2012/12/26

To manifest a new reality ...

Create the thought-form you wish to see. Embrace it whole-heartedly. Give thanks for it as if it already exists. Hold on to it and allow it to transform you until you manifest this new reality.

It won't all be easy - if it was, you'd already have it - because part of what creates the new reality is the energy that arises from the stress you experience. Almost always, there's some element, some old pattern, that needs to be purged before this new thought-form can become grounded in reality. This testing (in old language 'temptation') validates both the thought-form and you, and forms the cooking process by which a new alloy is fused from a marriage of different realities.

2012/12/06

Signature Sound

Each whale has one song - and this they repeat as their ID. It can evolve over a lifetime, and sometimes a pod of whales synchronises their song, but each individual's version is never identical. We humans think we have many songs, but the reality is that we have only one true heart-song and all the rest are variations on it.

I have been thinking about this over the last 9 months as I have been evolving an idiom for my current opera project: As I was going to Strawberry Fair. The answer always seems to emerge after a process of subconsciousness reconciliation between one's native inner voice and the musical context in which you wish the result to be heard. Yet ultimately, if I look back over my music I find there are consistent, if constantly evolving, harmelodic patterns - a preference for evoking certain qualities of sound & feeling in music, which must qualify as 'my song' when taken as a whole. In Indian music this would be described as a rasa, a flavour or essence. You could compare it to the unique odour each of us gives off.

I am frequently accused of making things too hard. If I write for people I know I tune into them, but there is noone then I write what I hear. With known collaborators I can easily adapt my ideas, indeed much prefer to model something directly for the capacities of an actual human being: but since that isnt an option that my solitary life often yields I feel free to write what I hear, as-it-were for an optimum performer, rather than for the specific limitations of an individual. Unfortunately this tends to result in difficulties for performers. So if more of them made themselves available it would be easier all round ...!

One of the 'decisions' I had to make was exactly what height of brow to pitch the opera at. I found all my initial ideas came out as a bit cheap & cheesy. There's nothing wrong in this per se, except that if one is pitching to the popular end of the musical market things can never be cheap & cheesy enough since the whole thing is entertainment-driven - moreover the market /audience is so segmented by social & idiomatic prejudices I couldnt feel any musical /moral centrewhere my own musical authenticity could ground itself in a collective (musical) awareness. I therefore needed to allow the process of refining my ideas to continue until I felt that what was emerging was calculated to appeal some-how/where/when to the great tradition of opera.

The other point of contention in my mind was, and has always been, the conflict between the natural voice & the produced voice. The essential point is that I'd like my work to be sung by natural voices; however noone who hasnt had training can sing my music, ergo I cannot avoid trained voices. 

As I was going to Strawberry Fair is a working title. The piece is my attempt to express the cognitive dissonance between the magical world of imagination and beauty where people are open to each other (which is the Glastonbury/Avalon of our dreams) and the workaday world of money & contracts where people seem to consider themselves unfettered by any principle of compassion or cooperation. IMO finding a way to pitch this light against the engulfing darkness is a calling for everyone on a spiritual path.

The control which computers have given those who manage money means that more and more of human society can be controled by those who hold the purse strings. People must be taught that they have the power of individuality. It is not obligatory to surrender your existence to a bourgeois concept of career and comfort. To me whatever Glastonbury signifies, for better or worse, it is that there are people for whom the spiritual search is paramount. From where I am it sometimes feels as if noone is searching, but it's important to remind oneself that whatever the adharmic present there is, and has always been a solid core of men and women of goodwill who are seriously searching for their way to connect with the spiritual heart of existence.

To those people my piece is dedicated. Whether I have penetrated to & exprest the deepest archetype/s with my music I may never know. Is there a resonant truth within it? Validation would be a great bonus. There are so many questions I would ask the future, but I just have to put my hand in the hand of my saviour/s and trust.

2012/12/02

Native Turf

Visiting the Royal Academy Bronze Exhibition recently I was struck by the fact that while so many of the Italian exhibits had been loaned by the churches and galleries of their indigenous locations, most of the remainder were on loan from galleries or private collections with no indigenous relationship to the artefact. This made me think about the political questions of public ownership, privatisation, and the cultural needs of a country or nation. 

