general election to whichever party is pro-European.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Learning to love classical music (if you like pop music)

Two years ago a pair of clever, aesthetically sophisticated artists asked me to help them begin to like classical music.  It wasn’t so much that the desire was not there, but rather that with contemporary culture’s focus on the immediate and the new it’s easy to avoid exposure to classical music altogether, and therefore not quite know where to find the way in.   

I asked for advice from various composers and music professionals – saying to them that the one thing I was not looking for was a chronological introduction – more important was music you could relate to if you knew all about pop music.  I was thinking in part back to how my love of classical music started, which was in about 1984 with Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” – which seemed to me at the time to share much with the dub reggae I was then listening to – and from which I worked my way backwards over the years to Bach, only to find then great similarities between Bach and Reich in terms of compositional structures.  

I've spent the last 15 years on my own journey, with great delight filling in the gaps for everything between the Baroque and the Contemporary, discovering the pleasures of Shostakovich one year, and Chopin the next.

This is the order of the music to which I introduced my artist friends to start them on their own journey:

1. Purcell - Dido and Aeneas (if possible the version with Janet Baker singing).
2. Jóhann Jóhannson – Englabörn.
3. Beethoven's 5th symphony
4. Arvo Pärt – Litany 
5. Steve Reich – music for 18 musicians (original version)
6. Satie – Gymnopédies
7. Debussy – La Mer
8. Stravinsky – the Rite of Spring
9. Louis Andriessen – De Staat
10. Anything by Hans Abrahamsen
11. Iannis Xenakis – Jonchaies
12. Morton Feldman - Piano and string quartet   and/or Piano, violin, viola, cello
13. John Cage - Sonatas and interludes
14. Bach Cello Suites – Fournier version
15. Varese  - Ameriques
16. Turnage - Drowned Out
17. Mahler – 2nd and 5th symphonies
18. Strauss - Alpine Symphony 
19. Ades - America
20. Britten - Four Sea Interludes
21. Ades - Tevot (Berlin phil/rattle)
22. Charles Ives - songs (Aimard/Susan Graham)
23. Schubert's string quintet

I felt that once they had experienced the music above they would be pretty much ready for anything classical music can offer.  As they listen to music in their studio via Spotify, I could see what they were playing ... and I knew they arrived when one of them became addicted to Vivaldi's "Four Seasons".  

If you are on a similar quest, happy listening!

Sunday, 24 April 2016

RTF London concerts - Jóhannsson and Guðnadóttir

Still basking in the memory of two concerts held on 15th and 16th April in London to premiere new RTF commissions by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson, details of both of which are on the RTF website.

We had 70 people to a supper and recital at Sir Vernon Ellis's house on 15th, and about 250 people bought tickets for the concert the next day at Conway Hall.   Both pieces of music far exceeded my expectations, and I am looking forward very much to helping them receive further performances and evolution. More on this in due course, in the meantime here's some photos:

The poster - 2 of which were "liberated" about 10 minutes after I put them up outside the Conway Hall!

