Musical ancestry

I have written before about how most musicians have supported their composing or performing with other work, and recently I’ve been thinking about the importance of teaching in the lives of musicians. Not for myself – I’ve known since before I went to uni that I absolutely never want to teach (and have steered my career with this in mind) but the idea that there’s a chain of teachers going back in time.

I had a composition teacher (two actually, Paul Newland at GSMD and Matthew Hindson at Sydney University) and they had teachers. I started to wonder if you could trace a family tree back through time. My grand-composers would be Peter Sculthorpe (who from Australia isn’t ‘related’ to him) and Jo Kondo (as well as extended family of Harrison Birtwhistle and Ross Edwards. It’s a simple jump to get those four names (and those are the ones that have the most direct lineage), but I think it would be fascinating to trace the networks and to see who the most unlikely family members are.

I started thinking of this in concrete terms after attending a wonderful ‘Lock In’ by the aurora orchestra at London’s Kings Place concert hall. It was a programme of works by composers connected to the legendary French teacher Nadia Boulanger. She taught at the Paris Conservatory, as well as privately, and it is a testament to her influence that the programme ranged eclectically from Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland, to Quincy Jones and Leonard Bernstein (to pick the american contingent). She was undoubtedly a teaching superhub, but this story of influencing an entire generation of composers will be mirrored throughout the community in various ways and various scales.

I’d like to make the point that there are many musicians who don’t have a conservatoire training, and so would not be fairly represented in a study such as this. The Beatles, for instance, are not diminished for the lack of prestigious teachers, neither are the bulk of electronic and folk musicians. Film composer Hans Zimmer, with his “two weeks of piano lessons” has done very well for himself.

If we were to look past the role of formal teaching we could include the networks from training studios like those of Hans Zimmer. There are a large number of other film composers who spent time in his workshop and are clearly influenced by his way of working, and you could make a similar net of these composers and the links between them and get insight into an industry and a family.

It may be an interesting study for non-western traditions such as gamelan or Indian classical music, but I do not have the expertise to do this project. With western music, on the other hand we can connect the popular and experimental worlds, and composers and performers going back decades.

Frederic Chopin, known today as a composer, was an important teacher in his lifetime with students coming from all over Europe to study in his salon. You can draw a direct teaching line from Chopin → George Mathias → Paul Dukas → Olivier Messiaen → Pierre Boulez → Richard Rodney Bennett (who aside from his compositional career taught at RAM 1963-65, 1994-2000, where he would have taught countless contemporary musicians who unfortunately do not have fulsome wikipedia pages).

This was a quick selected wander through a Wikipedia link chain, and takes us through 6 generations and 150 years of pivotal music history. Imagine what we could do with a bit more data.

There are some similarities between this idea and that of the Bacon or Erdős numbers (for actors and mathematicians, or multi-talents). There was a craze for Bacon connections a while ago, perhaps a similar pastime can be made to link André Rieu to Felix Mendelssohn (it exists, in only four generations). The similar craze for family ancestry could also feed into this activity (although you couldn’t do it by a cheek swab, and it’s probably a little easier to fake your ancestry).

Do these networks matter? Probably not. Not all great musicians come from great teachers. This kind of network perpetuates elitism and exclusion and can be used as a false proxy for talent. Just like a real family dynasty (in acting, politics or real estate) a pedigree doesn’t guarantee success or talent.

Are these networks interesting? Yes! Particularly with the creative fringes of the canon, finding a way to link Michael Jackson with Gabriel Faure can be entertaining and forces us to think of artists in more nuanced ways. People aren’t destined to stay on the path set out for them by their teacher, but equally are set on a course by their ancestry of composers, looking over their shoulders, comparing notes.


Let me stay in my lane

There is an increasing expectation in the arts for people to be excessively multi-skilled. This pressure has only increased in the current arts shutdown situation, but it’s been going on for the last few decades and it’s a source of frustration for many artists.

There was a time (although who knows when that actually was) when it was fine to just be excellent at one thing. Actors acted, singers sang, writers wrote and brass players went to the pub during the 2nd act.