Nowadays the technocratic solution to a nation's or a community's financial woes would be to sell off or lease its cultural assets; but at the end of it what would be left but a series of gutted cities whose heart had quite literally been ript out - like the old market towns of Kingston, Surrey where I grew up, and which the planners eviscerated in the 1980s in favour of the car and in order to fill the empty spaces with soulless shopping malls that all contain the same national retailers? Even as I write this the ENO announces its intention to auction naming rights for the Coliseum. What is not for sale? It might be financially 'efficient', especially to those advisers who would profit from the process, to sell off all the Greek treasures - but where would that leave Greece? Who would take pride in living there, let alone going there?

In the world of money there is no loyalty to anything other than money. Its practitioners are like electrical appliances that offer dazzling pictures and sound, but only for as long as they're plugged into the juice. Unplug their 'power' - divorce them from their context - and they're dead. The pursuit of money really is the root of all evil: it eats out people's souls. It isn't surprising that deluded folk  pursue it to the exclusion of all else (there are weirdos everywhere!) what is truly revealing about our culture is the attention lavished by the public on these vacuous people.

Knowing who we are, individually or collectively, depends on knowing who we have been. And even if the most people are content to ignore their national treasures in favour of the latest ephemeral slebrity - as Im sure most Italians do - ultimately even the most culturally insensitive person derives identity from their heritage. The biannual circuses of traditional Christianity may be ignored by the majority, yet they're nevertheless part of a nation's mental furniture.

Like Christianity itself, any thought-form that loses its grounding in the popular psyche loses its currency. If art becomes yet another specialist ghetto of intellectually controlled values, demanding an entrance qualifcation either in the form of an art degree or millions of disposable dollars, then it dies. And if proof of this is wanted, one has only to look at the moral bankruptcy of the 'Turner' Prize, whose winner was announced today. While some cynics might argue that the lazy, fashion-driven, craftlessness of the Turner Prize is a perfect way to connect and reflect contemporary social values, it nonetheless fails at the first hurdle of any definition that a primary function of art is to reflect a transcendant reality of those feelings that lie beyond words.

Just as money is an intellectualised commodity valuation system that drains the emotional reality out of whatever it leaches onto; and you have only to look at ogres like Donald Trump to see how those who worship it lose all contact with their human-ness.

2012/12/01

Advice for pupils

Performers demonstrate their mastery by restraint.
    Just blasting away as loud & fast as you can impresses only the ignorant (admittedly 98% of the population) but even they will grow tired of it eventually. Like a racing driver you need to keep power in reserve for when you really need it - when showing off can have maximum effect. In any case, going flat out all the time doesn’t show good judgment & is likely to result in a crash.

Who are you playing to?
    A performer’s career depends on impressing - not the general public - but discerning professionals, be they professors, managers or producers. These are the 'gate-keepers' who control funding &/or college admission. Just as important as learning the notes is 'learning the rules’, discovering the aesthetics as well as the technicalities of performance valued by the ‘gate-keepers’ - and then giving it to them. You may not agree, but you can’t bend the rules until you’ve understood them.
    My personal opinion is that exams don’t really contribute to this process but competitions do as you can hear other performers, receive direct feedback from the adjudicator, and see whom s/he considers the best performer … tho not always why!


