Category Archives: Music

The idea of a building

This is the speech I prepared for ‘Who owns culture?’ – the first in a new series of debates called The Information Project, which took place last night at the Salvation Army in Upper Norwood. The aim is to stimulate local debate around the ZhongRong Group’s proposals for a ‘new’ Crystal Palace. I wrote it out in advance of speaking, so thought I may as well publish it here.

“I want to talk about absence. The power of what’s been lost. Because if we’re discussing notions of ownership and culture in relation to Crystal Palace Park, then absence is a critical factor.

What do I mean by absence? Quite simply, the vacuum left by the original Palace, without which the open space, and so much that’s distinctive about the surrounding district, might not exist.

I feel this absence very intensely. In writing my novel I spent five years imagining what the Palace and the park used to look like, what they used to feel like, at different points in their history. And that level of immersion creates a powerful bond with the space; one which I don’t believe would be as strong were it all still there.

I don’t think the power of absence is limited to me as an artist either. I think it’s something felt by anyone who’s spent time in that beautiful, absorbing but ultimately ghostly park. I might even argue that the Palace’s absence is the fuel that gives our community such life; that the proud sense of ownership we see exhibited by Crystal Palace residents – a cultural phenomenon which is evident again now, just as it is relation to the Church Road cinema, and as it was at the turn of the millennium – is partly due to the power of what no longer exists, and the strong connection which that absence demands you make with the area’s past.

Put simply, the Palace’s absence is why we’re here. And that sense of ownership is why we should be vigilant when a commercial developer deploys the word culture as a basis for restoring presence to the park. Because as well as being a positive force for engagement, absence can too easily become an excuse to take liberties.

The climate is intriguing in this respect. To my mind, culture and commerce are enjoying a warmer relationship than they have for many years. I freely admit to visiting cultural venues – the Southbank Centre, say – with no more high-minded an aim than to enjoy shopping, eating or drinking in slightly more civilised surroundings than the average high street. I understand how those spaces work, and I think a lot of them are to be valued.

The difference is that all the precedents have established cultural assets at their hubs – giving credence to the use of culture as justification for the commercial appropriation of public space. Crystal Palace Park is different. Here, we’re being asked to sacrifice an area of Metropolitan Open Land based on a cultural asset that hasn’t yet been defined beyond the basic idea of a building.

Perhaps that in itself is enough. The scheme has gained momentum by virtue of the idea of the Palace itself – what actually goes in it is self-confessedly an afterthought. Looking back, it feels almost like the developer hoped the Palace itself would be considered enough of a cultural asset to justify the development, and enable them take the necessary liberties with legislation. And I wonder if that hope isn’t at least partly intended to play on our understanding of how successful cultural/commercial spaces work. Because if we’re honest, we can all imagine the kind of thing it will be, right? A bit like all those other commercially cultural spaces that we’ve come to love. A kind of museumy, arty, boutiquey sort of thing.

The question is to what extent do we require more detail about what exactly the place will contain, what exactly its culture will entail, before we are happy to give up bits of our park?

And this is where we must have our historical wits about us. Because the more you learn about the park’s history, the more questions are begged of this audaciously vague use of the word ‘culture’. The Palace – staggering though it was – was ultimately the world’s biggest ever shed. I don’t mean to belittle what was clearly an architectural and engineering masterpiece, but the building was always secondary to what went in it – and what went on outside it, in the grounds. The history of the place reads like an encyclopaedia of all the stuff culture can mean.

And it never stood still. In the Palace, culture never meant one single thing. It was a place that, retrospectively, embodied culture in all its indefinable, evolving and often uncomfortable diversity. And that historical precedent should, frankly, make us all the more wary. Because if ever there was an institution that grappled with what culture means – if ever there was a ‘white elephant ahead’ warning – it wasn’t the Millennium Dome; it was the Sydenham Crystal Palace.

That’s why I worry that this use of the word ‘culture’ feels not so much regressive as reductive – simplifying the heritage of the Palace into a singular, rose-tinted version of something that was fundamentally multi-faceted, and not without consequent problems.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the developers deserve more credit; that they’re waiting for designers to expand their definition of culture because they’re aspiring to the same freeform diversity that, for good and bad, distinguished Paxton’s palace.