There were also always hybrid people, actor-impresarios, comedian-writers, conductor-soloists, but it was seen as perfectly respectable (and economically sustainable) to simply be the best violinist, director or man-at-back-with-spear that you could be.

With increasing economic pressures, professionalisation in arts training, and shorter contracts, it has become an expectation that people are able to do multiple roles at a professional level. Many actors are encouraged, when ‘resting’ to ‘just make a short film with your friends’, ignoring the fact that the most skilled actor doesn’t always have the skills to write, direct, and produce a film. More performers are calling themselves ‘theatremakers’ as they are forced to diversify into stage design, writing, and technical theatre roles.

For every Fleabag (with amazing writing and performing) there are a thousand one-women-shows in which the writing can’t sustain the performance, or the acting doesn’t bring the writing to life. For every Thomas Adès there are a hundred mediocre compositions by excellent conductors, and dozens of composers or pianists frantically waggling a baton.

Composers are particularly pressured by this: we’re now expected to have interesting careers as performers or experimental DJs, ignoring the fact that most composers don’t go near an instrument again after they finish school and sing with all the virtuosity of a creaky hinge.

Pressure to step into the limelight causes many people to leave their industries, meaning skilled and talented people end up abandoning a promising career to be replaced by an underpaid multitasker who saves the producer money.


The working lives of instruments

Seeing an instrument behind glass is, for me, a distressing experience. These objects are designed to be played, they’re alive: whether they are interesting is beside the point.

There has been a lot of coverage in recent years of the ever-inflating market for high-end instruments. Italian violins fetching millions of pounds, historical pianos covered in tabloid newspapers. But even among musicians and journalists there is a lot of confusion about how instruments are handled and used in day to day life. They were built as tools, and to maintain their quality they have to be cared for – and used.

Explaining why some instruments increase in value, while others go down, is counterintuitive. Even when we move out of the modern budget consumer market (where things almost always reduce to charity shop prices in a matter of years) some good quality instruments will skyrocket and others will be passed on at student-friendly prices. They can be compared to cars: some instruments are classic or collectable models, others are good cars but halve in value the minute you drive them out the music shop. Occasionally these will become ‘classic’ and increase in value again (as is happening with analogue synths today) but usually the investment potential is reasonably predictable.

A big part of it is materials: string instruments and some woodwind have very few moving parts, whereas pianos, harmoniums, harps etc. will wear out in decades if not maintained and replaced. Then there’s the quality of the materials: one piece of metal is chemically identical to another, whereas every tree is different and creates a slightly different tone. Industrial processes vary too: high-end violins are individually made by craftspeople in small workshops, adjusting very little as processes and materials are passed down the generations, while brass and some woodwind were developed in the industrial revolution and are made using lathes, drills and templates.

With most modern instruments quality is determined by precision and build quality, and instruments are able to be sold by make and model, knowing that if a trombone, say, is in good condition (after all, metal corrodes with time and sweat) it will have similar value to other trombones of that model in similar condition. There is more variation in string instruments, and so a good quality instrument could range easily from £12k to £1.2m.

Given the eye-watering value of some of these instruments, technicians, roadies, and repairers cannot think of the cost of what they are handling. In my working life I’ll be dealing with a £12 recorder or a hugely valuable harp, I’ve worked around multi-million-dollar pianos and road-cases with 16 individual violins in them. We are often not told the value of what we are working with, and there is a huge amount of trust placed in people like me by musicians. Every instrument is equally valuable to the person who plays it and looks after it (if not to the insurers), and if you start thinking of the absolute value you’ll never get anything done!

There are hundreds of articles exploring the differences between these high end instruments, blind testing, and discussions of whether there is innate value to certain makers. I won’t go into that here, as it’s well covered, but I will talk about two things: these instruments are becoming increasingly unaffordable for the kind of musician who can use one of these instruments (tied up as they are now in investment trading), and none of these working instruments are static objects.

