Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

The Crouch End Festival and Alfred de Musset

June 10, 2018

As anyone who read the post on Marivaux and last year’s Crouch End Festival piece, Corbyn Island, will know in adapting pieces I like to do some half-arsed research in the milieu of how the originals came about. And in contrast to Corbyn Island the update of A Door (Should be Open or Shut) is nevertheless a period piece rather than being located in contemporary Britain. Mid-century London wasn’t too much of a stretch for the update and fortunately the background and context for Musset’s play, Il Faut Qu’une Porte Soit Ouverte ou Fermée, was less unfamiliar to me if only because I’ve been something of a Delacroix obsessive for some time.*

Where’s the connection with Delacroix? Well, of course they’re both French Romantics though working in different disciplines, but the connection is much more personal than being inspired by the same mid-nineteenth century ideas. Delacroix was a great friend of the musician Frédéric Chopin and his lover, the writer Georges Sand. And Musset was previously a lover of Sand.

It was good to hear that Paul Kildea’s new book on Chopin’s Piano is in part concerned with recovering Sand’s reputation (in popular writing that is, it’s been a task undertaken with relish by feminist academics for decades) from its traducement by followers of Chopin (and Musset, especially his brother Paul) who have trashed her literary reputation largely out of unthinking misogyny.**

So as well as reading de Musset’s work I’ve been reading Delacroix’s diaries (an ongoing project over the past few years***, Sand’s memoirs and Paul de Musset’s (very) partial biography of his brother.

Props for 'A Door (Should be Open or Shut)

Props for A Door (Should be Open or Shut)

What did I take from this reading into the new production? Our production is set in 1940s Soho and when I realised that the production of Absolute Hell  would be using pretty much the same setting, and running at the same time as us, I was rather fearful that people would think that I’d been inspired by that. But in fact I was inspired by de Musset’s own life.

De Musset himself was a drinker. A serious drinker. As in he died of it. But this aspect of his life doesn’t bleed into the literary works that he created so I decided that to make the connection with his life I’d update the play from an aristocratic salon to somewhere more modern. Since we had a pub bar as a set it seemed natural that the setting I’d update it to would be one of London’s drinking clubs of the 1930s/40s.

Although there are references to Soho stalwarts such as Francis Bacon the model I was actually thinking of wasn’t the Colony Club. Rather I had in mind Foppa’s, which appears in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. So we’re more in 40s Fitzrovia than 50s Soho. To someone who never knew either in their prime Fitzrovia offers a rather more literary locus which looks back to the 19th Century (and de Musset) rather than forward to the late twentieth and Jeffrey Bernard. Although the female lead is an artist.

A fun part of the production has been assembling props – a 40s Woodbine astray, an old-fashioned bottle of scotch, a cigarette case and a whiff of 40s in the costume of the characters. And the cast – Anna Rogers, Matt Griffin and Ruari Johnson – have been extraordinarily successful at bringing Musset’s characters to life in a faux-Fitzrovian setting.

If you’ve read this far why not book a ticket now to see the show? You can visit the Crouch End Players website or email 

Thanks to Paul Travis for the photo of the props, and for other shots of the preview night.

#Theatre #London #crouchendfestival

* I’ve written about him before and I’m looking forward to visiting the blockbuster show of his work at the Louvre later this month.

**You can listen to an excellent podcast with Kildea here.

***i.e. the French unedited edition lies next to my bed. And has done for some time! The Phaidon edition in English is what I’d recommend if you want to read pretty much the best writer on art of the nineteenth century as well as one of its key practitioners.

Review #61 Antica Locanda Montin

July 13, 2016

Recommended by the eldest child Locanda Montin was a perfect place for a late lunch. In a quiet garden we dined on sea bass and spaghetti alle vongole with a bit of Prosecco and Pinot Grigio for fluids.

The spaghetti was al dente and had a generous helping of Poseidon’s bounty in the form of delicious cockles. I could have stayed there all day but we had art to see.


To see where else I’ve eaten in 2016 go to the GoogleMap here

Russia and the Arts at the NPG 

April 26, 2016

I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts about Delacroix in the light of the amazing show at the National Gallery but there’s too much to say about him and I need to let it digest. Everyone should see this show before it closes in a month or so’s time – if you have to choose between Delaxroix at the NG and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (i.e. The gardening exhibition) at the RA it’s a no brainier. Delacroix wins with a smackdown.

In the meantime I can also heartily recommend (with one reservation, which I’ll come to anon) the Russia and the Arts exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.