But either way, as custodians of the park – as those who have succumbed to the romance of the Palace’s absence – it falls to the local community to fill the void. To make sure history plays a key role in this debate – filling the vacuum left by the original Palace, and spotlighting the ongoing absence of any further information as to what this ‘new’ Crystal Palace is going to contain.”

A river flows through it

I’ve been looking for this for years – and now, perhaps somewhat naughtily but nonetheless delightfully, a fellow fan has taken the trouble of putting it up on YouTube.

This is ‘Listening to the River’ – a 30-minute ‘oral history’ of the River Medway in Kent, recorded and composed by one of my favourite folkies, Chris Wood. It was commissioned for Radio 3’s Late Junction a few years ago. I missed it at the time, but later caught Chris performing an excerpt at King’s Place in London.

The clip alone blew me away. As described here, the aim of the piece is to show how England’s indigenous music is intertwined with the rhythms and melodies of its people’s speech – dialects and all. And in a brilliant musical fusion of form and meaning, that’s exactly what it does.

I remember reading somewhere that Chris is working on a longer/revised version, for possible CD release in the future. If that’s still the case, then I look forward to the results with great anticipation.

This is my kind of music

It’s been a long old few weeks, for all sorts of reasons. Right in the heart of it all, however, were these six minutes of total joy, magnificent escapism, and a not-inconsiderable number of lasers.

The new PSB album is just days away – and I can’t wait.

Glastonsnobbery

A fairly idle weekend at home, mainly spent overseeing publication of my new novel, has meant plenty of time to read Twitter. And that, in turn, has meant a reminder of just how combative my personal ‘Twittersphere’ becomes when a big music event is happening.

Yesterday, seemingly every act that appeared on the BBC’s coverage of Glastonbury provoked a tidal wave of OTT polemic. More than once, otherwise reasonable voices descended into provocative diatribes about different artists and their supporters. For example:

The funny thing is, if you follow this kind of snobbery for long enough, you’ll almost always see the negativity flip, so revealing itself as a positioning statement for the individual’s own enthusiasms. So here’s Danny Baker again, an hour after his meltdown over Example:

Such is music. Like religion, football and Shakespeare, there’s something about music’s power that has the potential to make aggressors of us all – as if the only way to express our love of music that transcends and uplifts, is by sticking it to those acts who, for whatever entirely subjective reason you care to state, fail to satisfy us in the same way.

It’s a common urge – I used to be guilty of it myself – but it should be resisted at all costs. Music absolutely warrants the word ‘love’, but ‘hate’ doesn’t follow as a valid flipside. For a start, you should never trust first impressions (you might change your mind later), but there’s also the self-evident truth that there’s no point in arguing over it.

Above all, there’s the nonsense of undermining your own passion for something by challenging someone else’s. If I say I love (a) but you’re wrong to love (b) it follows that I may be wrong to love (a). By invoking a non-existent rulebook about good and bad taste, you simply open yourself to the accusation that you’ve short-circuited by enjoying the sounds coming through your ears.

Far better – and infinitely more wonderful – simply to say this me, this is the music I love, and there is absolutely nothing that anyone, anywhere on the planet, can do about it.

Or, to put it another way:

A happy Bandcamper

Looking back over my previous posts, I can’t help noticing how many have a nostalgic bent – a fondness for things lost or past, and a faint ring of disappointment that the world has to change.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. I’ve always been prone to the odd sentimental flashback. But what confuses me is that I’m definitely more excited than worried about where we are now – at least in terms of technology, and its unravelling possibilities.

I guess the truth is that progress doesn’t really lend itself to binary emotions; it’s rarely so simple as x being sacrificed for y. It’s more dialectical than that. What may appear to have been lost often resurfaces later on, in an improved form, having been ousted by something less satisfactory in the meantime.

Take, for example, the emotional experience of hearing about and acquiring new music.

