On course for Nibiru

There’s less than a fortnight left until the end of the world. It’s official. It’s curtains for planet Earth on December 21st 2012. The Mayans said so and their clocks have been accurate to within seconds for thousands of years. They run out in a matter of days.

If you don’t believe me, google Maya 2012 and marvel.

Some say that Earth is to be sucked into a black hole at the centre of the galaxy on the winter solstice. Others, that we’re on a collision course with a planet called Nibiru. If you’ve made it through Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia you’ll know what to do. And avoid the Tristan sound track.

Old school Armaggedonists have it that we’ve simply got too evil and will get swallowed up by the rising waters of the ex-Poles (as in ice-melt, not builders from Warsaw) or burned to a crisp by aerosol-triggered heat waves. Others say we’re about to enter into a lovely new Age of peace and harmony, but firstly all the horrible people will get killed off by one or more of the above.

Planets collide in Lars Von Triers Apocalyptic “Melancholia” (2011). To get to this bit you have to sit through several hours of really screwed up unlikeable characters painfully improvising their parts at a disastrous wedding.

The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar was probably invented by the mysterious Olmec, dating back to 1500BC and then adopted by the Mayan civilisation (250 – 900 AD). The Olmecs are fab. I’m really into them. I saw some of their mysterious monolithic head sculptures (this one is about 10 ft high) in Mexico a few years ago and have never forgotten their unreadable expressions and African features.

No one really knows much about them.

Whatever you decide to do in the few days left before The End, you HAVE to read this FABULOUS book by Olga Grushin, called The Line, a fictional account of a true event in Soviet-era Russia where people queued for a whole year for tickets to a concert of music by Stravinsky. It’s unbearably moving. The very thought of this radiant but forbidden music transforms the inner lives of the people who populate these beautifully written pages, a tantalising imaginary glimpse of the beauty that is harshly stamped out in the grey repressive system they are trapped in. A noble, wise, important, beautiful book.

Whilst on the subject of Apocalypse, one of Private Eye’s greatest covers has to be this classic of George W being informed about 9/11. The caption (if you can’t make it out) is:

Aide: “It’s Armegeddon, sir.”

GW: “Armageddin outta here!”

A sighting of Nibiru in the December sky might take the edge off Amour, an otherwise devastating film that is definitely not first date material. Made by the brilliant Michael Haneke, director of White Ribbon (another bleak masterpiece) it is a courageous, beautiful, tough, intelligent, unsparing portrait of the decline and death of an old French couple who are still deeply in love, just to make it all the more upsetting.

If you haven’t seen it I won’t give the full game away. But let’s just say it’s not Christmas in Narnia.

The film appears to be shot entirely in natural light, so that the interior of Anne and Georges’ (for tis they) elegant Parisian apartment where most of the action takes place is bathed in a soft yet hopeless gloom, rather like the couple themselves.

Emmanuelle Riva’s heartbreaking portrayal of Anne, with Jean-Louise Trintignant as the devoted Georges, looking on in despair.

Most remarkable is the total absence of musical sound track. Instead, noises are close-miked: each rustle of the bed sheets, click of saucer touching cup, swoosh of hair being brushed, or the sound of pen scratching on paper creates a dramatic tension that is so often missing in our muzak-wallpapered age.

The only music in the film is restricted solely to impossibly moving bits of Schubert and Beethoven piano masterworks, either played live or on CD by the characters, the absence of anything else making it extraordinarily powerful. And music is somehow always in the air of this movie: the old couple are retired piano professors surrounded by books and scores of music. Isabelle Huppert expertly plays their spiky daughter, giving her parents (and us) conversational snippets about her life in a touring chamber ensemble.

Effete young French piano star Alexandre Tharaud (right) makes a cameo appearance as himself, playing one of the couple’s star piano students. I’ve just listened to his rather gay CD, Le Boeuf sur la Toit, a homage to Parisian nightlife which includes his neat arrangement of the inspired ragtime track Isoldina by Jean Wiener and Clement Doucet, a compressed Tristan for piano duo. Masterful and very, very silly. I could easily live without the rest of the CD tho, and much prefer the original 1920s 4-hander.

