On the embarrassment of being late to the party

Discovering a new writer or artist, or at least someone new to you, can be a wonderful experience. This is particularly enjoyable when they are starting out on their career. For me this happened with the music of John Adams. This led to a period of discovery, travelling whenever I could to wherever a piece of his was being played. What made it more special still was that at that time John Adams was known to only a few of us; a secret pleasure shared only by a few initiates.

The other side of the coin is when you “discover” someone who is already famous. Recently I’ve been asking myself: How on earth have I never before read anything by Penelope Lively? Even then my discovery came by accident, I intended to read something by Penelope Fitzgerald. Instead, getting my Penelopes confused, I took out from the library Penelope Lively’s How it All Began. But what joy did I find. What wonderful, unforced eloquence. What deep sympathy, empathy with her characters; even for those who on the face it don’t deserve it. How can a hand on a knee be imbued with such an emotional charge? If you’ve read the book, you’ll know whose hand and whose knee I mean. If you haven’t read it, then go and get a copy.

I really am embarrassed. I consider myself reasonably well-read, and yet here is someone who was scarcely a name to me before, writing with such humanity. The only consolation I have is that instead of having to wait two years for another book to come out, I can straight away start to read all her earlier work.

Can we have proper plays please?

Looking at the West Yorkshire Playhouse programme for the first part of 2017, I am struck by the fact that three of the Big Shows are not properly plays at all, but adaptations for the stage of famous films and novels: La Strada, The Graduate and The Grapes of Wrath. This seems to be a trend, and WYP is certainly not unique in going this way, even The Shawshank Redemption (one of the most loved films of all time) is now a play, but it worries me.

Of course, adaptations of existing source material have been a feature of the stage since Shakepeare’s day and probably long before. Sometimes they are incredibly successful (Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black for example), but are these adaptations really justified artistically or are they – as I fear – a cynical way of getting an audience by trading on the reputation of something that is already successful, well-known and popular? I struggle to imagine what a stage version of The Graduate will bring to the table to replace the magical chemistry between Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft.

There are so many great plays out there. The greats of the canon; forgotten works that should be revived; young new talent. Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on these?

Avoiding ossification

A first post in my new blog. Sometimes I will be talking about music, sometimes writing, sometimes…who knows? This one though is definitely music.

This year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has just come to an end. The 39th Festival no less. I first went to HCMF back in the mid-1980s when it was run by Richard Steinitz. One year there was a memorable visit by John Cage, another time a young John Adams. The likes of Xenakis, Berio and Birtwistle featured prominently, and I remember showing Arne Nordheim the way to the Town Hall one night when he was lost. Composers who I think of as being absolute masters of the late twentieth century. Then in 1993 I moved abroad not to return until 2010 and when I started going back to Huddersfield I found that it had changed. Or at least so it seemed.

Instead of the Big Names of contemporary music, composers likely to be featured by the BBC at the Proms for example, there was more of an emphasis on the extreme fringes of the avant-garde. Composers I had never even heard of such as Rebecca Saunders and Georg Friedrich Haas. Music that often lived in the space where contemporary classical music (for want of a better term) met experimental jazz and improvisation. And I have to admit that at first I was disappointed: Where were the heroes of my youth? And then, even more alarmingly, I started to worry that as I was growing older my tastes were starting to ossify. Although my wife thinks that I listen to “strange music”, it seemed to me that too many of the concerts were too strange even for me.

So, realising that perhaps the fault lay with me and not the music, I went to a lunchtime concert featuring the Australian group Elision and composers I didn’t know, and where I was (almost literally – it was very loud) blown away by Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries for 2 trumpets with clarinet, saxophone, trombone, contrabass, lap-steel guitar and multi-channel electronics. A composer who I had never heard of writing music of visceral power, played with stunning virtuosity by the two solo trumpets. Highly dissonant, and yet the spirit of free jazz (Ornette Coleman an influence on the music) never seemed too far away.

In short it was wonderful (as was Rebecca Saunders’ Skin in another concert) and it reminded me of the importance of taking a chance on things, and keeping open ears and an open mind. No matter how old you are.