dsc00987x.jpg Pomponia intermedia
How do you know whether this cicada is a little boy or a girl? The white line gives a clue as it points, not to any sex organs, but to the mechanism that only male cicadas have for producing sound. As Aristotle first noticed, cicadas are the only creature anatomically equipped with a musical instrument. They don’t sing (the sound doesn’t come from their mouth) and they don’t stridulate or use an organ which also serves another purpose. No, the sole function of this membrane is for the males to call female cicadas when they wish to copulate. It’s the equivalent of standing on a street corner and blowing your horn to entice a young lady to jump into bed with you. Except that it works, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many cicadas. And so much varied cicada music. Some cicadas imitate the sounds of birds or bells, others circular saws and one just discovered, a police siren. In some ways it is a pity humans do not use this method of attracting a mate. The average male might be a little more musically gifted; dexterity on the flugelhorn would be the ultimate sign of virility; Mick Jagger would have to learn at least the guitar. The average female might have broader musical tastes instead of just listening to the Frozen Monkeys or whatever. And kids wouldn’t have to be forced into doing their recorder practice. (In case you’re concerned by these things, some male cicadas also answer the mating calls).

By all accounts Arnold was a musical genius who never received the recognition he was due, either from the BBC or from the music-loving public, possibly because he was unable to write ‘serious’ music without including light-hearted references and snatches as well. Strange this, as many of the great composers were fond of inserting jokes into their music. His life contained quite a few odd moments, too.
‘In 1940 Arnold won second prize in the Cobbett competition for composition with a string quartet. Rebelling against discipline, he eloped with a Welsh redhead and ran away to Plymouth. He was found by detectives playing in a dance band and was persuaded to return to the college.’ A conscientious objector, he was directed into the National Fire Service but was exempted from other war work when he joined the LPO. When he played a solo he would change colour, turning from pink to all shades of red, through purple to puce then, when finished, he would regard his instrument with disgust, as though it had pooped on the carpet. In 1943 he changed his mind and volunteered to join the Army; he was directed into the Buffs’ band. To obtain his discharge when the war ended, he shot himself in the foot and spent four weeks in hospital.Arnold led a troubled and often stormy life which veered into alcoholism and depression. “He had a heart attack in 1988 and attempted suicide a few years later (“took every pill in the house and washed them down with a bottle of brandy”). Schizophrenia and manic depression led to a period in a mental institution.” In 1984 he was given two years to live and in 1992 two months.It was Arnold’s fate to be described as too populist. A critic once wrote of the Fifth Symphony, “the less said about it the better”. I can remember hearing the still freshly composed Grand Grand Overture for organ, three vacuum cleaners, floor polisher, four rifles and orchestra (1956), written for Gerard Hoffnung’s music festival.
One player remembers him thus: “His writing is so idiomatic, always voicing the instruments in a way that exploits their character and makes the player feel good. The clustered seventh chords in the horns, the radiant brass writing, the mellifluous woodwind solos and the huge, arching string tunes are like slipping into a warm bath for those playing them. Perhaps because of his concern for the forgotten or neglected, he wrote more piccolo and tuba solos than everyone else put together.”

