Saturday, 25 February 2017


Something new for the Specs blog, I think - I've just discovered* (*made up) a completely new branch of aural science: one can but hope that the product of such searingly incisive new thought might be a PhD, or perhaps a Nobel. A knighthood, even...? Who knows?

Anyway. Introducing 'acaustics'. First and foremost, it's clearly a pun. Second, it's my name for a particularly peculiar, perplexing phenomenon. Namely, the First Law of Acaustics: that intrusive, disruptive noise made inside a concert hall is always loud enough to compete with the sounds you're actually there to hear.

I started thinking about this a short while back, after attending a series of gigs (different music, different venues) where the coughing in the audience seemed especially bad - like the bug was following me around, but with everyone in my vicinity catching it except me. Now don't get me wrong - although it sometimes winds me up a bit, I don't want to write a post about how terrible coughing in an auditorium is. Of course people sometimes need to cough. But what surprises me is the lack of attempt to stifle it. I can count on one hand the number of times I detect a muffled *ahem*. But I would need to be the Many-Handed Man of Many Hands to tot up the number of sky-ripping, gut-fraying, truly tubercular explosions I've experienced as an audience member. Why?

You could decide that all of these people - all of them, everywhere, independently ailing - were being thoughtless, or even vandalistic. But is that really likely? I'm wondering if in fact, it's just a poor grasp of acaustics.

My ideas on this came into focus when recently visiting the supremely enjoyable ENO production of Gilbert & Sullivan's 'The Pirates of Penzance'. Now, Mrs Specs and I had chosen to attend a Saturday matinee, so inevitably there were more kids and entire families than I would normally expect on, say, a midweek evening. But on the whole - and 'Pirates' is hardly a panto - the children were as good as gold, and I'm not the kind of showgoer who gets annoyed when little ones lean forward, or point at something excitedly, or ask a parent what's happening. I'm generally rather pleased they're there. But - and I suspect you saw that 'But' coming some time ago - the problem lay with the grown-ups (and not just those who had children with them), who thought a trip like this was basically the same as the cinema.

But it isn't. It's not a coincidence that noisy snacks and slurpy drinks are usually on sale at events which are amplified: the sound at a film or rock gig is cranked up to levels that obliterate the popcorn-munching and straw-sucking more or less completely. I'm still slightly surprised at the need some people have to undergo a full-on dining experience at the movies, and I rather feel that the word 'Technicolour' was originally coined to refer to kiosk-assembled nachos before it caught on to describe the films themselves. But at least I can see and hear them.

In a concert hall, which by definition should be constructed to enhance sound made entirely without amplification, it's every noise for itself. This, I think, goes some way to explaining why it's so often classical music fans that moan about this kind of thing, unwittingly fuelling the fire of the terminally dull 'elitism' debate.

However - at various points during 'Pirates', I was also treated to these extra audio enhancements:
  • A bloke breaking open a packet of posh crisps - yes, crisps - a few seats along, and - brilliantly - moving each tasty potato snack towards his mouth very slowly, as if his arm was the problem - then crunching down on it with maximum force anyway. He was sharing the bag with his companion (now that's a stingy date, eh, ladies?), forcing her to rummage among the surviving crisps for her portion.
  • A group of girls a couple of rows behind us rustling sweet wrappers for an entire scene. A quick glance back seemed to confirm that they had bags of Haribo large enough to keep them going through the whole of Wagner's Ring Cycle but, being kids, had actually put the whole lot away in record time. I can only assume that they were insensible on E-numbers for the rest of the show.
  • A dad who, weirdly, seemed to have bought a ticket too many, so sat himself a seat's distance away from his kids - possibly to give them a sense of slightly grown-up independence. Which might make sense, except he kept leaning across the unnecessarily long distance to stage-whisper things at them, his comments wafting up to us in a kind of blurred 'schschschsch'. Pleasingly, the children looked rather irritated by this, with 'DAD WE'RE TRYING TO WATCH THE OPERA' written all over their faces.
Again, it's very tempting to fall into the 'I'm surrounded by idiots!' trap, but I find it hard to believe that all of these folk are just rotters. It does flummox me when people can spend an entire interval chatting only to start laying out some kind of picnic or flinging their bags and clothes around once the music starts up again.