Instruments are being repaired and upgraded all the time, as an army of technicians and luthiers restore instruments to working order using ancient methods and modern precision. Modern luthiers easily adjust their instruments with tolerances of less that 1 thousandth of an inch with no specialist tools.

Pianos in particular have undergone a constant stream of innovation and development since Erard introduced the double escapement in 1821. Modern instruments are designed in computer software and made using the cutting edge of material science, so an instrument made today will be a very different beast to one from even 40 years ago, and much more controlled and versatile.

With maintenance we might expect strings to be replaced and felts and leathers to be reworked, but even old instruments have undergone major surgery in their lifetime. Stradivariuses and Amatis are usually hyped as pristine artefacts of the 17th century, but most of these instruments underwent major structural change in the Romantic era. Necks, scrolls, fingerboards and tailpieces (basically all the bits you can see other than the body itself) have been reshaped or replaced, and extra beams added on the inside to change the tone and enable them to be strung with the latest high-tensile steel strings. Pianos have had celeste rails added, organs upgraded with extra ranks of pipes.

All of these changes, updates, and reshapings, as well as repairs and maintenance, are to keep these tools in the best condition, like sharpening your knives or trimming a paintbrush. If musicians need their instrument to respond a certain way, or there are issues with a particular function, specialist craftspeople can make those tweaks. The adjustments are small, but precise and crucial.

None of these instruments are fully original, but that doesn’t really matter. The instrument had a soul and a sound when it was made, and every alteration, addition and repair has been done to keep its soul intact and to bring out the quality of the sound so it can shine. Originality and provenance matter to museums, but instruments belong in the hands of artists.

Discussion writing

Maybe the audience is the problem?

Audiences for classical concerts and opera could learn a lot from those for theatre and dance.

Classical audiences are a conservative bunch. The aversion to ‘new’ music has resulted in ensembles doing all sorts of workarounds to try and trick the audience into putting up with a new work. One of the more entertaining, and subtle, is to programme the new commission just before the interval: that way it can’t be avoided by arriving late, or by leaving at the interval. Posters will loudly scream ‘BEETHOVEN’ or ‘VERDI’ while hiding in the small print a great new work by a respected modern composer. Heaven forbid there’s a commission from a young unknown writer, or more than one new work in the same concert…

Even the definition of ‘new’ is being stretched. There are still audiences that will avoid Stravinsky, Shostakovich or Messiaen, and many of these pieces are nearly a century old. If nothing changes, you can expect mass audiences to get comfortable with Thomas Adès and Kaija Saariaho by about 2085. That’s a long time to wait.

I recently was able to get stalls tickets to the Royal Opera House for £7.50 because the work (a one-hour family friendly opera with 5 star reviews and great music) was unable to sell tickets to their usual audience. The horror that the composer is still walking the earth somewhere seems to put those people off. And that was only one week of performances.

Compare this to the audiences for theatre or dance works. Here newness is celebrated, and people will flock to see a 3 hour premiere from David Hare or Tony Kushner, and are happy to take a little more risk with a newer playright such as Lucy Prebble or Inua Ellams. Audiences are even happy to explore experimental theatre: witness the commercial success of Punchdrunk or Complicite, London Road or Warhorse.

Of course there are still companies doing piles of Shakespeare, or Ibsen, but even The Globe has an audience for new work, and new plays are constantly being brought to the attention of West End audiences.

It is frustrating that, while an opera house might struggle to fill 5 performances of Nixon in China (a modern classic), or the orchestra in a BBCSO total immersion weekend could beat the audience in a brawl, the National Theatre or the Old Vic can do 60 performances of a new play with a large cast and crew and still pull a full excited crowd.

There are other reasons a theatre audience might be reticent to see a work, but it seems an aversion to ‘newness’ isn’t one of them. Ironically this results in a secret and surprising source of contemporary new music: Harrison Birtwistle wrote for the National Theatre in the 70s, many ballet and contemporary dance companies are commissioning hour-long new works from living composers. More people will hear new composition at the Old Vic than at Festival Hall.