The most important thing about SIGHT-READING is to keep the musical narrative clear so that the listener gains an impression of the whole piece, no matter how sketchy. This is far more important than playing all the notes. In practice this means
  1. Keep the beat at all costs - which gives overall coherence to your effort.
  2. Prioritise the melody so that the listener can follow ‘what you're saying’.
  3. Leave out whatever interferes with them. (As your skills improves you’ll find you can include more, but also part of your improved skill shows itself in judging what can be omitted.)
Imagine you were listening to someone reading a chapter that neither of you had seen before. If they read it out in a flat voice stumbling over words & pausing for breath in the middle of phrases you’ll have only the haziest clue about the sense of the piece.
    It’s the same in music. You can sight-read text because you’ve done it every day since the age of 6. To develop the same skill with music demands a similar amount of sight-reading practise.
  • Excellent sight-reading comes from the experience of simply doing it day-in day-out.
  • With experience you learn to perceive recurring patterns.
  • With good pattern recognition you gain an intuitive understanding of how music is structured into sections (governed by cadences in art music & choruses in mass market music) and see how/why certain chord sequences are more frequently used.
  • This all goes into the experience that creates excellent sight-reading.
There are also some very important wider lessons in this about prioritising decision-making on the fly. In the long run, mastery of sight-reading confers an ability to think abstractly - to perceive the underlying patterns not merely in music, but more widely in life, both in terms of making life decisions and assessing probable outcomes of human interaction/s.
    In my observation it is quality of decision-making that most distinguishes people who achieve something worthwhile in their lives & relationships from those who don’t . Successful decision-takers are those who are close to their intuition, but able to interrogate it consciously, and thus avoid the twin traps surrendering to blind instinct or being indecisive 'sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought’. This is exactly the lesson that sight-reading forces you to learn: to perceive patterns intuitively and discard what isn't essential.
    This is also the quality of a good communicator - keeping the narrative clear. Good communicators don’t tell people things they don’t need to know. They listen with a ’third ear’ to avoid deluging the public with unwanted info that only serves to confuse. Music demands the development of this third ear - the ability to listen to the sound you are making independent of the cyber-noise created by your gestures & exertions - and sight-reading helps this almost more than any other musical activity.
    
Example: Microsoft used to build hugely complex GUIs (graphic user interfaces) because they weren't sure exactly how people would use it. Apple (under Jobs) kept to extremely simple GUIs because they'd worked out what created a user-friendly experience. That is the goal of becoming a musician - giving listeners a user-friendly experience.
  

2012/07/31

Is Christian renewal even possible?

Until the churches admit to their role as brutal oppressors they will never regain its moral power, let alone the respect of free-thinking people. But this would demand more than just a superhuman institutional backflip – it would demand that believers take on board the Jungian perspective that the Christian trinity is actually a quaternity – and that the concept of a devil is an integral part of the Christian world-view. It is, I believe, only when humans take responsibility for their own evil that things can change.

So long as institutional Christianity remains in denial about this, &/or the sexual abuse it has fostered – & it has such a colossal investment in its world-view & heritage it’s hard to see how this could ever occur – I don’t see how any renewal is possible. And that entirely leaves aside post-Darwinian issues! The outworking of this perspective is visible in the devastation the Jud├Žo-Xtian civilisation has wrought on the entire planet. (Whether that accounts for the China’s effects is another question.)

It may be integral to human nature that we are all conditioned to see only the conscious /willed aspects of our thought-forms not the unconscious or involuntary results? Yet it remains a paradox that the spirit of Christ, not institutional Christianity, has inspired some of the noblest philanthropy and art, not to mention the evolution of science & healing, so both are part of the whole picture.

To me, individuals like Giles Foster represents the best hope that the lumpen dough of the church/es can be leavened by the spirit of free thought, and recaptured from the timidity of placeholders like Rowan Williams & the rampant bigots who seek to perpetuate their predecessors oppression by the nauseating focus on gender issues.

This of course leads to the question: what does it mean to call oneself a Christian at all? I don’t think it req uires one to say that one is not a Buddhist or adherent of any another faith tradition. They are all metaphors for expressing the human condition & embodying a wisdom tradition, which has to be learnt & then discarded in order to discover the mystical core of existence. To me, it matters not a whit what label people apply to themselves (or others) the real issue is: are they true to the highest ethical & spiritual perceptions of which humans are capable. I am conscious that my introduction to these issues came throu the Christian tradition, within which I have met some of the finest people I know, and thus it’s convenient to wear that badge, but ultimately it is just a badge. The issue of who anyone is independent of the words they use to delineate themselves.

To the degree that I am an heir to the Christian tradition I too acknowledge my own complicity in the brutality of my tradition’s history: however expressing coherently that, let alone seeing such thoughts infiltrate the mainstream, is altogether another matter. My perception is that unless institutional Xty can come to own this process collectively - which it can only do throu the advocacy of committed visionaries like Fraser or Huddleston or Teilhard de Chardin - it is destined to an ossified irrelevance. But then I do not see the church as custodian of the spirit of Christ.