(S’il vous plaît pardonnez-moi, M. Tharaud, mais ma sensibilité est probablement trop crudité pour cette cédé.)

Planets away is the music of the Modified Toy Orchestra, a group of inspired artists and thinkers from Birmingham I had the good fortune to work alongside a couple of weeks back, once again in the beautifully designed Britten Studio at Snape Maltings in Suffolk.

Led by inspired lunatic Brian Duffy, the group have deconstructed and hacked into old electronic toys and turned them into relatively sophisticated musical instruments, taking over 5 years of patient tinkering to put together their 2nd album Plastic Planet following the  success of their first album Toygopop.

They are driven by a deeply felt philosophy of ego-free performance, allowing the toys to speak for themselves.

As their website says, “Guided by the hidden world they seek to make a form of music devoid of personal narrative or autobiography, instead they ask bigger questions about our relationship with ‘the next new gadget’, the desire for the constant upgrade, and the possibilities for problem solutions hidden from our gaze by perceptual habit”.

From the second they arrived in Suffolk, the boys were soldering away at an impressive collection of neurotic toys that more or less constantly demanded their attentions, including a Hula Barbie with strange levers, a battery of Speak and Spells, something that looked like a Fisherprice rocket and a myriad of toy keyboards.

Brian making spooky noises with a heavily modified Barbie.

The music sounds like 80s synth-pop to me, a kind of Roxy Music/ Depeche Mode combo done with electronic toys and Kraftwerk sensibilities. It looks VERY cool in concert, everyone in slick suits. (“There was only £150 left in the budget for suits for 5 of us”, explained Brian, “but somehow we managed to kit everyone out at Argos”. They looked GOOD I tell you.)

Vital to the MTO package are the witty and wonderful toy pop videos plus live VJ interactions masterminded by a tall and kindly techie genius whose name I can’t track down. He must be snogged mightily for his work.

Freeno and Olaf is the one you need to watch, a love story between a fluffy wind-up elephant and fluffy wind-up chicken shot on location in Iceland and Paris.

Speaking of Argos, mention should be made of the latest composer discovered to have a sideline business.

Under pressure from my iPic evidence George Benjamin finally admitted that he IS the brains behind the new menswear range “George” at Argos, the very same that dressed the Modified Toy Boys. 

Brian Duffy is something of a phenomenon. At the forefront of the circuit bending movement, he invented “Retro-Futurism”, a genre infusing a number of incredibly hip bands he’s worked with (none of which I know cos I’m square) including PramBroadcastPlone, Novak, Avrocar and Stereolab.

These are all part of a swinging experimental underground music and art scene based in Birmingham of all places, where you can now get on down in new weird ways to Brummie psych-funk, future hip hop, krautrock, marxist pop and analogue synth icons with names like Spacemen 3, Roscillator and Tele:Funken.

Here’s Brian’s fan website, http://brianduffyhasabigbrain.com/page/3. As well as having a big brain, he is also incredibly nice, which must come from all that non-ego stuff.

Like Brian Duffy, composer/conductor Richard Baker is fascinated by games, and was there to facilitate Aldeburgh Music’s Faster than Sound collaboration between us straighty musos and the Toy Boys. Incredibly, it was sometimes hard to tell our fragmentary improvised instrumental textures apart from the space noises of the toys. At one point, the Tandy toys produced a randomly generated extended harmonic sequence that was truly beautiful and timeless – in a very strange way. It was moving to discover that these formerly discarded little machines can touch us humans with their innocent electronic voices.

Call me a softie, but there’s definitely something to Brian’s credo…

Richard Baker in rather a snazzy jacket. I want to see what’s going on with that intriguing left sleeve.

We were also to play Richard Baker’s inspired trio “Gaming,” a video game reading of Nijinsky’s choreography for Debussy’s Jeux in which piano, marimba and cello are all turned into new instruments with bits of paper, clothes pegs and blu tak; not so unlike the toys and just as temperamental.