The challenge for the industry is joining these audiences up: how do we find that willingness for new experience in the classical audience? How do we get the theatre audience to attend concerts and experience opera? There is an attitude and willingness out there which would bring a renaissance in new music and concertgoing, but the constant fight to sneak new music past the ears of a opinionated and conservative concert audience stifles innovation and stagnates the artform.

Techniques Thoughts

The secret to a smooth performance

It may be just my own approach (although I am somewhat experienced in these matters) but for me there is only one technique in making any performance smooth and polished.

I’m not talking about the musicians: there are countless people extolling the value of practise, talent, luck, alcohol etc. I’m talking about the performance as a whole. We’ve all got stories of concerts which were bad, not due to a deficit in performance skill, but in execution of a successful event. Mine involves Notre Dame cathedral, 2 degree temperatures, no toilets, and a concert starting 45 minutes late. The music was amazing, the concert was not.

I’m also talking about classical music. In theatre and musicals they keep on trying until they get the performance they want (try seeing a first preview and then a press night and prepare for some surprises) showing that the smooth performance is a product of elimination and trial and error.

In classical music (concerts, recitals, opera, anything) you only really get one shot at success, and so getting it right (or not) becomes a matter of prediction and experience.

For me, the ‘trick’ is to imagine your performance going perfectly: what does that look like, how does it run. Then, you do two things – take it apart (what did it need, what was used, what did it feel like in the room) and work out how to get those things into that room at exactly that time. Then it’s just working backwards from there to get it done.

Easy, right? But just thinking about the end product gives you the steps you need to achieve it. We work in a standardised industry, meaning we can visualise the final concert without too much effort. This can apply to performers too: work out what the performance needs to be, plan on how to get there, hope you have the skills to do so (we have the luxury of outsourcing and freelancers).

Of course this ‘simple trick’ (I’m moving into clickbait) assumes no spanners are thrown in the works: no-one changes repertoire, no-one gets sick, the soloists visa comes through, the venue doesn’t flood and the piano doesn’t disintegrate. Of course, those of us with the special training know how to handle these, but I swore an oath not to tell you. But I definitely know. Yes.


Whatever happened to music appreciation?

When I was at school, our textbooks mentioned a mysterious thing called ‘music appreciation’. This appeared to be a worthy pursuit whereby a neighbourhood watch group would get together and a local musicologist would lead them in weighty musical discussion about Wagner or Schubert. Like a book club but for classical music.

It was smug and stuffy, and so middle class.

The biggest problem with this system of music studying was the snobbishness it engendered: the idea that you couldn’t really enjoy music without properly studying first, and the repertoire (if my textbooks were anything to go by) was conservative : old or dead white men writing serious music for serious listeners.

The advantages of this system though, meant that there was an engaged and aspirational audience going to the concerts and buying the LPs. Television would broadcast music appreciation lectures by Leonard Bernstein, and commission new works from emerging and established composers to introduce their work to a casual but appreciative audience.

In time this system disappeared, and with good reason. It can be argued that it was exclusionary, and many of the worst habits of concertgoing audiences come from this era: Dress codes, shushing, corporal punishment for clapping between movements , all designed to keep out the outsider and reinforce the status quo. Today concert programmers are constantly having to fight against the conservatism and opposition to new music.

With the social demise of this pastime, orchestras and ensembles have been forced to undertake this project themselves. Under the name of learning and participation programmes there are some great audience development schemes, with casual concerts, marketing videos and engaging programmes opening up the music to a less experienced audience.

Similarly there has been a rise in classical music YouTube channels, ranging from the specialist (TwoSet Violin or David Bruce Composer) to the generalist (Vox, a channel with over 7m subscribers that won an Emmy for its analysis of a jazz tune, has published videos on a Philip Glass opera and the Bach cello prelude. These were perhaps a little less popular than their other stuff). These channels are using the same techniques and approaches as the old armchair musicologists, but reaching a younger and more diverse audience, one that doesn’t have a front room to host a gathering.