2012/07/15

To a biographer of Karl Amadeus Hartmann

I read your thesis with interest. There was a concert of Hartmann’s music on BBCr3 last year, as a result of the evangelism of a newly appointed conductor whose name I can't remember. I listened to a bit of it, because it had been trailed with something of his story, but the music didn’t make a tremendously memorable impression on me. Before that he had merely been a name to conjure with - like Berio’s reference to ‘… and afterward Mayakovsky’s name hanging in the air' in Sinfonia - like the anti-Nazi painter landscape painter who was reduced to painting on scraps of paper & hiding them.
    I especially sympathise with his plight because I watched a tv doc about Orff - who was so clearly a loathsome human-being that even those who had loved him struggled to find anything agreeable to say.
    Hearing Hartmann’s music, yet it not really impacting on me, made me think how there is a window within which a composer’s music needs to be heard if it is to bind itself to listeners’ expectation. Suk is another example of a superb composer whose time can never come I fear - indeed I only know of him throu Bjelohlavec’s advocacy during his recent tenure at the BBCSO.
    There is a v interesting question about the degree to which a composer uses ‘ready-made idioms’ - ie those that are relational to the musical language of the composer’s age - and those who pioneer their own language. The former only really fare well if they are first heard within the era where composer's style of chimes with that of the musical public. If, for whatever reason they do succeed in establishing their 'voice', like Shostakovich or Britten, then they are assured of a place at least in history, even if not in the enduring love of a fickle public taste.
    Exceptions however are those like Janacek or Ives, who were little heard in their lifetimes, but whose radical language was seen as a career opportunity by certain performers. Indeed the way in which Janacek’s music has travelled from the eccentric margins to the centre of the operatic stage during my lifetime is one of the most inspiring stories. It all seems to depend on the ‘undiscovered’ music in question having an ‘edge’ which sits at an acute angle to the psyche of the succeeding generation/s.

As a composer who grew up in the 60s when the 'Darmstadt orthodoxy’ ruled, I didn’t even bother applying for music college, because there seemed to be only unthinking conservatism & unthinking modernism to choose from. As a result I have certainly felt very much like an un-person on the musical scene, despite having held posts at the RCM & BBC – indeed Messiaen was very much sneered at as an un-person at the Conservatoire in his lifetime – to the degree that I decided in 1991 to abandon any attempt at trying to create a relationship between my own ears & those of the musical world. This led me to bury myself in the countryside, where I have become a successful local piano teacher – http://uk.youtube.com/MaxwellsPupils & http://colourmuse.com – & work instead on expressing  what my ears hear. Tho I am happy to write ‘ready made music’ for my pupils to enjoy developing their skils, in the wider world the result has largely been incomprehension towards what I think are my most significant choral works: a set of 3 Canticles which remain unperformed. http://msteer.co.uk/vide/4ndexvscores.htm
    This week I'm recording two song sets (a live performance of parts is at http://vimeo.com/savile) but the open questions of who is actually interested & why I might actually be doing it are uppermost in my mind? (I always have the example of Ives sending 50 printed copies of 50 of his songs to 50 leading singers on his 50th birthday, & receiving not one single reply!) I long ago accepted the idea that the only listener that matters is ‘the cosmic ear’ of Kabir’s poem who alone hears the unstruck drum. But like anyone on the earth, & not in some celestial vacuum, composers necessarily require the collaboration of performers who, in my experience, are rarely interested in straying far from the profitable mainstream. So there is always a tension there.
    Thus, in terms of the argument I frame above, from a contemporary perspective I could be said to have ‘missed the bus’; yet from my own perspective I feel that I am actually creating ‘a new bus’ which encodes my spiritual realities. And to the degree that I feel myself like some Merlin who encodes a sword in a stone that some unknown Arthur must crack in order to meet some future need. Fanciful? Well, I waste noone’s time but my own.

But for me the issue is even more poignant, because our composer-dauter, Serafina Steer, is home this weekend & last night played us her long-awaited fifth album of original songs, which is a quantum leap beyond anything she has achieved before, both in production & self-expression. It has been produced by a major leag figure & as a result has taken all year to reach the point of a production master, and won't now be released until February 2013 as the label don’t want it to disappear without trace in the pre-Christmas rush. Such a long gestation is immensely difficult for her as she writes in a style which might loosely be generalised as art-pop – and of course within this world ‘currency’ is all. Altho Sefa's creative depth transcends the superficial she is at the stage in her life she is supremely dependent on tides which noone can control. And naturally as a parent I am concerned for her, but doubly so knowing something of the unpredictable way tides operate.