When I was growing up, hearing about a new release by a favourite artist meant a strange mix of surprise, information overload, and gratification that was neither instant nor massively delayed. With less information at my fingertips, I rarely had any advance warning, so by the time news reached me, not only did the details arrive wholesale, the thing was actually available to buy.Yes, I had to wait until I had enough money, and a way of getting to the shops, but that only filled me with the best kind of anticipation: a few days, maybe a fortnight at most, before the treasure could be obtained.

In the 2000s, some of these emotions fell by the wayside; others were distorted out of all proportion. Powered by the exploding internet, new releases were announced months in advance. Anticipation, not immediacy, became the marketers’ watchword, with promoters devising ever more atomised campaigns in which information – album name, tracklisting, artwork – was revealed with self-defeating sluggishness. As the internet evolved, the moment of musical discovery itself became frustratingly piecemeal. Teaser tracks were leaked – intentionally or otherwise – long in advance, and lead singles were sent to radio months before they were available for purchase. It became increasingly hard to ‘discover’ an album with anything like the same surprise and satisfaction I’d known as a kid.

Even now, in the 2010s, the music industry seems dazed by the internet. The flip-flopping over ‘on-air on-sale’ sits awkwardly beside bands throwing out their releases with almost excessively little fanfare. Having been dazzled by over-experimentation, many still seem unsure what emotions they want to stir in their audiences.

There are, however, notable exceptions, and my favourite is Bandcamp: a versatile online platform for artists to air and sell their music directly to fans, with an elegant emphasis on the power of an immediate digital download to bankroll a later physical release. I’ve bought several albums on this model, and each time the emotional experience has been the perfect blend of ancient and modern – a heady mix of immediacy and anticipation.

I mention it now because one of my favourite artists – the brilliant folk singer Chris Wood – has just signed up, announcing on Twitter last Thursday not only the release but the immediate availability of his new album.

The surprise was sprung. and it was the perfect Easter gift. Granted, I’d known the album was coming – unlike, say, Jim Moray’s Skulk, which I knew nothing about until the moment it was available – but I’d assumed None the Wiser was still several months away, to be announced weeks in advance. But no. The actual release came pretty much out of the blue.

What really makes Bandcamp work, however, is that these immediate emotions – surprise at the news, delight at getting to hear the whole album right away – are followed by anticipation of what’s still to come: a physical release, complete with artwork, liner notes, the whole shebang… On top of which, there’s the investment of dealing directly with the artist, and contributing to the CD that will follow.

It’s a great system, and I’m a big fan. Though not a model that will work for all artists, for whom massive marketing budgets can still be justified, I reckon Bandcamp and its ilk are here to stay. And the reason is simple: because they restore excitement to a process which, by rights, really should be exciting.

The power of filmless film music

Film music has always been a pet passion. As a kid, I routinely hunted down the scores of films that had left an impression. With lengthy delays before the VHS release, and limited access to the family player, hearing the music was the most reliable way of rekindling the magic of my favourite movies. The first 7-inch single I owned was the ‘Theme from E.T.‘ (right). And I remember coveting a tape recording of a Star Wars Trilogy LP that we’d borrowed from the local library. (When that was eventually superseded by the Arista anthology of near-complete Star Wars scores… well, I’m not ashamed to say I went a bit Yub-Nub in my celebrations.)

But that was then. These days, the film score landscape is more sophisticated. In particular, companies like Film Score Monthly, Intrada, Varese Sarabande and La La Land have made an artform out of releasing previously-unavailable, expanded or remastered soundtrack albums. And it’s fair to say I’m in their debt. Why? Because I find it exceptionally useful to listen to film music when writing fiction.

No other genre quite does the job. Pop music occasionally works, but it doesn’t add to what I’m doing, and the words are a distraction. The latter also precludes opera, let alone musicals. And while instrumental classical music is good, the architecture of symphonies and sonatas is too self-contained to make them satisfactory companions as I wander through the expanses of imaginative endeavour.

Film music, however, is the perfect soulmate – particularly in the complete, underscore-and-all presentations favoured by specialist labels. It provides the ideal blend of ambience and inspiration, rarely interrupting my focus. Though narrative-driven, the emotional arcs are rarely rounded enough to interfere with the shape of whatever I’m doing. Instead, it provides the best kind of mood music, reinforcing my concentration within a broad atmospheric context.