But this is no doubt all due to the Second Law of Acaustics: that those making the noise are, themselves, unable to detect other acaustic phenomena. Does a serial talker ever get annoyed by someone else's sweet wrapper? Apparently not. I am genuinely fascinated by this kind of 'hive mind' journey towards a listening experience being somehow not enough in itself: that it isn't a proper occasion unless, ironically, you've made it a little more like your front room, with the attendant discussion over snacks.

At the recent Music into Words conference I took part in, Kate Romano spoke fascinatingly about the more fractured way we 'consume' music these days and whether that could feed into programming. I certainly think there's important work ahead in allowing people to absolutely 'be themselves' at concerts and they should not be intimidated into staying away while the rest of us sit in serene, immobile attendance. One example that instantly springs to mind is Wigmore Hall's concerts specifically for kids, or for carers and their patients. But more than that, multi-genre gigs in a relaxed environment, where people's expectations are managed and more audience freedom encouraged, would be a wonderful way to break down barriers, not just between audiences, but in the music itself.

In the meantime, though, I cling to my suspicion that ignorance of acaustics - which is, as you know, a very new field - is all that prevents wilfully noisy audience members from realising the level of disturbance they currently create. If any of you believe you suffer from this affliction, please feel free to consult me for further information. I'm extremely reasonable.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Music into Words 2: Write-minded people...

At the Music into Words conference a week ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to some brilliant people, speaking about our shared obsessions: music itself, and the joys and traumas we encounter when we write about it.

As I've mentioned before, I was asked to be on the panel this time. I was a little nervous about this. Writing about music was one thing, but speaking (publicly) about it? - that was new. But this was far outweighed by how pleased I was to be taking part, and the realisation that I did, in fact, have a few things I wanted to say.

The afternoon was split into two sessions: part one had a broadly 'generalist' flavour.

Tom Hammond - a conductor and artistic director - gave us a performer's perspective, pointing out that online music writing could help provide a service that the more traditional media often can't: covering events held outside the major cities (especially London), or given by artists who might not be in the major glare of the spotlight but should be more widely known. You only have to look at Tom's schedule to see the enticing variety of more local concerts he's involved in. I saw Tom's talk as something of a wake-up call - I certainly stick very close to London venues (largely a necessity in evenings after work), but perhaps at weekends I could roam more?

Visit Tom's website.

Katy Hamilton - a music writer and presenter - spoke about the art of programme notes, and the need for narrative/storytelling when preparing listeners and audiences for what they are about to hear - sometimes extremely swiftly, and under a brutal word limit. This talk chimed with me particularly because it felt like the professional version of what sometimes goes through my mind when starting a post: what is it I really need to tell people, and how? Of course, I have as many words as I want - Katy manages it much more concisely and elegantly - as you'll discover if you read her excellent blog.

Visit Katy's website.

I spoke third (and last) in the first session. You've obviously found my virtual home already, but if you'd like to read the talk I gave about amateur blogging, go to my previous post, here.

[Here you can see Frances Wilson, giving the welcome, then left to right: the seat shortly to contain Ian Pace, Leah Broad, Neil Fisher, Katy Hamilton, Simon Brackenborough (chairing), Peter Donohoe, Kate Romano, Tom Hammond, me (furiously editing my talk up to the last minute, by the looks of things). Thank you to Mary Grace Nguyen for the great photo - I recommend to you Mary's blog Trendfem, which you can find here.]

The second half of the conference had a more academic focus.