Well, for a start you’re unlikely to see any of these paintings again unless you brave a trip to Putinland, and you’re certainly not going to see them all together like this. They’re from a collection drawn up over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by an art lover who wanted to develop a gallery of portraits of contemporary Great Russians.

So we have a kaleidoscope of  writers, artists, muses, actors, composers and impresarios, all interesting both biographically and artistically. The crowds formed around the globally famous big beasts, especially Tchaikovsky, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. But my attention was drawn by two less well known figures.

The first was a portrait of a man who is described in my notebook as ‘Marmontov (opera guy)’. A work by Vrobel, of whom I’d never heard before, apparently both sitter and artist were tricky characters. Marmontov was a pretty demanding boss and Vrobel had a messy personal life. The alchemy of them working together produced something special. Vrobel is definitely not a portraitist of the cap-doffing variety. He’s produced a bonk-eyed proto-Cubist masterpiece of anti-lickspittlery that portrays his patron as a midget tyrant with a paradoxically fugitive aspect. It’s compelling.


As is Repin’s portrait of Mussorgsky. Now Mussorgsky is someone I had heard of – Pictures is rarely off my playlist, especially the version by Leif Øve Andsnes. The portrait though is compelling for a different reason to that of Marmontov. Repin half-painted it while Mussorgsky was on his deathbed, having consumed booze on a Herculean (even by Russian standards) scale. The reason he wasn’t able to finish it was that when he went back the next day his subject had died.

But I think that makes it all the more interesting as a portrait. We get the raw initial reaction of Repin rather than a considered, finished piece of work. Frankly, Mussorgsky looks fucked. His stature is of Orson Wellesian proportions, wild haired but not wild eyed. Rather he stares with a watery blankness that still hints at the utterly raw genius of his music. And underscores the tragedy of the fact that he died too young at just 42 years of age.

On a personal note it struck brief disquiet in my heart to consider that I’m 42 myself, although (fingers crossed) in considerably better shape. But the disquiet comes from knowing that I am highly unlikely to produce one thing that has a smidgeon of the genius of Pictures. Yet, even if I can’t produce great art I can at least recognise it and take pleasure in it in those snatches of time between the too tedious mundanity of much of life.

I exited the gallery and raised a slightly guilty glass to Modest, I’m sure he would have approved.*

* One thing I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have approved of was his music being piped through speakers into the rooms of the exhibition, reducing his works to badly amped Muzak for the English middle classes. What creative genius at the NPG thought this would be a Good Thing I have no idea but I would strongly urge them not to do it again.

Review #38 Pizza Express, Kings Road

April 20, 2016

Aagh, so I broke the rule. But when I went to PExpress in Russell Square I’d forgotten that I’d booked tickets to see a friend’s band (Evening Standards) at the Pheasantry. After all, one mustn’t let down a friend eh?

And the Pheasantry is a distinct enough venue to differentiate it from your average high street pizza venue. One time home to a ballet school run by Princess Serafina Astifieva (who trained both Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn there) it’s more renowned, among music buffs at least, as the place where Eric Clapton jumped out a back window to avoid being busted for drugs.

But that was in the 60s when Chelsea was still a locus for the counter-culture. Pockets of crazy old loons do still exist. I once shared an afternoon drink with a man in a back street pub who claimed to be a Marquis of somewhere whose dog’s name started Count Otto von Bismarck and finished several titles later. He was ejected from the premises after he poured a full bottle of whisky into an antique crystal decanter and got my fifteen year old son to ask the barman for glasses for drinking said whisky while I was in the loo.

But I digress.

Well, the basement of this PE (I’ve never dined here above ground) is on the cramped side – naturally so since they want to sell as many tickets as possible. We arrived early and got a table right by the stage. Not especially hungry we opted to share a starter of calamari, a side salad and a Hawaiian pizza (which PE have been pushing as a major new thing). Also, booze of the white wine variety.

Calamari was good, piping hot and with a tangy garlicky dip. Salad, well it’s salad so not difficult to get wrong but like all chains of this nature it seemed awfully wince to pay four plus quid for a bunch of leaves and a vinaigrette. And then the main event – pizza. Given that their latest publicity puts the pineapple front and centre there wasn’t enough of it in evidence for my liking. As for the chilli it didn’t make it to the plate at all. Which is a shame.

Any disappointment at the pizza was soon forgotten though as Evening Standards went through a charming repertoire of American songs of the twentieth century. The service was very good with staff very unobtrusively taking orders as the show began and delivering bills rapidly once it was over.

To have talented friends is a blessing.