Obituary: Madeau Stewart

October 6, 2006

Sad to see this morning of the death of Madeau Stewart, who, with A.L. Lloyd, did more than anyone else to make the folk music (as it was then called) of other countries known in Britain. As the Telegraph writes “she took on the task of augmenting the BBC’s early music and non-British folk and indigenous music archives, a job which involved travelling around the world to collect recordings from far-flung parts and gathering in material from itinerant contributors… As an interviewer she was known for her ability to draw out the particular personality of the artist, from the operatic diva to the shy young instrumentalist.” She also rescued the Victoria and Albert’s collection of historic musical instruments which were then languishing in a sadly neglected backwater of the museum’s department of Woodwork and Furniture. I like the image of her given by the Telegraph: “In the early 1960s she spent time on the island of Inch Kenneth, the home of her half-aunt, Lady Redesdale (she was also related to the Mitfords). There she enjoyed sitting on the rocks, playing her flute while seals flocked around her.”
As one of the ‘itinerant contributors’ I owe a debt of gratitude to Madeau for making it possible for me, whilst a penniless student, to go round France recording hurdy-gurdies (then unknown in Britain, nowadays you can buy plastic ones in Tesco). She lent me from the BBC engineering department what was then cutting edge technology, a device that recorded sound on tape(!), worked off batteries and weighed half a ton. She also introduced me to a French countess who took me from Paris to the Auvergne in a 2cv which she drove as if she was on the last lap at Le Mans, showing at the same time an utter contempt for red lights and traffic police. Madeau’s skill and enthusiasm helped to convert my hair-brained scheme into an eventual programme, which she produced, along with one I did ten years later on the music of the Tuaregs, which was broadcast at a particularly quiet time on the BBC Third Programme but nevertheless made quite a stir among connoisseurs of the genre. After she left I made a fruitless proposal of a programme on pre-Columbian music to some suit who didn’t know the difference between a crumhorn and a Tibetan nose flute.

Delighted to see that one of my favourite instruments featured in the obituary of His Majesty King Taufa’Ahau Tupou IV of Tonga. “Nose flautists had been practising the haunting melodies with which they awoke the King and Queen in a dawn serenade on coronation day.” Let us hope that when the time came to bid farewell to His Majesty the same instruments were prominent. And none of this Frozen Monkeys nonsense.

Interesting obits in the Telegraph the other morning in which the BBC doesn’t exactly cover itself in glory.

‘He (Drummond) also found that the BBC governors had little interest in music. One of them asked him why the BBC needed its music library: “I thought musicians played from memory.”…..
With the advent of John Birt as director-general, Drummond felt that he was living in an increasingly alien world. Asked by Drummond what he thought of the BBC’s orchestras, Birt replied: “They are a variable resource centre whose viability depends on the business plan of the Controller of Radio 3.” Drummond devoted the 1994 and 1995 seasons to the centenary of the Proms and commissioned works from Elliott Carter, Berio, Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies and others. The Birtwistle piece, performed on the Last Night in 1995, was Panic, for saxophone and orchestra, an abrasive and uncompromising work lasting nearly 20 minutes; the BBC switchboard was swamped with several thousand protesting calls from listeners and viewers. John Drummond was appointed CBE in 1990 and knighted in 1995. The BBC’s corporate press release for the Honours List made no mention of his knighthood. When asked why, the corporation said that, as the citation was “for services to music”, the award had nothing to do with the BBC.’

‘Anne Gregg was, according to the Daily Mail sacked as presenter of the Holiday programe.
“There were suggestions that, at 51, she was a victim of “ageism” (she was succeeded by Anneka Rice), and viewers who appreciated Anne Gregg’s warmth and straightforward delivery were not impressed: the BBC received more than 1,000 complaints, placing her case an honourable seventh in the Corporation’s annual list of grumbles (it was sandwiched between bad language and an evening of programmes about homosexuality on BBC2). Oldies up in arms, eh.
Anne Gregg maintained that she was “not sour” about the circumstances of her departure, although she added: “The surprising thing is I am being asked to move when I have registered the highest audience appreciation figures for any presenter ever on the series.”‘
I’m trying to remember which announcer it was who was supposed to have said ‘This is the British Broadcorping Castration’…

Rock of ages

September 9, 2006

Looking into what the Pope has said about music, I find that his views might be considered a little extreme by some. In his fascinating ‘Liturgy and church music’, a lecture delivered as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1985, he starts by listing five different anthropological types of music.

“There is an agitational type of music which animates men for various collective goals. There is a sensuous type of music which brings man into the realm of the erotic or in some other way essentially tends toward feelings of sensual desire. There is a purely entertaining type of music which desires to express nothing more than an interruption of silence. And there is a rationalistic type of music in which the tones only serve rational constructs, and in which there is no real penetration of spirit and senses. Many dry catechism hymns and many modern songs constructed by committees belong to this category.
Music truly appropriate to the worship of the incarnate Lord exalted on the cross exists on the strength of a different, a greater, a much more truly comprehensive synthesis of spirit, intuition and audible sound.”