Hildur rehearsing before concert on 16th

Moody photos by Guy Woodgush

The quartet playing

Me telling everyone to go and get a drink

Monday, 28 December 2015

Concert Highlights for 2015

My ticket stubs tell me that I went to 62 performances during 2015, of which 15 were in Berlin, 9 in Manchester and most of the rest in London.  By what may no longer be merely coincidence I also went to 62 performances in each of 2014 and 2013.
I saw a large range of fantastic performances in 2015, mostly with the company of great friends.  What sticks in my mind from the year most includes:
  • Hildur Gudnadottir playing a solo set on her electric cello – Hildur creates with her playing an enclosed and rather magical world that sucks you in as you listen. If you don't know her music I recommend her various CDs. (24.02 Café Oto, London)
  •  Wagner’s Tannhauser, played by the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim, with staging by Sasha Waltz.    While I find Waltz’s choreography in its own right a bit pedestrian, and Wagner a bit overbearing and slow, the combination of the two unexpectedly made something rather perfect. (02.04 Staatsoper, Berlin)
  • Joe Phibbs’ Quartet No 1, played by the Piatti String Quartet.  Joe’s compositions are very beautiful.  Most reviewers compare his music to Britten, but I think he makes much more modernist soundspaces than that, and if anything his songs are like Schubert Lieder.  On the strength of hearing this quartet, I have commissioned him to write some piano solos!  (26.04 Conway Hall, London)
  • Tree of Codes at the Manchester International Festival – a collaboration between Wayne McGregor (choreography) Olafur Eliasson (design) Jamie XX (music) and soloists from the Paris Opera Ballet – was visually stunning.  In particular a solo dance by Marie-Agnès Gillot, étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, to trance like dub music from Jamie XX achieved a rare moment of transcendence.  I liked it so much I saw it twice in its two week run. (July, Manchester International Festival)
  • Sunn O))) – drone metal band from Seattle playing the loudest music I have ever heard, reverberating through my body for 2 hours.  Despite wearing earplugs it still took months for my hearing fully to recover afterwards.  So I shan’t see them again without industrial ear protectors, but it was truly unforgettable and stirring.  (08.09 Neukoln, Berlin)
  • Iliad Overnight, by the National Theatre of Wales – a performance based on Christopher Logue’s poem “War Music” that started at 18:00 on a Saturday evening and finished at 06:00 the next day.   Utterly gripping rendition that had me rushing to read every poem Logue had ever written – once I had caught up on my sleep!  The reviews were equally fulsome, the Guardian calling it the “Theatrical Event of the Year” (03.10 The Ffwrnes, Llanelli, Wales)
  • Nederlands Dans Theater showing Shoot the Moon and Stop-Motion by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, and Solo Echo by Crystal Pite.   Great dancers, and the Pite piece in particular has all the sublime abstraction that keeps me going back to more and more contemporary dance.  My new favourtite dance company! (31.10, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Berlin)
  • Annual concert performance for the charity “Awards for Young Musicians” at which some incredibly talented young people played, including a stand out pianist, Laura Newey, who played Chopin’s Preludes 1-5 with precocious passion and grace.  (09.11 Charterhouse, London)
  • Cédric Tiberghien, playing a programme of piano pieces by Bartók  and Boulez.  One of the most intelligently thought out concerts I have heard in a long time, Tiberghien alternated the composers to show us the connections between them.   A real education, and beautiful playing. (24.11 Wigmore Hall, London)

 As a footnote, the 2015 events included:
22  classical concerts (ie written before about 1960)
18 contemporary classical music concerts
16 contemporary dance performances
6  plays
The concerts included
21 Chamber recitals
9 Ensemble performances
8 Orchestral concerts
4 Operas
The most visited London venues were:
8 at the Southbank    (16 in 2014)
9 at the Wigmore Hall  (8 in 2014)
7 at Sadler’s Wells (6 in 2014)
2 at the Barbican (3 in 2014)
3 at Royal Opera House  (2 in 2014)

Saturday, 17 October 2015


I'm happy to see the Economist (October 16th 2015) coming out firmly in favour of the UK staying in the EU, arguing strongly against the view it might be in the UK's economic benefit to leave the EU.

I am however still puzzled by the absence of the moral argument in the public debate. Whatever the narrow advantage or disadvantage to the UK of EU membership, surely the point is that it is moving  in the right direction to reduce the importance of nation states, in whose name we have managed to create so much strife and unhappiness in the past.

What's the EU for?

The politicians who created the thing that turned into the European Union weren’t inventing a Union from nothing; they were building on this historical and cultural commonality of all European people.  The motivation to create binding political ties across Europe came from the desire to avoid yet another generation of carnage and loss through warfare.  And it has worked, brilliantly.  The historically warring states of France, Germany and Britain have been at peace for 70 years.

French and German people understand this.  The European Union, and its euro currency, are not economic projects, they are a social political project to make sure that the next generation of children don’t have to kill each other in yet another futile war.