So Hartmann’s misfortune in being caught twice on the wrong side of history is one I can relate to. He seems to have dealt with it as well as anyone could; and is luckily to have found such a coherent advocate as yourself.

2012/06/25

What is farthest away is inside us

If people think they've found God without exploring themselves, they're mistaken. Contrariwise, if they claim to have found themselves without acknowledging the 'otherness within' then it's only a self they've found not the Self. For self & 'other' are twin poles of the same magnet. This duality means that what is most profoundly within is also the point throu which we connect to what is transcendentally outwith us. For this is the tangent of I & U, 0 & 1. Each of us has the potential to be the fulcrum of the universe.

2012/02/04

Thoughts on BBCr3

The current house style of R3 cant be divorced from the general trends in broadcasting & these cant be divorced from the general trends in society, notably the twin drivers of capitalism & techno innovation.

As pro muso /composer (& BBCr3 producer in the 80s) who now teaches extensively & runs Cherubimtrust.org I've spent my life trying to connect art music to a wider public especially the young. The defining issue in broadcasting is that an audience is attracted by a whole range of factors in addition to the actual timbre of the content. Loathe CFM as I do you cant deny that it has been phenomenally successful. Tx to Darren Henley it's absolutely on the money for its audience. Therefore, as someone with experience of the world Id say why would R3 not want some of that? Broadcasting is a numbers game & it would be political suicide for any part of the BBC to forget that. Given the pressures that exist within the organisation where probably most of the upper management views classical music in roughly the same way politicians view the church - a rather quaint sacred cow! - IMO it's utterly unrealistic to think R3 could resist a strong demotic pressure. Exactly the same thing has happened in the broadsheets which cant escape the magnetic lure of tabloidisation. The various mediums are converging & as nobody's yet sure what shape future media platforms will come in, managers everywhere are trying hedge their operations by grabbing any passing kite & heading for the centre ground. So much for the digital dividend! 

My career as a broadcaster was ended by the Birt reforms (called with totalitarian genius Producer Choice); so I have every reason to hanker for the past. Old BBC hands say the coporation changes completely every 10 years - and I certainly saw that during my time as a broadcaster (not just R3). And it's now 2 (re)generations later. It's a technology driven business & technology creates consciousness which in turn gives rise to new mythologies (balance of probabilities). We who are on the outside may not agree with them & we may, as you do, seek to assert our perspective/s - that is q proper - but IMHO we have to negotiate from a current balance of probabilities. We do live in an age when the ability to read & literacy /raw data & knowledge are taken for the same thing. we cant expect R3 to be immune from such idiocy!

I spent sometime in California last year and was interested to listen to the classical radio stations there. They weren't by any means bad, but it was heavily formatted towards cap-C Classical repertoire, and a style of presentation known as reading the CD liner notes! And of course very little contemporary music & no live or new music whatever. It seems to me that the complaint of traditional listeners is that they're not being catered for. I rather suspect most would rather prefer Californian classical radio. But an attempt is being made by BBCR3 (eptly or ineptly) to interest younger & wider audiences. It's not the balance as Id call it, but I dont think it's a bad one - tho the rajar figures aren't exactly encouraging from the BBC's perspective!

As I think I said earlier, there isn't one answer. There're lots of different potential answers and requires constant experimentation to find which answers click in the current context. Thus it comes down to: how clever do you think the present regime are in handling these issues? Id give them a 7 for effort & a 6 for effect. The problem is when older listeners dont see the bigger picture, or rather use R3 as a whipping boy for the complaints about the modern world that wont stick anywherelse.

I tell you the difficulties of opening the spiritual breadth of 'heritage' music to those who brought up under the 'perpetual erasure' of electronic culture have never been more problematical when (state) schools no longer really even bother to teach it. That's the baseline from we're now all operating & I think we're lucky that R3 still has the budget todo as much asit does. Who can say The Proms isn't one of the greatest music festivals of the world, perhaps of all time?

Once upon a time most secondary schools had choral societies. There almost none of left at schools near here, because of the curriculum pressures & modern lifestyles. Where is the next generation of amateur choral singers to come from?