Eats 6/10

Jazz 9/10

To see which other restaurants I’ve visited in 2016 check out my GoogleMap

The Foundling Museum

October 8, 2015

The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, is one of those small London museums that is easy to miss. They’ve had some publicity recently due to their new exhibition, The Fallen Woman, which discusses the issues of extra-marital sex and prostitution in the nineteenth century and the responses from social reformers and artists. I can wholeheartedly recommend the exhibition, which is a timely response to the execrably exploitative J**k the R*****r outfit in the East End.*

What I’m more concerned with here though is to point out that you don’t need the excuse of a special exhibition to visit the Foundling, the permanent collection more than justifies a visit by itself. The story of the foundation of the hospital in the 18th century through the strenuous efforts of Thomas Coram is well documented and I would urge anyone who is interested in the development of London to do a little reading in Roy Porter to get a sense of the background.**

Tommy C. Ledge.

Tommy C – Ledge.

Take a good look at the statue of Thomas Coram in the courtyard, which is based on a portrait by Hogarth that you’ll find inside. One of the pleasures of the museum is that it gives you a cross section of the greatest visual artists working in London through the early years of the Hospital’s history. So you’ll find Hogarth’s portrait of Coram, as well as one of his best satirical works, The March of the Guards to Finchley, works by Reynolds and Rysbrack, as well as a set of Rowlandson prints. These are all good fodder for 18thC buffs and count among the things one might expect from a visit. But one of the pleasures of small museums, whose collections are necessarily not comprehensive but often rely on the less-fêted gifted works to fill the walls, is coming across the things that you didn’t expect to see.

Freddy H. Dude.

Freddy H. Dude.

On this occasion the first of these, the Handel collection on the top floor, wasn’t exactly something that I hadn’t expected to see, it was rather a collection that I didn’t expect to find so fascinating. Handel was another major benefactor of the Hospital, holding benefit recitals for the foundlings of his Messiah in the great hall of the original building. The current collection houses the Gerald Coke Handel Collection which has all sorts of fascinating objects to it, as well as being an enormous collection of Handel manuscripts.

18th C Handel manuscripts

18th C Handel manuscripts

One of the things that I liked about the collection, and it’s a feeling I similarly got in Dr Johnson’s House last year, is how much these great figures of 18th century London depended on collaboration and clubbability to make their way through the cultural economy. Aristocratic patronage was still important to get publication or put on a show but it wasn’t the only means of making one’s way in the world. The growth in disposable income of the middle and working classes meant that their work could be genuinely popular and commercially viable, especially if two or more artists came together to pool their talents – as is documented by Handel’s partnership with Dryden to produce Alexander’s Feast or the Power of Musick. It feels like you’re peering in to the birth of modern London to see the documents of all these collaborative projects.

18th C Bacharach and David

The Power of Musick 

Such a collaborative approach is strikingly used in the contemporary artworks on the ground floor that respond to the history of the foundling children. The story of the foundlings is well told through documents, visuals and oral testimonies in a way that will appeal to children as well as to adults. A lot of people I’ve talked to about the museum find the tokens, items that mothers left with their baby that could be used as proof of parenthood if they later came to claim back their child, the most moving exhibits.

Ale token

Ale token

Just as touching to me on my visit was a work produced in collaboration between the artist Emma Middleton, the animator Shelly Wain and the child patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital. The museum, in my view, is worth visiting for this contemporary artwork alone. It’s tucked away around a corner so make sure that you don’t miss it!

Collaboration between the children of GOSH, Emma Middleton and Shelley Wain.

Collaboration between the children of GOSH, Emma Middleton and Shelley Wain.

And then there were all the little items in between the big stuff. Two of which were by an artist, Anne Susanna Zileri, who was entirely new to me. Her paintings of The Secretary’s Room and The Court Room are utterly fascinating in their muted mysteriousness. They put me in mind of de Hooch interiors rendered in the style of Hammershøi. Without any human figures her rooms have the feeling of having just been vacated, yet they are not without human warmth. These little discoveries are the kinds of thing that you rarely make in a major gallery or museum. Zileri might not work her magic in any other context, it might be that her rooms work because they resonate with the real rooms that you’ve just passed through but the testing out will be an unexpected pleasure. If I can find anything else of hers on public display.

One caveat I have about the Foundling is that at £8.50 for a standard ticket it is on the north side of reasonably priced. Entry is free with an Art Fund card but I wonder if the museum might take a leaf from the London Transport Museum’s book and encourage repeat visits by letting the £8.50 cover a calendar year of visiting. With such a diverse collection there’ll be treasure missed on a one off visit that are worth going back for.

