My Most Important Fan

The chances that my first composition will make it to the Top Ten are probably extremely slim ( 😦 ), although people I know seem to enjoy it. However I do have one very important fan. He has little experience of music. He has absolutely no idea what is popular or what is fashionable. Concepts such as “atonal” or “tonal” have no meaning for him. He is one of those rare people who enjoy music just because it sounds pleasant to the ears. Well, I have made that assumption because he would quickly make it known if it was unpleasant. He knows which CD is “Andrew’s” (and can put it on by himself), but he probably doesn’t associate me personally with that music. He even dances to the music! He is my partner’s 2 year-old grandson. Thank you for playing my music Trent, and may your life’s musical journey bring you continuing happiness, untainted by the dictates of popularity or fashion. 🙂

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 3:44 pm  Comments (2)  

In Defence of Andre Rieu

Poor Andre Rieu. Nobody (important) loves him. But he’s popular. And I bet he’s laughing. All the way to the bank. I have listened to a You Tube clip of his orchestra performing “Don’t Cry for me Argentina”, a personal favourite. It was sung by (as I recall) his son’s fiancée but for me it was a very poor performance, and presumably neither Andrew Lloyd Webber nor Julie Covington was there because the clip would have included a homicide. By rights singer and orchestra should have been booed off the stage. But they weren’t. To the contrary their reception was enthusiastic.

Andre Rieu is popular with a huge segment of the public, and I put his success down to his choice of music. Music and music extracts with simple melodies that the “common man” can relate to. Strauss waltzes and show tunes, which are easy to hum in the shower. There is also much-loved classical music in there. He plays what people like to hear. (Excluding me, but that’s just one person’s opinion.)

But then what about the awful performance? One needs to be careful here. In my experience everyone listens differently. I have attended concerts where I have wanted to crawl under the seat with embarrassment. Out of synchronicity is my pet hate, but also lack of musicality; hey, you know what I mean! Then I hear the enthusiastic applause and I think to myself, “Weren’t you listening?” And sometimes I have been enthusiastic where others have been a lot less so. In other words how we hear music is very personal and my unbearable mistake is someone else’s beautiful melody.

I have said it before and I reiterate: none of us can be precious about our musical taste. Those of us for whom music is a way of life should remember: some of those people who enjoy Andre Rieu may one day decide to be more adventurous and try a proper orchestra playing some Mozart or Beethoven. Then maybe Sibelius or even Shostakovich. I well remember my partner’s reaction to a live performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Almost an hour of completely unknown, non-stop classical music! Live classical music was still quite a new experience for her, she was by herself that night and she almost opted out. That piece of music is still one of her favourites and our musical journey has now extended to include everything from Wagner’s Ring Cycle through to chamber music, opera, choral – you name it!

Appreciation of classical music is for most people a journey. We are not born Wagner fans. Our tastes develop over time, and that development could start with a commercial for Old Spice or attending a Symphony in the Park concert or heading off to an Andre Rieu concert.

I would like to make the case for accepting Andre Rieu and his ilk as yet another fragment in the mosaic that is music.

Save the battles for the real enemies of music: fashion, intolerance and elitism.

Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 9:19 am  Comments (2)  

Classical music: The Birth of a New Star?

Classical music is not about hours of Meaningful Music. It is about pleasant music for everyday listening, interspersed with the occasional moment of utter elation. To experience this it is usually necessary to completely discard your boundaries and go to as many live concerts as possible. I experienced one such moment a few days ago. My partner and I were at the end-of-year concert at the Auckland Opera Factory. Just a brief intro to the Opera Factory because it would seem that it is unique in the world. It is an organisation which gives young vocalists – generally from primary school to tertiary level, but also beyond – the opportunity to perform on stage in front of a paying audience. It is also a training ground for back-of-stage staff, again from a very young age. Last Thursday night’s concert was superb. The youngest performers would have been around 10 years of age, and the oldest a well-known New Zealand identity who did a reading. It was no amateur production! All the performances were of a very high standard and most enjoyable. Then an unknown (to us) soprano, Marlena Devoe, came out of the chorus to sing that old warhorse, Vilia. (From Lehar’s The Merry Widow.) It is a beautiful aria but has been done to death. Except this time. Marlena had a presence on stage that can only be described as electrifying. Her voice had the quality of an experienced soprano but with an extra-special “creamy” character that in all my years of attending opera, I have never experienced before. When she finished the aria, the audience – all of them opera fans – just exploded with acclamation. The road to the world opera stage is long and very rocky and requires a mixture of talent, careful management, hard work and good luck to reach the destination. Marlena is just starting her journey along this road. She is young, she is beautiful, she is modest and she has a voice to die for. Given her natural talents this is a lady with a huge future. For me, Thursday night was one of those moments of utter elation that classical music fans live for.