The element that is missing in this new wave of music outreach is the social. Despite the rich engagement and increase in accessibility programmes, this still relies on individual participation. Knowing people who share the same passions and interests is a hugely important thing. Watching a YouTube video, or following the LPO twitter is great, but nothing is as exciting as taking a friend to a concert you know they will love.

Book clubs have adapted to the modern world, perhaps music appreciation could too?

Thoughts writing

London orchestras are homeless

It may come as a surprise to many, but many of the orchestras in the UK, and particularly London, are functionally homeless. Sure, the administrative staff are based in a permanent office, but the orchestra itself lives an itinerant lifestyle that belies the slick and polished performances.

Visitors from other countries, such as the US, Australia or continental Europe might expect that the orchestra ‘lives’ in the concert hall it is resident in. In other countries it often work this way: the offices, store rooms and lockers are in the flagship hall, only leaving for concert tours and outside engagements. But in London, orchestras work to a very different model.

One only has to look at the performance schedules of venues like the Barbican Concert Hall (home of the LSO and BBCSO) or the Royal Festival Hall (Home of the LPO, Philharmonia) to realise that they can’t possibly be living in the venue. London venues are so tightly programmed that you’ll often have 2 or three different ensembles using the stage on the same day so clearly there has to be an alternate way of working.

It sounds strange, but the most prestigious UK orchestras are living out of the back of a truck. They might have storage warehouses in outer London, or even storerooms inside their main venue, but they load everything they need for a batch of concerts (until they are next at their home base to reload) into their truck and treat every location as a tour.

There are a network of loarge concert halls accross the south east that these orchestras use to rehearse in, bringing everying including the music library, earplugs, noticeboards, wardrobes and instruments in road cases for the 2-3 days that they will be rehearsing. Then, after the last rehearsal they will load the truck back up again and drive away. The morning of the concert (which could be days or even weeks later if they have a tour to get through) the truck will arrive and a small crew of grumpy people will load everything into the venue, set up the chairs and stands, and unpack all the percussion instruments and check everything is as it should be.

This, no matter how big the ensemble or how many steps between the truck and stage, always seems to take an hour and 15 minutes. It’s one of the mysteries of orchestral management.

In the afternoon the musicians will turn up, find their instruments and have a run through rehearsal. A quick break and then the audience arrive for the concert. As soon as the conductor leaves the stage the same crew will remove all the instruments, pack up the music, and load up the truck.

What were the crew doing between the load in and load up? Either down the pub definitely not having a number of beers, or just as likely popping off to do the same work for one of the other orchestras at a different venue in london.

This is an invisible industry which holds UK cultural life together, and it all fits into the back of a truck at midnight, and the orchestras are always touring, whether the audience thinks they are ‘at home’ or not.

Discussion Thoughts writing

In defence of the day job

There are almost no composers, at any level of success, who just do composition full time.

I’m talking about the world of ‘classical’ concert music rather than media work, but even in those fields composers might have other gigs as performers, teachers, etc.

The most frustrating thing, from the point of view of someone trying to ‘break into’ a career as a composer, is that no-one ever talks about the work they do on the side. Everyone (myself included) is trying to frame themselves as a pure sucessful composer, but in reality there are very few composers (mostly big name ‘celebrities) who do not support their art through other means.

Many teach, either in schools or in universities or music colleges. Many play or conduct, with successful performing and recording careers. Many write or present, being animateurs in educational concerts, pundits for radio and pre-concert talks, or writing books and programme notes.

Some, like myself, do arrangments and orchestrations, often working anonymously for ensembles and performers to adapt work to their needs, although this is also a difficult career path to break into.

Many, although we can never be fully sure, have jobs or careers outside of music altogether. I know of some who work for tech companies or in the city, some who make films and videos for clients or online, some with just normal jobs in normal places, allowing them to pay rent while they work on their music with whatever time they have. Charles Ives worked in insurance, Borodin was a research chemist, Eric Whitacre is a model.