It’s so helpful, in fact, that I frequently buy scores with no prior knowledge of either the music itself or the film for which it was written. And that lands me in a funny predicament. For once I know a score, shouldn’t I then seek out its associated film? After all, film music – however great – is only ever secondary to the pictures it supports. And since my enthusiasm for the genre was first triggered by wanting to remember the movies I’d seen as a child, surely the experience can only be enriched by watching the film itself?

Well, I’m not so sure. For the one drawback of writing to film music comes when I know the film too well. And when that happens – Alien is particularly tricky – I tend to start writing in the stylistic vernacular of the parent movie; imagining myself in its world, imitating its characters when voicing my own. And that’s too much. Yes I want emotional prompts from the music, but that level of familiarity provides too literal an inspiration.

I mention it now because I’ve just bought La La Land’s expanded edition of John Williams’ The Fury. Written in 1978 for Brian de Palma’s supernatural thriller, the score dates from the heart of Williams’ golden period – a time when he also wrote Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman and E.T.

Predictably, the music to The Fury is on a par with those others. Heavily indebted to Bernard Herrmann, it’s rich, varied and intensely atmospheric – definitely the kind of thing I’ll write well to. And yet have I seen the film? Of course not.

So once again I feel that strange obligation, and face my perennial dilemma. Should I track down a DVD of The Fury, or, in the interests of productivity, should I let it be?

The answer is simple. I’m going to let it be. The music must inspire me on its own. I’ve only listened to it a handful of times, but the score is already a valuable asset in my writing process: a prime cut of Williams, uniquely divorced from any specific cinematic associations. Absurd though it may sound, that’s too good a thing to compromise by seeing the actual film for which it was written.

A hum-um-um-um-um-um-ummable Merrily

This time last week I went to see Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark.

It was, in a word, stupendous. And unsurprisingly so. I’m part of that peculiar subset of theatre fans left cold by the majority of musicals – classics or otherwise – but who consistently and contrarily go berserk for Sondheim.

I don’t know why it is. Actually, scratch that. I do. It’s the humanity, the wit, the dexterity, the warmth, the imagination. Above all, it’s the intoxicating sense of joy in the English language; the Shakespearean determination to master our fiendishly duplicitous lexicon; to achieve a lyrical perfection that demonstrates how, just as mathematics is tailor-made to describe the universal laws of physics, English is a heaven-sent tool for articulating human emotions. All that, of course, and the bloody amazing music.

None of which will come as a surprise to fellow Sondheimians – and all of which, no doubt, will shock and appal those who’ve never understood him.

Because this is the really weird thing about Sondheim. It’s not that he divides opinion so fiercely. It’s that the very things which his admirers proclaim as his greatest strengths are also those whose absence or, indeed, existence, are deplored by his detractors.

So while I celebrate the wit, others find Sondheim too clever for his own good. And while I find no end of empathetic warmth in his characters, others come over almost frostbitten by the clinical detachment.

I mention it because Merrily is a musical which brings these issues sharply into focus. Telling the backwards tale of an idealistic show-writing trio trying to make it big on Broadway, the show offers a meta-commentary on Sondheim’s own experiences and reputation.

It comes to the surface in the climactic number ‘Opening Doors‘, which chronicles the characters’ earliest attempts at collaboration. At one point, their producer-to-be (played originally by a young Jason Alexander, captured on film in the clip below) criticises their big song. Why? Because, in his words, ‘There’s not a tune you can hum.’

You don’t have to be a Sondheim expert to see that this is the composer getting revenge on his critics. But the real genius of Merrily’s retribution isn’t in the cheap (albeit hilarious) shots like the one above; it’s in the fact that the score is arguably the composer’s own most memorable and, indeed, ‘hummable’ achievement.

After last Friday night, I feel surer of this than ever. Not because the musical performances were exceptional (though they were), but because I found myself sitting beside a couple who sang, stamped their feet and conducted their way through every number.

It was, of course, unbelievably annoying. But it was also weirdly invigorating. For a fleeting couple of hours, Sondheim could hardly have felt more accessible or, for that matter, more commercial. It was like the whole world loved him.

Better still, it filled me with hope that one day they really might.

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