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 3:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Contemporary Classical Music: The Emperor’s New Music? (Part 2)

All about good music, bad music and why we don’t get those nice melodies any more…….

And now to continue my story……..

What do Abba and Mr Beethoven have in common?

Beethoven concerts will always “put bums on seats”.
Conversely contemporary classical music invariably keeps bums off them. Surely that tells us something?
There is probably an element of reputation in Beethoven’s popularity but then how did he get that reputation? Other composers of his time composed huge numbers of works but are not as popular. For example Haydn (also a superb composer) composed 104 symphonies; Beethoven composed 9. Guess who is more popular? I put it down to Beethoven’s strong melodic lines; music that makes you want to dance and sing; music that you can whistle in the shower.
Beethoven is of course not the only popular composer from that period. Mozart has also provided us with innumerable beautiful melodic lines and has huge and continuing popular support. And this is over 200 years after he died! (It is worth noting too that all these early composers wrote some forgettable music; it is seldom played.)
I return to one of my opening questions: why have there been no composers approaching their stature in the last 100 years? Surely they didn’t use up all the nice melodies?

Fast forward to rock ‘n roll

Skip forward 150 years from Beethoven’s heyday to the start of popular music as we know it today. Arguably it started with Bill Haley, then Elvis. The Coasters. The Platters. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones….the list is interminable and everyone has their favourites.
These early rock bands/groups had that extra special “something”, principally strong rhythms and melodic lines that still keeps them popular 50 years after they recorded. How many Elvis impersonators in your town? Want to get everyone dancing at a party? Put on The Beatles. Or Abba, arguably one of the most melodic groups of all time and still hugely popular. But not just The Beatles and Abba. Many other bands and groups from the mid-50’s to the late 70’s will just as quickly get everyone up and dancing at any party. What is the common denominator? Strong melodic lines – just like Beethoven! (There is a notable postscript to this. One of the most popular musicals of recent times is Mama Mia which is all Abba. Strong melodic lines win again.)
Popular music seems to be going the same way as classical, in that the melodic lines that used to stick in our minds do not seem to be happening anymore. Perhaps this is why the music of 30, 40, 50 years ago is still so popular. But at this point I will exit the discussion about popular music because that is a whole new subject. Maybe someone out there would like to kick it off? (Don’t forget to include jazz and musicals which have strong parallels.)

Musical “fashion”

Some would have us believe that certain styles of music are no longer “fashionable”. Unfortunately fashion has always played a major role in contemporary composition, even in Beethoven’s time, but I suggest that fashions are not dictated by the public. Conversely popular public taste is often referred to derisively as “populist”, not fashionable.
Historically critics and other music professionals have been at the forefront of fashion with documented examples of rejection at best and scathing criticism at worst, of “unfashionable” music. Unfortunately there seems to be fewer recorded examples of the public reaction to those pieces, but subsequent history has clearly shown wide public support for those works.
There are of course exemptions, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ballet score is the most notable of those. Briefly, the first performance in 1913 in Paris resulted in public riots in protest at the music.
We are told that it can take time for new musical styles to become popular and that even Beethoven stretched the boundaries of what was publicly acceptable – but when that guy died 20,000 mourners lined the streets for his funeral. Today that would be equivalent to half a million on the streets of New York. It didn’t take long for Beethoven to get the public on his side!
Whoever or whatever is dictating the current “fashion” in contemporary classical composition, the public are just not buying into it. The public do not want atonal. They don’t want experimentation for the sake of it. Music is not an intellectual exercise. The poor old public much prefer the simple melodies and harmonies which are largely ignored by contemporary composers. This is why the public stick with all the old favourites; they provide something the public can just be able to “sit back and enjoy”.
Faced with 150-year-old music and traditions, or bewildering cacophonous contemporary music, it is no wonder that classical music is regarded as “elite” by so many.
How has this come about? Could it be that the professionals enjoy atonal, experimental music because their musical tastes are more highly developed than those of the public and hence their preference for intellectual music? Thus composition graduates will conform to those preferences, and the cycle continues.
We do not need fashion in classical music and in fact fashion could be said to be the western equivalent of Shostakovich’s Soviet repression. We – the consumer, the customer, the audience – pay the piper. We should also call the tune!