This doesn’t make music their hobby, unless they want to see it that way. By taking the commercial pressure off their creativity they are allowed to make music at the pace that works for them. It’s still their career, but it sidesteps the myth that commissioning and royalty payments pay anything close to living wage for the vast majority of composers.

All sorts of trendy places are talking about the portfolio career as a millennial idea: the concept of the single career (perhaps supported in the outside by small jobs that don’t matter) is over and now we are all sailing in the gig economy patching together sources of income and finding opportunities wherever they lie. This is hardly new, but is only now being talked about in such terms.

I have a day job, and I have since I left music college: I work in music logistics and administration, originally for the London orchestras and concert venues and now at the National Theatre, using all my knowledge and experience to support musicians and composers. Talking about these two sides of my professional life is so complicated: even if I have the most exciting stories from the theatre or juicy theatrical anecdotes, when talking to others in anything approaching ‘networking’ I have to remember to frame myself as a composer with interesting artistic projects so that I don’t get pigeonholed as the classical roadie and miss out on potential opportunities. I know others in my industry who have to do the same thing.

Almost every composer, going back to Beethoven or Vivaldi, has used other work to support their family and give them space to write. The fact that we are not prepared for this in music college, and this isn’t talked about when musicians meet for a drink and a moan, does a disservice to us all and leaves us unprepared for the realities of a working life. Think of your favourite contemporary composer under 60: they may be at their other job right now, not telling anyone lest you think less of them.


Classical Music’s Naughty Secret

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret of the classical music industry: Encores are not a surprise.

I saw a question posted on a classical music subreddit recently where the poster was asking about why, when the audience was asking for an encore at the end of a concert, the orchestra and conductor ‘refused’ to give one. All sorts of theories were being put out, ranging from the possibly sensible (the orchestra have a bus to catch) to the esoteric (cultural differences and programming choices).

My little piece of insider knowledge: they probably didn’t do an encore because there wasn’t one programmed in.

There are actually two programmes for a concert. The one given or sold to the audience, containing the works, the biographies, photos, and ads for private music schools. And the one back stage: written in a kind of code it contains the call times, orchestrations, durations, and most up to date order of pieces. This is what gets sent to the PRS licensing people, this is what tells the stage manager when to retrieve the brass players from the pub. This is the actual concert, the shiny one is a best guess made by the marketing department a few weeks before rehearsals start.

When you think about it, of course encores have to be planned. The venue needs to know when the concert will finish. The orchestra need to rehearse the music. In the case of my career, someone needs to orchestrate the fun folk tune for this particular group of musicians (a process which starts a month or two before). Parts need to be printed, broadcasters need to be briefed, musicians need to be reminded to turn the page to the next piece.

With all this effort, no programmer is going to leave it to chance on whether the audience will ask loudly enough for it. We can predict whether there will be a round of applause big enough for the encore to be called months ahead, and the real trick is making it look spontaneous and responsive, like a magician forcing you to pick the 6 of diamonds.

Sometimes a soloist may have something prepared that they can bring out unaccompanied after a concerto, but the conductor will have asked what they have and they’ll have decided on something together and will wait to see if that atmosphere demands it, but that’s easy enough for one soloist. It’s usually a Bach caprice or Paganini variation: flashy, but doesn’t use up rehearsal time.

If the orchestra haven’t prepared something you are highly unlikely to ever get an encore, no matter how loudly you shout for it: it might not be appropriate to follow a requiem with Send in the Clowns, they might have run out of venue or rehearsal time, the entire brass and percussion section could already be halfway back down the M5. If they have prepared one, and it clearly isn’t wanted or called, for they might skip it.

In every other situation, they’ll do the encore because that’s whats on the program, and because it makes the concert better. Whether you want it or not is just your own problem.

The other dirty secret: they might have only played that piece you adore once before the concert. And someone in the orchestra is sight reading. It doesn’t make it any less good.


Looking scruffy in a video

And used the word ‘chunk’ as a real-life composer. Not a great quality video, and I’m certainly a scruff, but nice to keep these things somewhere.

The piece we are talking about can be found elsewhere on this site.