Last night we watched an enjoyable BBC4 programme, ‘The Great American Songbook’. Various artists such as Paolo Nutini, Melody Gardot, Krystle Warren, Gwyneth Herbert, José James and my own personal favourite, Claire Martin gave us their own, updated versions of classic songs from the 1920s onwards. I love the ‘golden age’ of American musicals (Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart) and I was keen to see what today’s performers made of them.
The performers were all talented and striking in different ways, but I was sometimes struck by what seemed to me a mismatch between the innocent high spirits of the original material and the intense, emphatic, even tortured versions offered by today’s artists, often singing with their faces twisted into masks of pain. There’s a long tradition, of course, of artists finding qualities in older works which their inventors hadn’t put there. But I was puzzled by several ‘updatings’ which, for example, not only altered the emotion but also wiped out the shape of the original melody and kept only the chord sequence. If you hadn’t heard the songs before, you wouldn’t have had much idea of the melodic genius which made them stick in listeners’ minds for half a century. ‘Over the Rainbow’ shorn of the octave leap at the beginning? No ‘homage’ is successful if it makes you think less of the original.
At the moment I have seven or eight new pieces on the music desk of my piano. I have to learn them all by the summer. Some are works I’ve never heard played, and in such cases I find it helpful to listen to a recording before I start work.
The internet has made things far easier in this respect. When I was a student, it was very hard to get hold of recordings, especially of out-of-the-way pieces. If your college library didn’t have one, that was basically the end of your search, because recordings were too expensive to buy and listen to them just once for research purposes. Now you can type the name of any piece into a search engine and find recordings. YouTube is a constant source of surprise, often yielding wonderful clips of archive performance which I had no idea were there.
It’s not all gain, though. As well as high-quality recordings, there are many which (to my old-fashioned way of thinking) should have remained quietly out of the spotlight, and some so bad that they might put people off hearing the work again. People upload clips of themselves stumbling through their own part of a chamber music piece, with the other parts missing, and they evidently don’t feel this is a little odd. It’s clear that attitudes to recording have changed. Whereas making a recording used to be a goal that only high-fliers could or would aspire to, it’s now considered acceptable to record ‘work in progress’ and publish it cheerfully to the wider world.
An intriguing exchange in Sainsbury’s this morning. Two women were standing at the flour section frowning at a tiny bag of flour which one of them held in her hand.
‘Do you bake?’ she said to me. I nodded. ‘Could you tell me whether I’d get 24 fairy cakes out of this amount of flour?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you buy the larger bag of flour to be safe?’ ‘Because it’s heavy, and I have to carry it to Brussels.’
There was a thoughtful silence.
‘Why don’t you just buy the flour in Brussels?’ I asked timidly.
‘Because everything in the British shop in Brussels is three times as expensive!’
‘But you wouldn’t have to go to the British shop in Brussels for flour, surely!’ I said. ‘Couldn’t you just buy the flour in any grocery store there?’
‘You can’t just get flour in Brussels, believe me!’
We are not quite reconciled to being Europeans.
The weather has turned cold again, and on the day I took this photo in Richmond Park, we had hail, thunder and lightning in the afternoon. By now, the high winds and heavy rain have probably ripped most of the early blossoms off the bushes. So I think I was lucky to spend an hour among these fragile signs of spring while the rain held off.
Happy Easter holidays!
Bob and I were arguing over breakfast about the theme tune at the end of ‘Frasier’. We’re working our way through a box set and enjoying the Frasier ambience all over again. But we had rather different memories of what notes he sings to the words ‘tossed salad and scrambled eggs’. The lyrics are enigmatic ( ‘Hey, baby, I hear the blues a-calling, tossed salad and scrambled eggs’). Our concern, however, was the tune.
I sang my version, Bob sang his, and we each told the other they were wrong. Then we got the phone message notebook, drew some lines of music score and wrote down our competing versions. We still couldn’t agree, so we put in a DVD and found a point where the tune appears.
Immediately the plot thickened. Kelsey Grammer‘s intonation is flexible, and sometimes it’s a cross between singing and speech. The between-the-cracks pitches seem completely natural in the context, but still allow two old pedants to stand there arguing about whether a certain note is a sharp E or a flat F, whether the next note is a flat E flat or a sharp D, and so on. Our notebook was strewn with crossed-out sharps and flats, not to mention rhythms. You can buy music books that claim ‘it’s easy to play TV Theme Tunes’, but goodness knows what they make of this one.