Have I been a bit harsh?

To those who feel compelled to strongly protest I repeat my personal concerns:
1. Most regular attendees of classical concerts view new compositions with apprehension.
2. In general only classical music more than 100 years old is universally popular with paying audiences.
3. There has not been a single classical composer with the universal stature of the 18th and 19th century greats, in the last 100 years.
4. Most new classical music has few or no memorable melody lines.
If you still think I’m off beam maybe you would like to point out where I’m wrong!

Some thoughts to ponder

Somewhere, somehow, the world of contemporary composition has headed down a very narrow path and has lost sight of its supporters, the public at large. However I would like to end on a positive note.
1. Ignore experts. One of the few real freedoms we have left is to choose whether to like or dislike. If you like a piece of music, don’t be talked out of it – even by me. Enjoy it, support it and feel the freedom! I have had many people say to me that they “know little about music but rather enjoyed a piece of music.” My invariable response is that they don’t need to know anything about music. It is enough that they enjoyed it.
2. Be adventurous. Try a new musical genre. Try a new composer. Try a new band. The worst that can happen is that you have wasted the price of a ticket. The best that can happen is that a whole new world opens up to you, as it has for me in the last 15 years.
3. Don’t create fashions! Producing hordes of latter-day Beethoven or McCartney clones would again make us slaves to music fashion. Total freedom in music must be encouraged. If you want to compose saccharine ballads, go for it! If you want to compose a concerto for tuba and side drum, go for it! Our budding composers should be actively encouraged to do what they want to do, but to do it well. To be able to compose Country and Western so sad even your dog will start crying. Or try to take over Mozart’s mantle if you’re brave (or silly) enough. The public will soon let you know if you get it right.
4. Contemporary music isn’t all bad. I clearly recall the first visit to New Zealand of the Eroica Trio, an extremely talented piano trio from USA. As part of their concert they performed a new piece by a local college girl and it was very enjoyable. Lovely harmonies, a beautifully structured piece that was pleasant to listen to. Our applause for that piece was genuine affirmation.
I recently attended a composers’ workshop and had several days of wall-to-wall contemporary classical music. Some of it was outside my comfort zone but some of it I genuinely enjoyed.
5. WE MUST STILL SUPPORT NEW COMPOSERS AND EXPERIMENTATION. I do not advocate banning experimental music. I just want to encourage more classical composers (and writers of popular music) to provide for those of us with traditional, simple, tastes in music.
The ones that get it right will get a rewarding career. The ones that get it wrong may need to revise their ambitions, and I include myself in that category.
6. Most importantly. History has shown us that the public are the best judges of music that will endure. Composers who want to bring enjoyment to a wide audience should let only the public and history be the judge of their success.
As a budding composer, have I put my money where my mouth is? Judge for yourself with clips of my first composition. They may not be Mozart (I wish!) but the melodic lines are strong.
I hope I haven’t lost you with my ramblings. However I started by asking if all the nice tunes been used up. My response is: NO! There are innumerable melodies still to be written. They must be written. There is a huge audience just waiting for those nice, simple melodies that they can sing to themselves, and they can relate to. Composers and songwriters: rediscover your roots!

Published in: on November 22, 2009 at 4:33 pm  Comments (4)  
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