Greek, Spanish and Portuguese people understand this.  The majority of adults in these countries have lived under dictatorships. Greece and Portugal were military dictatorship until 1974, and Spain until 1975. The European Union is one of the mechanisms that now preserve these democracies.

Polish, Bulgarian, Czech people understand this.  The European Union created the counterpoint to the tyranny of communism.

What's up with the British?

British people don’t understand this.  The UK joined the EEC (forerunner to the EU) in 1973, and in a subsequent 1975 referendum 67% of the UK voters endorsed this choice.   At the time Britain was almost bankrupt, and had to be rescued by the IMF in 1976.  So economic issues loomed large, both in the minds of the voters, and in the arguments made by the politicians in favour of joining and then staying in the EEC.

The effect of this has been for the last 40 years to make the British think of the EU as a purely economic mechanism – the debate in the media is about “value for money”  - ie the cost to Britain versus the economic benefit to Britain of being in the EU.    The arguments for remaining in the EU are based on the jobs that would be lost by leaving; the arguments for leaving are based on the money that would be saved by not being part of the Union, on preventing immigration, and on some spurious notion of sovereignty.

These seem to me the wrong questions.  The right questions are things like:  “what will happen to France, Germany etc if Britain leaves the EU”; “how much is it worth spending to make sure my children don’t fight in world war III (answer is obviously “everything”); “how can Britain contribute to European and world peace and culture” etc.

The British have a proud history of acting selflessly to help others.  Now is not the time for us to delude ourselves that we can independently determine our future in a globalised world; it is the time to recognise that our membership of the EU is the opportunity to take an active part in helping human civilisation mature into something better. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

Science Fiction

My youthful relation to science fiction was I now see rather the equivalent of the current generation’s obsessive use of the Internet.   As a teenager I used science fiction to escape the mundane.  With a torch under my duvet I would devour books in the middle of the night.  All those spaceships, aliens, fighting and so on.

Largely I moved on to highbrow contemporary fiction, poetry and non-fiction. I’d explain the sci-fi books to the quizzical by pointing out that one can enjoy beer as well as fine wine.

A few years ago, eventually slightly embarrassed by the glittery gold writing on the spines of so many books in our overflowing bookcases I put most of them into storage. More than 20 crates of first edition hardbacks, of well worn and now collapsing paperbacks, even the odd copy of Astounding Science Fiction 1960s magazines given to me by mother.

There was a shelf of books I did not – could not – store.  Books I knew I would read again. A more mature sort of book exploring the complexity of human reactions to alien ontologies. I’m looking at them now and realising almost all of them are by female authors.  I imagine about 90% of science fiction books are by men, like almost all those that now rest quietly in Ready Steady Store.

First among these, both chronologically and literarily, must be Ursula le Guin. Her books have an almost contemplative nature – small windows on lives in a vast universe. It was in her books I first encountered themes of androgeny, of polyamory, and the emotional regret of distance in time and space leavened only by her invention of the Ansible – allowing instantaneous communication across the universe, copied by so many other subsequent writiers.

Notable other occupants are Nicola Griffith, whose books have quite a strong Sapphic context;  and Karen Lord (I particularly admire her “The Best of All Possible Worlds”).  Dan Simmons’ The Hyperion Cantos put images in my mind 20 years ago that I still can’t escape – if you have read it you will probably know what I mean. The Shrike.

Finally, this ramble has been prompted by putting into the bookcase the third of a trilogy just finished – Ancillary Justice, Sword and Mercy by Ann Leckie.  In one sense a classic space opera with fighting, aliens, AI etc.  But in another an extraordinary internally focused trilogy, involving a lot of sitting round drinking tea, love, misunderstood feelings.  The aliens she imagines are really other, largely only hinted at, truly incomprehensible.  I would love to read more about them and perhaps she will write that in the future.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Concert highlights for 2014