At some points, playing this piece feels exactly like playing a computer game: rapid-fire exchanges between instruments in skew rhythms make for brain-crunching concentration. One false move and you can throw the others off board and lose 10 million points.

(Incidentally, Richard Baker conducted a truly stonking performance of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera thriller The Lighthouse at Snape Maltings a few weeks back, the last of English Touring Opera’s highly successful UK tour and a very classy show with first rate performances from soloists and the ever-fabulous Aurora Ensemble.)

Not to be outdone by Barbie, percussionist Julian Warburton gives some tubular bells a good seeing to during an improv session with the toy boys.

The gig turned out to be the last of this album’s material for the Modified Toy Orchestra and now they are turning their ego-free attentions to the next disc. Something to do with distant galaxies and parallel worlds, Brian said. May their next mission succeed most mightily.

Georges Prêtre (left) is a French conducting phenomenon recently introduced to me, whose ego is clearly in excellent shape and providing a marvellous new YouTube pickup for those low moments by the laptop. Check out his Bolero. It’s breathtaking.

My favourite gestures are the thumb and forefinger baksheesh rubbing movement just before things kick off, and the introductory two upbeats (pretty much the only actual beats he gives in the entire show) followed by the band’s entry at a completely different speed. It’s possibly the most revolting thing I’ve EVER seen on a podium, and makes compulsive viewing.

His Beethoven 7 is another fine example of top, non-beating entertainment and I’ve heard that his Carmen (alas not yet on YouTube) is a must-see: apparently he is completely ignored by the Berlin Phil throughout, but blithely continues to give cues to random sections of the orchestra that then emerge from the opposite side of the stage. Fabulous.

Thus reminding me of the famous old parrot joke:

Bloke goes into a pet shop and asks for a parrot.

“What kind of parrots do you have?” he asks.

Pet shop owner: “Well, we have this one,” (pointing to a gorgeously plumed bird with brilliant green crest) “who can sing arias from any 18th and 19th century Italian opera you can name and improvise coloratura interludes, given extra seed. He costs £10,000

Customer: “And what about this one?” indicating an exotic-looking blue and gold parrot preening itself on its perch.

Pet shop owner: “Well, this one can do the Ring Cycle. Every part. Brunhilde, Wotan, Alberich, the lot. It’s astonishing, especially his final immolation scene. You won’t find the like anywhere. A marvellous buy at only £20,000.”

Customer: (impressed.) “Remarkable. Quite remarkable.”

Pet shop owner: “But the one you must see is this one,” (pointing to a scraggly, balding bird hunched in a corner of its cage, with sparse, bedraggled feathers and an aggressively sour expression.)  He’s worth £100,000.”

Customer: “Good heavens what a price! What on earth does he do?”

“I don’t know”said the pet shop owner. “But the others call him Maestro”.

A couple of weeks back I found myself on the same website page as Julian Lloyd Webber, surely a career zenith. The context was Pro Corda, an illustrious string chamber music course for young musicians, (which I instantly christened Pro Rata for no particular reason.)

Some former Pro Rata students in action. I’ve no idea what that blue plastic bag is doing in the shot. It looks like a water bomb poised to punish any incorrect bowing technique. The kind of teaching methods I approve of.

Usually I run screaming from the slightest whiff of the Wigmore, that haven of cashmere-clad Schubert-loving Hampstead dowagers whose unnatural longevity is fed by the precious antics of very expensive 19th century Russian chamber musicians who “pass theme” in exaggerated ways, and other such revolting nonsense.

And yes, I have got a bit of a chip there. Maybe because I was brought up in Hemel Hempstead.

THE Wigmore Hall in London (note use of banned definite article). SO lovely when empty.

However, finding myself in the unlikely (for me) position of giving cello master classes to the same dowagers’ great-grandchildren in the picturesque environs of Leiston Abbey, it was clear that yet again, music itself transcends class and politics and doesn’t ask why.

