I’ve been struggling to get rid of what the Germans call an ‘Ohrwurm’, a catchy tune that goes round and round in your head whether you want it to or not. My Ohrwurm is an early-20th-century Argentine tango, El Choclo, ‘the ear of corn’, which I heard played on the accordion by Pete Rosser in an evening of tangos I took part in recently. Since then it has played itself about 8 million times in my head. I’ve also listened to many versions of it on the internet, enjoying especially the older historical recordings with their wonderful atmosphere.
Searching for old Argentine tangos, I came across the heritage of Carlos Gardel, the ‘king of tango’ whom I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about before. On his Wikipedia page (which is fascinating in itself) there’s a sound clip of his 1935 tango ‘Por una Cabeza’. It instantly transports me far from present-day suburban London. It’s from a time and a culture quite different to mine, but through the power of music and Gardel’s enchanting voice I feel completely immersed as I listen.
Went to the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which was packed with visitors. The technical standard of painting in many of the portraits was astonishing. Skin, hair, eyelashes, veins were depicted with stunning realism and skill. In quite a few cases, visitors were leaning close to the frames and peering at the surface of the portraits to assure themselves that it was painting and not photography. I kept hearing people say, ‘I really thought this one was a photo.’
Seeing many such portraits gave me a slightly sad feeling, as if the artists had set themselves the goal of outdoing digital photography, of showing that the paintbrush is fully the equal of the zoom lens. It felt almost as if this quest had supplanted the wish to explore deeper, hidden aspects of the sitters. Many of the explanatory labels said that the artists ‘wanted to show’ that their subject was this or that, but for me there was a cool, blank feeling about many of the portraits, as though the immaculately painted surface was a barrier.
Walking over Waterloo Bridge the other evening I decided to pop into the Festival Hall. A very good Afro-Brazilian band was playing in the foyer and a large multi-cultural crowd, people of all ages, had gathered to listen. Many of the audience seemed to be South American and were gently dancing to the music. London feels good at such moments, with people from many places all gathered in a good mood to enjoy live music.
At the same time I always feel a surge of jealousy because you rarely see this kind of crowd gathered to listen to classical music. I can’t help feeling that the absence of amplification in classical music has something to do with it. Somehow, when music is quiet and played acoustically, people feel intimidated by having to be quiet themselves in order to hear it. When music is hugely amplified – as the foyer band was – people seem to relax and feel that they can move about and talk without distracting or competing with the musicians. To me there’s something perverse in feeling liberated by very loud music, but I realise I’m in the minority. I have never tried playing amplified classical music and would quite like to have the experience, to see what the effect would be on me and my listeners.
A gift arrives from America: a pianist colleague has kindly sent me Barbara Alex’s handsome new book about Hungarian piano professor Gyorgy Sebok, who died in 1999. Like all Sebok’s former students, I love to be reminded of how he spoke. He had a gift for aphorism which I’ve never heard equalled, but that doesn’t do him justice; what I mean is that he had a genius for insight and was able to express it with memorable pungency.
Barbara Alex’s book is really a collection of Sebok’s wise sayings, elegantly displayed on the pages with the help of some imaginative typography. It’s rather like reading a collection of Zen proverbs, and indeed there are things in common between the two. ‘Play the contents and not the container’, Sebok said. ‘Teaching freedom is a self-defeating thing, because one has to become free. That cannot be taught. It is the learner’s job.’ ‘Don’t concentrate, but rather be concentrated by the music.’ ‘To play louder, you must hear more.’ ‘You cannot play now and think later.’ ‘Music is understanding in action.’
Such remarks were great when they arose naturally in the course of a lesson, and were often said with a twinkle in the eye. When I read the isolated comments in the book, I can’t help wondering how they will strike people coming to them ‘cold’. Will Sebok’s remarks, pinned to the page like rare butterflies, seem enlightening or tantalisingly enigmatic?
The final concert of the Gaudier Ensemble’s Cerne Abbas Music Festival, in which I took part, featured one of my favourite pieces of chamber music, the Clarinet Quintet of Mozart. There was a surprise this time. Clarinettist Richard Hosford has an instrument which he recently had re-built to emulate the clarinet of Anton Stadler, whose playing inspired Mozart to compose the quintet. With the help of a wind instrument maker of the day, Stadler had modified his clarinet, extending the length by several inches in order to add a few more notes at the bottom of the range. Nobody seems to know for sure, but there are passages in the Mozart quintet which probably incorporated longer runs and arpeggios than are possible on the ordinary clarinet. Richard Hosford played them on his ‘basset clarinet’ and we heard some deep bass notes we’d never heard before. It was startling because of the way these deep notes combined with the chords of the string players to produce new voicings. In the photo Richard is holding the modified ‘Stadler’ clarinet.