So far so good. But then the Cardinal remembers who he is and has a go at anything non-Western:
“This pre-eminence is found only in the West because it could arise only out of an anthropological foundation which unites the spiritual and the profane in an ultimate human unity.” Not a great fan of Eastern or Middle Eastern music, then, our Pope.
Then things start to get really interesting:

“In a way which we could not imagine thirty years ago, music has become the decisive vehicle of
a counter-religion….. Since rock music seeks release through liberation from the personality and its responsibility, it can be on the one hand precisely classified among the anarchic ideas of freedom which today predominate more openly in the West than in the East. But that is precisely why rock music is so completely antithetical to the Christian concept of redemption and freedom, indeed its exact opposite. Hence, music of this type must be excluded from the Church on principle, and not merely for aesthetic reasons, or because of restorative crankiness or historical inflexibility. ”

The Cardinal later returns to the same theme:
“In many forms of religion, music is associated with frenzy and ecstasy. The free expansion of human existence, toward which man’s own hunger for the Infinite is directed, is supposed to be achieved through sacred delirium induced by frenzied instrumental rhythms. Such music lowers the barriers of individuality and personality, and in it man liberates himself from the burden of consciousness. Music becomes ecstasy, liberation from the ego, amalgamation with the universe. Today we experience the secularized variation of this type in rock and pop music, whose festivals are an anti-cult with the same tendency: desire for destruction, repealing the limitations of the everyday, and the illusion of salvation in liberation from the ego, in the wild ecstasy of a tumultuous crowd. These are measures which involve a form of release related to that achieved through drugs. It is the complete antithesis of Christian faith in the Redemption. Accordingly, it is only logical that in this area diabolical cults and demonic musics are on the increase today, and their dangerous power of deliberately destroying personality is not yet taken seriously enough.”

So pop music is not only lousy music, it’s the work of the devil. Don’t suppose His Holiness will be listening much to Cliff Richard, then. And Madonna certainly won’t be on his Christmas card list.

It seems some of his followers have converted his words into action: “A 63-year-old Dutch priest has confessed to making a hoax bomb threat in an attempt to stop a concert by US pop star Madonna” says the BBC website.

stick to kissing babies

September 8, 2006

I don’t often have cause to cheer the Pope but I gave him a round of applause when I read that he had cancelled the annual Vatican’s pop music concert. Apparently, in previous years undeniably great musicians such as Tom Jones, Bryan Adams and Sarah Brightman have sung to crowds of up to 8,000. Almost without exception the musical taste of our political leaders is abysmal. The wretched Blair admits to being a fan of something called The Darkness as well as Bruce Springsteen. Master Cameron says his favourite album was by ‘the Killers.’ “Because I’m 39′ he says , ‘there’s The Smiths, Radiohead, Pulp, Blur – all that quite gloomy music.’ “Revealing what has been downloaded onto your MP3 is, apparently, as important as kissing babies.” Gordon Brown was recently talking about his enthusiasm for the Arctic Monkeys. Hillary Clinton has just revealed that her iPod picks.”include Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and “Take it to the Limit” by The Eagles,” Worst of all. George W Bush is a fan of country music and classic rock, but he also likes “a little bit of hard core and honky tonk”, his iPod playlist suggests. How can you trust a man who listens to “country greats George Jones, Alan Jackson, and My Sharona by the Knack’ to know whether to invade Iraq or not? Who cares whether they know anything about economics- they have advisers for that, but no spin doctor can inculcate a love of Brahms or Buxtehude. How can one look up to a politician who thinks that music is what is put out by the Frozen Monkeys or some other bunch of adolescents jumping up and down? I personally will only vote for someone who shows an appreciation for the world’s heritage of great music. Did Attlee load ‘How much is that doggie in the window’ onto his HMV gramophone? Was Harold Macmillan whistling ‘the Young ones’ as he discussed the Cuban missile crisis? (see my previous posts on the appalling musical tastes of our leaders)