These are super talented string playing children aged between 8 and 18 who spend a couple of weeks in the holidays being coached in solo and chamber music playing. When I was a kid there was a certain tension between the National Youth Orchestra (which I played in) and Pro Corda, whose courses clashed. It was generally perceived by us NYO-ers that the Pro Rata lot were a bit on the rarified side, and the twain ne’er met.

Now Pro Rata is run with love and tireless dedication by cellist David Burrowes and set in its own spectacular building complex in the restored and renovated Leiston Abbey. How this works financially I have no idea, but I can imagine many organisations would kill to be based in such a setting.

I once got to stay in a room in the heart of the old Abbey and was woken up at 5am by the unmistakable sound of footsteps and plainchant. Relating this later at breakfast I was told that my room was haunted, and that many who stayed there were woken at dawn by the ghosts of centuries’-worth of monks on their way to matins.


Students at the cello master class brought the same rep I learnt at their age, and it was strange to revisit those works by composers that only cellists have heard of: Klengel, Popper, Grutzmacher, Cassado.

The kids who stand out are the ones bursting with life force, an instinctive feeling for music and a hunger to advance which transcends the dodgy pieces they get lumbered with at this formative stage. And what a privilege to share thoughts on Bach suites, bits of the Elgar concerto and pieces by Rachmaninov, Vivaldi and Fauré. There is always something to learn, regardless of the ability of the player, and the hours passed in a thoroughly enjoyable flash.

And I suddenly acknowledged that I had, after all, chosen the right instrument as a tool for expression, containing as it does all the voices and characters from bass to high soprano.

Spectogram of a D chord arppeggiated on a cello. Isn’t it lovely?

Years ago I went for a Shiatzu massage to deal with “cello back.”

“Why you learn cerro?” asked Yoko the tiny Japanese masseuse.

“Oh, some accident of fate,” I answered casually.

“No accident!” she shouted (she was quite scary). “Cerro is blidge between earth and heaven. You conduit.”

What a lovely explanation.

The evening following this enlightening master class session (where I’m sure I learnt as much if not more than the children) I gave a (heavily censored) version of my cabaret show and again marveled at what a fantastic audience children make. They have unprejudiced ears and eyes, and react with a spontaneity that is a joy to perform for.

I didn’t get to meet Julian LW who was busy that day doing his important work as founder director of In Harmony, the UK Sistema programme.

And now for a brazen plug of my (uncensored) cabaret show Revue Z which returns to London shortly before the world ends, on 16th and 17th December. Do come. It’s the perfect fluffy antidote to these turbulent times. There’s a Pierre Boulez and Sara Lund sketch, music for latex balloon, lovely lovely cello tunes and I’ve bought new pink glitter boots especially for you. And will attempt to crack a whip from Anne Summers winter S&M collection.

Here’s all the info.

Plug over, and now time briefly to visit the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, scene of a recent re-enactment of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen‘s 80th birthday tribute gig that received such accolades a few months ago in Copenhagen, about which I wrote at some length a couple of posts back (see The Bridge).

The ageless Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. 

The extraordinarily classy Theatre of Voices were again there to sing Pelle’s beautiful Dowland-inspired pieces alongside London Sinfonietta, and the concert was given in the acoustic and punter-free Lawrence Batley Theatre, conducted by Exaudi’s brave James Weeks, standing in at a couple of days notice for an indisposed Paul Hillier.

It’s been quite a while since going to Huddersfield, and I was amazed by the flashy new architectural spaces in the formerly drear University buildings, graced with 50 ft festival posters of a nice looking female sound artist doing something intense with a laptop.

The beardy festival goers, entirely male, looked pretty much unchanged since the hardcore 90s when I used to go yearly to play really, really nasty difficult (often really, really bad) “new” complexity music with assorted ensembles, all with different names but pretty much the same masochistic players.

In those days Brian Ferneyhough was King.

Asking around, it sounds as though this is no longer quite the case, and under Graham McKenzie’s directorship the gentle caress of sound art has come to sooth everyone’s irrational rhythms, and gigs have been packed throughout the festival, aided by his cunning “free Mondays” ticketing scheme.