Leah Broad - currently researching music and theatre at Oxford - spoke about exactly that, alerting us to the tantalising canon of music written for theatre that's barely come to light (compare, say, film music, so much of which lives for ever in soundtrack albums). When I think, for example, about the new Globe Music label, which looks set to put out music composed for Globe productions, or the success of a show like 'Farinelli and the King' - it seems to me that Leah is working on exactly the right thing at exactly the right time - I can't wait to hear more of (and hopefully write about) her findings.

Visit Leah's website.

Kate Romano - musician, composer, writer, event programmer, consummate all-rounder - looked at the fascinating subject of how we 'curate' or 'use' music. She contrasted the traditional concert - a unified, focused event based on a theme or work, say - with how we actually consume music: something far more elusive and fragmentary - phrases from the radio, earworms, hearing children or neighbours practising instruments, adverts, and so on. Could this kind of listener experience be turned round to influence programming. I was rather inspired by this, as thoughts of multi-genre, multi-channel gigs pinged around my brain. Kate intends to develop these ideas further - very much looking forward to seeing, and hopefully hearing, what ensues.

Visit Kate's website.

Ian Pace - pianist and musicologist - examined the use of jargon in academic music writing. As someone who is, in a way, professionally trained to avoid jargon wherever possible, I found this intriguing. In its place - between writer and reader of equal knowledge - it can offer clarity as well as economy, but Ian drew our attention to some truly horrendous examples where densely-packed, pretentious prose bullies the unsuspecting reader into submission and only serves the ego of the author. We learned the magnificent term 'me-search' to describe such malpractice.

Visit Ian's website.

I thoroughly enjoyed giving my talk and, even more so, listening to the others - but of course, an event like this really flies when the discussions start. The questions from the audience fully used up the time available. Two illustrious guests sat on the panel with us - concert pianist Peter Donohoe and Deputy Arts Editor of The Times, Neil Fisher - and each offered frank and illuminating insights that dovetailed between our talks and the wider contributions.

As the afternoon progressed, we also had the pleasing sense of the conference rippling outwards, with the #MusicintoWords hashtag appearing in some lively Twitter exchanges - as well as a pleasing transatlantic endorsement from the eminent US critic Alex Ross.

The event could not have happened without the brilliant efforts of the organisers, Frances Wilson (The Cross Eyed Pianist) and Simon Brackenborough (Corymbus), whose own blogs are both must-follows. Frances has compiled a superb Storify compilation of the tweets surrounding the event here.

Many thanks to anyone who came along, took part, pitched into the online debates, or got involved and supported the event in any way. I understand plans are already afoot for the next one - exciting stuff! - and let's keep the conversation going in the meantime.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Music into Words 1: What Specs said...

Yesterday (Sunday 12 February), I had a fantastic time taking part in the second 'Music into Words' conference - focusing on writing about classical music - which I previewed here. It was a privilege to be part of a panel whose learning, experience and insights have given me so much to think about. As soon as possible, I'll post a follow-up piece telling you all about it - and include as many links and references as I can muster, so that you can find out more about the personalities involved and the topics covered.

In the meantime - to keep a bit of the momentum going - here is the talk I gave. (Obviously, I roamed from the script occasionally due to mild nerves and the occasional over-enthusiastic hand gesture - but this is essentially what I said.) I was there to speak about amateur blogging - how I got started, why I do it, and what I thought the whole enterprise was for... I hope you enjoy it.


Hello, everyone.

I carried out a little light self-analysis for this talk and thought hard about why I write about music… I was slightly troubled at first that words like ‘obsession’ (how I feel about music) and ‘therapy’ (how I feel about writing) came into my head.

But in fact, the way I started writing about classical music mirrors, quite closely, the way I started listening to it. I was into pop and rock at school, then in my student years widened my listening to folk, jazz, world music, electronica… Yet despite these nomadic listening habits, classical music still seemed somehow apart, a whole new universe, and I just wasn’t an astronaut.