My ticket stubs tell me that I went to 62 performances during 2014, of which 9 were in Berlin and most of the rest in London.  Strangely in 2013 I also went to 62 performances (7 in Berlin, 8 in Manchester and most of the rest in London).
Almost everything I went to pleased me greatly.  Those that really stick in my memory as special were:
  • Johánn Johánnsson playing his score “The Miners’ Hymns” to accompany Bill Morrison’s film about the lives of miners in County Durham during the twentieth century – the film is an extraordinary and ultimately rather depressing piece of social history, beautifully complemented by the music  (09.03 Barbican)
  • Harmonic Series, at which the cellist Olly Coates introduced me to Éliane Radigue’s “L’ile re-sonante”.    I had not come across Radigue before, and now I am addicted - iTunes tells me I have since listened to this piece 39 times.  It’s 55 minutes long, so that’s about 3 days worth of my life.  And that’s not to mention the 12 times I have listened to her 3 hour long "Trilogie de la Mort" this year (17.03 Southbank)
  • The London Sinfonietta as part of its “Blue Touch Paper” programme played a new sextet by Gavin Higgins – “Uncle Dima”.   An angry polemical piece raging against Russian suppression of gay rights.  I find it extraordinary that the pop music of our times is so politically passive, but take great comfort that our contemporary composers are not. (21.05 ICA)
  • Opera Erratica’s “Triptych”.  I loved it, a sort of mini opera created by a cooperative.   Highly modern, dense with meaning, and very pretty girls wearing not much.   It suggests one way forward for opera as something less expensive, elitist and hierarchical.  I’ve since seen further performances by the same company which I have also enjoyed greatly, including ""The Little Match Girl Passion" followed by a Christmas Carol Karaoke in Hackney Wick (03.06 Print Room, Notting Hill)
  • Mica Levi playing her score along with the film “Under the Skin”.  I have followed her work closely, seeing her play both pop concerts as Micachu, and as a collaborator with the London Sinfonietta.  She’s a refreshing and rare reminder that pop music does not have to be merely dull repetition (18.06 Southbank)
  • Alice Coote and Christian Blackshaw performing Schumann Lieder.   From the first note I was transported to another world; I already knew that Blackshaw is amongst my favourite pianists, and found Alice Coote’s voice an equal delight.  (22.06 Wigmore Hall)
  • Matthew Barney’s “River of Fundament” with music by Jonathan Bepler.  Visually beautiful, unforgettably intense.  Somewhere between a film, art, opera and surreal pornography.  And six hours long.  I’d really like to see it again. (26.06 Colliseum, London)
  • Norma Nahoun and Julien Quentin performing a concert of music by the English composer Charlotte Bray in this wonderful piano repair workshop come concert space. The concert included "Yellow Leaves" which I had commissioned (12.09 Piano Salon Christophori, Berlin)
  • Hauschka playing through his new album “Abandoned City” on prepared piano and electronics in this wonderful Berlin venue.  (19.09 Volksbühne, Berlin)
  • Britten Sinfonia playing live work by Thomas Adès live for dances by four choreographers (Wayne Macgregor, Karole Armitage, Alexander Whitley, and Crystal Pite). A perfect marriage of musicians, composer, and dance. The standout moment however was Adès playing the piano while Claire Booth sang so captivatingly that I was almost unaware of the dancers on the stage (01.11 Sadler’s Wells)
  • Cédric Tiberghien, playing Bartók  piano pieces to a chamber music size audience (about 20 of us).  Cédric talked through the whole development of Bartók’s composing in an insightful, informal, and informative manner.  And he plays beautifully.  (04.11 Queensgate Terrace)

As a footnote, the 2014 events included:
24  classical concerts (ie written before about 1960)
25 contemporary classical music concerts
11 contemporary dance performances
2  plays
The concerts were:
22 Chamber recitals
14 Ensemble performances
7 Orchestral concerts
6 Operas
The most visited London venues were:
16 at the Southbank (22 in 2013)
8 at the Wigmore Hall (11 in 2013)
6 at Sadler’s Wells (5 in 2013)
3 at the Barbican (1 in 2013)
2 at King’s Place (none in 2013)