This photo of the Huddersfield ring road system is nowhere near as boring as the one that made it into the celebrated “World’s Most Boring Postcards” book. But it does seem an unlikely location for an internationally renowned contemporary music festival.

Packed, that is, except our gig of more or less unknown (outside Denmark) Danish music. What on earth would this handful of quarter-tone and plastic bag-loving beards make of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s genre-defying and utterly original art, myriad-influenced by the blues, Beckett, bird-song, funk, folk, Danish new simplicity, Mondrian and Renaissance polyphony?

Amazingly enough, they LOVED it. Some said it was the most beautiful thing in the entire Festival since it began in neolithic times. They were beside themselves. Some with tears in their eyes, and not for want of really nasty noises. Pelle had won their hearts with something completely off the British new mu radar. Look out for his exceptional music should it finally get to a performance space (I hardly dare say “concert hall” these days) near you.

Have you ever experienced concert interval socialising fatigue? You know, that lethal dulling of the senses that can suddenly fog your entire being after trying to speak to too many people in the 15 minutes allotted before the interval bongs?

A couple of weeks ago I had a serious attack at the Barbican where I found myself fondly embracing Norman Rosenthal moments before realizing that we’ve never officially met.

Had I only known the danger to which I may have exposed myself…

“I am one of the brave brotherhood who have been insulted by Norman Rosenthal,” 

claims Brian Sewell in his fabulously bitchy and frankly filthy Outsider II, second volume of his strangely compelling autobiography, where alongside barbed exposés of the Blunt affair, art dealer skullduggery and wide-spread art forgery, he claims that Norm not only spat at him but actually thumped him – twice – so hard that a couple of Bri’s post-heart op stitches were broken, and all within the distinguished environs of the Royal Academy of Art.

It’s a sorry tale. And a warning to all who suffer from concert interval socialising syndrome (CISS).

Transcending the dangers of Norman and Nibiru is Jonathan Harvey, who, along with Elliott Carter and Hans Werner Henze completed the trio of famous composers to leave this world in the last few weeks.

Harvey was a supremely gentle soul who spent the latter half of his life exploring the spiritual realms through his music. I met him many times over the years and invariably found him utterly charming, kind and patient, sweet, vague, impeccably polite yet with a definite twinkle.

It wouldn’t be easy for an outsider to guess that this slender, white haired, old-worldly gentleman was both a devotee of cutting edge Boulezbian digital techniques, a former disciple of Stockhausen and dedicated adherent of eastern philosophy.

There was a workshop day I remember for his last opera, Wagner Dream, in which the amplified orchestra read through some of his sketches while he made decisions about the electronics he wanted. Surrounded by banks of state-of-the-art audio technology and about eight T-shirted, speccy technies from Ircam, he listened to the first few weirdy noises coming through the multi-channel speakers and said in his soft well-spoken voice, “I’ll have that ring modulator thingie on this one please.”

Scene from Jonathan Harvey’s opera Wagner Dream. I’m guessing that’s not Cosima in radiant yellow… 

His huge reputation as a composer of electronic music (especially in Europe) enabled him to have the resources to focus primarily on the notes themselves rather than the techie stuff and employ assistants to help, a balance that’s often a bit skew in these technology-saturated times. So often one finds formidably literate MAX MSP (for example) geeks whose ears are still some way behind their software programming. It will be interesting to see what happens with the music composition/technology balance over the next decade. For the time being, it’s still hard to beat those wildly original early analogue pieces of Stockhausen, in my view .

The marvellous Harvey Total Immersion weekend at the Barbican back in January this year was a timely celebration of his life and works through top notch concerts, films and discussion, introducing many for the first time to his transcendent music that reaches for, and often finds the still point beyond time and space.

May his music continue to move and inspire.

I’ll leave you with a wonderful story related by cellist Gabriella Swallow, set during an electronics class for composition students at the Royal College of Music. Mid-workshop, amidst the beeps and whizzes pouring out of surrounding speakers, Harvey shushed everyone with the words,

“Listen, everyone. I can hear angels!”

RIP Jonathan Harvey 1939 – 2012. You will be much missed.