Some of you here – if you like reading about music across a range of genres – may remember ‘Word’ magazine. It's long gone now, but it encouraged its readers to post reviews and articles on its website that the mag would cherry-pick from and publish - and I got a couple of pieces printed.

So, this was when I realised how much I enjoyed trying to put how music made me feel into words. It added another layer to a CD, or made a gig live again. I do actually write for a living, but about finance, benefits, tax and so on. While I’m sure that many of us do get quite emotional in all sorts of ways about tax, we’re not talking about the rarefied high that music can give us.

Eventually, something ‘unlocked’ and I became ‘ready’ for classical music. I had married someone who loved choral music and we began to go and hear it seriously. A friend of ours, devoted to the Proms through his three favourite things in life - grandeur, classical music, and Pimms - started getting us along to those, which in turn got me more familiar with Radio 3.

Meanwhile, in record shops like Rough Trade, I would stray into the modern composition section and hear the likes of Adams and Glass, who spoke to me instantly. Of course, it's a simplification to say a composer like Philip Glass is bound to appeal to rock fans because of riffs and repetition – but I have often been simple. I am hooked by hooks. I’m an opera nut now, not thanks to a Tosca or Traviata but the Proms performance of ‘Nixon in China’ in 2012. Then Mr Pimms suggested I 'Prom' with him at Barenboim's entire Ring Cycle in 2013 - a literal 'baptism of fire', standing at the top of the world's largest steamer, immersed in that sound... After that, there was no going back.

And it hasn’t escaped me that favourite kind of classical music – art song – appeals to me so much because I can’t help but hear it underpin all those other songs that came later. Whatever links and connections along these lines may be already obvious to anyone steeped in classical music, to someone coming from the 'rock' side, they're like a series of epiphanies. Then, finding that many of classical music's elements pushed the same buttons – that there really was no need for it to be separate – made me realise that I would end up writing about it, and in such a way that it would not have to be separate. And since I had no idea where, I decided to start my own blog.

Amateur blogging comes with pros and cons. I can write whatever I like (within libel laws) – but of course I have no ‘credentials’ – I’m aware that I back up my thoughts in a non-academic, perhaps more speculative and descriptive way; I'm learning in public. I’m not a critic, I’m a punter. As a paying customer, I tend to go only to events I expect to enjoy in the first place. So, while I am always completely honest, I never call my posts ‘reviews’. I enjoy the luxury of focusing on works and performances I like, or love, and aiming to spread some of that joy

It is hugely rewarding to be unashamedly enthusiastic and evangelical about particular artists or composers one likes. Anyone reading ‘Specs’ will know that I champion certain artists – like Jo Quail, for example. She’s a cellist who composes her own music for electric cello and loop station – her pieces build in layers that she can re-create live, in real time. She self-releases her own albums, and thanks to her 'underground' rock background, she’s as likely to be found supporting bands in an Islington goth night as she is staging her own concerts in churches and concert halls. I see her as 100% contemporary classical, but totally under the radar when it comes to labels like NMC or a a venue like the Wigmore. And these artists that fall between the cracks in the music scene, also do so in the music press, and I feel it’s up to me – us – whatever our personal causes, to get them out there to wider attention.

So… No rules! No editor! And of course, no readers – not for some time, although it’s a pleasure to see ‘Specs’ building up its audience now. It is, of course, completely Adrian-shaped - an online self-portrait. It is mostly about classical music, because I'm mostly 'about' classical music – but I also write about anything else I feel like including.

I’m comfortable with that because I think my core readership, if I have one, is ‘me’ – or at least the ‘me’ of five to ten years ago. Always looking for the ‘way into’ other music. One of the best reactions I get is when someone I might already know through a rock or folk connection feeds back on classical piece I’ve posted – ‘that sounds amazing, never heard of him/her/it but I’m checking them out after reading that’. That's always the aim.