* In my last post about the Salvation Army I was fully prepared to give it with both barrels to the tawdry industry around the Whitechapel Murders but didn’t really feel the need to add to the excellent work done by the many historians and guides who have piled in against it. I gave up doing tours about the subject very quickly after becoming a guide (although if I’d stuck with it I could quite easily have made a living from that alone) and if people ask me to guide that narrative I make them a counter-offer of a more contextualised history of the East End.

** Roy Porter, London: A Social History (London, 1994) Peter Ackroyd writes more wordily but Porter has better historical chops.

Another London classical music venue

September 27, 2015

In my list of free London classical music venues I failed to include the Regent Hall. Mostly because I’ve never been there before. I was aware of the fact that they put on free concerts every Friday lunchtime not a stone’s throw from the ‘shopper’s paradise’ of Oxford Circus. What luck that the rain drove me inside on the off chance of finding something good. I hit gold.

The venue is owned by the Salvation Army, indeed it bills itself as the only church on Oxford Street, and I was happy to give a donation. Although I’m no Christian evangelist I do wholeheartedly support their charitable work. I’ve guided a lot on the history of the Salvation Army, especially in the East End where two statues of General Booth on the Mile End Road are excellent visual cues for introducing the history of the East End in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Most of the concert crowd looked like habitués of the Army’s excellent on-site café, and I can thoroughly recommend another café of theirs in the City of London next to the Millennium Bridge which offers the best value lunch in the Square Mile.

For a concert though the venue itself is decidedly odd. I assume it’s designed as a space of worship (as a lot of these lunchtime venues are); this is not necessarily in itself a drawback. However, more specifically it seems designed as a space for preaching, and this is. The piano (in this case`) was on a fairly raised platform from the punters which doesn’t really aid in the creation of the kind of intimate atmosphere that lends itself to chamber music. This also means that in order to go off and on again for encores/bows the performer must descend and ascend a fair number of stairs, which is all a bit of a faff.*

With the piano way up there and all kinds of bits and bobs to baffle the music the acoustic isn’t that great either but on this occasion the pianist, Simone Alessandro Tavoni, was outstanding enough to cut through all of the drawbacks and make you forget where you were and what you were looking at. Introduced as a very good-looking player (as if that matters?) he warmed up with a bit of Schumann and Liszt. But what I was waiting for was Prokoviev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 Op. 83.

I can’t remember who performed this piece the first time I heard it but he was Russian and it was on the South Bank. I think it was Igor Levitt (no relation) and I was utterly transfixed by it. I remember the pianist being an absolute wringing mess at the end, through both musical intensity and sheer physical effort. Tavoni, while not being in quite that class, nevertheless delivered a driving, intense reading and quite rightly didn’t follow it with an encore.**

When I first heard the piece I became slightly obsessed with its history and background. I learnt how it was written by Prokofiev at a time of extreme crisis in the Soviet Union in 1943 in response to the threat of Nazi Germany from without and the menace of Stalinist repression within. This story then led me to discover more of Sviatoslav Richter (of whom I’d previously known nothing) and his extraordinary life as an artist in the twentieth century.***

So from one evening at a concert a whole new world and aspect of history was opened up to me. It was thrilling! And Tavoni brought that whole feeling back again. I hope (and believe) he will go on to bigger and better stages. He’s playing at the Royal College with fellow students in an early evening concert. I hope to find the time to get down to South Ken myself and discover more new music.

* I’m not really a fan of the encore at any time but more especially in the evening. I would like to think that I’m the kind of music lover who is so carried away by the genius of a performer that I could sit there all night listening to them. Unfortunately the rather more prosaic realities of train timetables and bladder limits are more often on my mind as the applause begins at the ‘end’ of a gig. In fact I like it when performers just do the shit they came to do and then get off. The best of performances leave you emotionally drained at the end of the programme and not really in the mood for a Bach/Chopin/Schubert/Debussy lollipop and more in the mood for a consolatory/celebratory whiskey.

And a horsepiss.

** A visceral evocation of the life and death struggle between Communism and Fascism amid the terror of the Stalinist police state isn’t something that lends itself to a digestif of a twinkly Chopin Mazurka or some such other miniature afterthought.

*** He premiered the Sonata in 1943 and you can hear him play it here. Works every time. The first time I heard the Prok PS7 I liked to chat to other people interested in music on a forum on Facebook and I wrote a post slightly gushing thing about the concert, asking other people where they’d first heard it. A troll came back with the withering, ‘Oh that old warhorse.’ There is a difference between sounding clever and being intelligent. The former looks within, the latter engages with the world.

On biography

August 15, 2015

Is it possible to write in August? When England make the most dramatic turnaround I’ve ever seen in an Ashes series? When the football season starts almost before it seemed to stop? When there is so much thing to do in London that you can’t walk across the street without stumbling into another festival?