Those here of around my vintage will remember when we had more Megastores – those huge record shops – and the classical section was often in the basement, behind glass and a closed door - maximum isolation - as if the sensitively-eared needed protection from the cacophony outside.

It worried me at one time that classical music media was at a similar remove. What was the ‘way in’? Now – seemingly when the rock press is headed for oblivion more quickly - I'm really encouraged to see BBC Music Magazine including jazz and world music in its reviews (again, reflecting programmes like 'Late Junction' on Radio 3), and Gramophone seems to be following suit. Online, it will be thanks to events like this and up to all of us, I think, to keep sharing our enthusiasms and tell each other what's out there. I’d like to think that, even in its own small and irregularly-updated way, ‘Specs’ is helping to hold the glass door open.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Key player

Writing up a recent gig at the Barbican...


To begin with, the programme was really enticing - bringing together three composers covering such a range of styles, it gave pianist Helmut Deutsch the chance to display his versatility and virtuosity. The first half was perhaps, you might think, more familiar terrain: Schumann's 12 'Kerner Lieder', which Deutsch performed with a kind of propulsive sensitivity, keeping the tone delicate but - where the songs demanded it - fast, disciplined and precise, perfectly judging the sequence's overall move into more sombre territory.

After the interval, five Duparc melodies - bringing with them rippling cascades of notes, so even and fluent that HD's fingers seemed hardly at times to touch the keys. The near-indefinable 'sway' that seems to inhabit French art song in particular was fully realised and tangible here. What a fantastic contrast, then, to close the recital with Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo: knotty, unpredictable, with the fractured beauty of Italian edifices.

It made me realise how often art song recitals are themed with perhaps more unity, and nothing wrong with that: as an audience, you stay in the same stylistic place, with perhaps a single-country programme or sometimes, of course, showcasing just one composer. Or where the mood is consistent throughout - all love songs, say. But here, we had the privilege of seeing and hearing the pianist in fully chameleonic mode, able to switch soundworlds 'before our ears': I enjoyed this performance so much that Deutsch has now become one of my 'must-hear-whenever-possible' musicians, whoever the singer he is partnering with. Accompanying him tonight, in fine voice, was tenor Jonas Kaufmann.


As a card-carrying geek when it comes to accompanists, please forgive my slightly curmudgeonly 'reverse write-up' above. I mean every word - I thought Helmut Deutsch's playing was utterly marvellous that evening, for all the reasons I outline, and I had something resembling an epiphany about him. And while most coverage of song recitals focuses on the singer - I guess the clue's in the phrase 'song recital' - and even more so when it's Jonas Kaufmann, I couldn't help being irritated by the reviews I read that seemed almost unaware there was anyone playing the piano at all. One in particular reserved about seven words for the accompanist, two of which were, obviously, 'Helmut' and 'Deutsch'.

But of course, Kaufmann is huge news - all the more so, because he is only recently back after several months' recuperation from (squeamish readers, look away now) a burst blood vessel on his vocal cords (hnnnnnnng!). I'm glad to report that although he seemed to betray signs of initial nerves - he apologised for using a tablet as a safety net, since he was recital rusty - he soon settled down and assumed complete control.

The Barbican's acoustic - sometimes a bit too good, amplifying everyone's slight tickle of the throat into a tubercular hack - will never replicate the intimacy of a Wigmore Hall gig, but it allowed JK to use his great dynamic gifts. Despite huge reserves of power, he unleashes the fury only sparingly, and performs art song with great restraint (his 'Winterreise' with HD is a good example of this on disc). In this way, he drew in the cavernous hall around him, and left the audience in raptures. The final Britten song was particularly fitting, with a glorious unaccompanied passage - exactly what you'd expect from a composer in love with his singer.

(Even for those few minutes, however, I missed Helmut Deutsch's exquisite accompaniment...)

[PS: The great portrait of Helmut Deutsch is taken from the Europa Tickets website, but I couldn't see a photographer credit anywhere.]