Sherwell (centre, with Walrus moustanche) and chums in 1907

Sherwell (centre, with Walrus moustanche) and chums in 1907

Well, sometimes you have to. In August I had a deadline to complete a chapter for an edited collection on South African cricket.* My chapter discusses the career of Percy Sherwell, the first player to captain South Africa on a tour of England in 1907 and the first player to captain South Africa to a win at home against a touring MCC side a few years earlier.** My idea was to examine Sherwell, a largely forgotten figure nowadays, as a representative of the British South African community and the way in which his career as a businessman and sportsman was exemplary of the hyphenated existence of Anglo-South Africans. And that’s what it did.

All I was interested in as a historian was Sherwell as symbol and I assembled my material and wrote the piece thinking I’d done a decent enough job from that point of view. It took one of my fellow authors to point out to me what a dunce I’d been (more politely than that it has to be said) in writing the piece for myself and not for the reader. The book after all is a book about South African history but it is also about cricket history. Any potential reader is likely to be interested in Sherwell as a man in the world as well as a symbol. They would want colour – what kind of a man was he? What other achievements did he have aside from the bare bones of his cricketing career?

So I redrafted the piece to add in the biographical elements and rather enjoyed it. Academic writing often forces you to jettison material that isn’t strictly relevant to the thesis you’re proposing, which means that a lot of interesting stuff gets left on the cutting room floor in the pursuit of intellectual rigour. And I enjoyed writing the piece much more for being reminded that sometimes a reader likes to be entertained.***

It wasn’t the first time I’d written a biography; last year I was asked to write a handful of entries for the Dictionary of Caribbean and Latin American Biography. Trying to encapsulate the achievements of Sir Vivian Richards on and off the pitch in less than a thousand words was something of a challenge (a vastly enjoyable one!) and not really what I would count as a proper biography of such a significant political and sporting figure. But having written those pieces and with Sherwell in my mind I started seeing biographies everywhere, especially in documentaries.

In Anthony Powell’s Books Do Furnish A Room, Roddy Cutts (a bland post-War Tory MP) interjects into a conversation about family members who have died in service,

I don’t like hearing about death or people dying in the least. It upsets me even if I don’t know them – some film star you’ve hardly seen or foreign statesman or scientist you’ve only read about in the paper. It thoroughly depresses me … Let’s change the subject.****

A modern day Cutts would be very uncomfortable in our current times when it seems that every other documentary is about the early death of a musician. Kurt: Montage of Heck, Heaven Adores You and Amy are the standouts of recent years but I’m sure there are more. The common theme of these films is that their subjects had troubled personal lives and self-inflicted early deaths. I haven’t seen any of them.

Of the three the one that I was most tempted to see was the Elliott Smith. I first started listening to him when I had no idea who he was, what his life was like or even that he’d appeared at the Oscars due to his having written a song that was included in Good Will Hunting (a film I’ve never seen).***** As I bought more of his albums I learnt more about him but was only marginally interested in the factual tragedy – I was hungry for his artistic output. Tempted as I was to watch the biopic (I’m not sure if it’s on general release or has been on general release in the UK, I only came across it in an article in Le Monde) I didn’t seek it out. Why?

For one thing, the kind of performance footage that a documentary can assemble, by contrast to the pre-YouTube era when you might be excited at seeing an alternative or live version of a song you’d only heard of in print, is there now at the end of your fingertips on your phone if you want it. It’s in your pocket and you don’t need an editor to slide it in between a talking head or muffle it with a voiceover telling you how so and so felt when they were there.

Secondly, who are these documentaries for? Are they for people who love the music or for people who love the tragedy? I liked Winehouse’s music but I don’t believe I ever saw a second of her being interviewed or read a story about her in a newspaper. I had as little interest in her non-musical life as I do in any other troubled individual with whom I have no tangible relationship. Ditto with Cobain, a man who died when I was at sixth form and for whom, while he was alive, I had a pretty healthy contempt as a ‘voice of the generation.’ Having grown up (relatively) a little since then I realise that he didn’t ever claim to be such a figure and my teenage self was being a judgemental little prick who couldn’t tell the difference between the nonsense that the NME wrote about him and the sense that he himself wrote in his songs.

I mistrust these biographies as being produced by people who wish to condemn the sources of pressure that made lives hell for their subjects while at the same time wallowing in the same screwed up mix of exploitative brand-building and rancid tragedy-hunting that first reared its head in my adult lifetime with the death of the Princess of Wales.

Even cricket isn’t immune to such impulses. Of the men in the picture of the 1907 South Africans the most famous is probably Aubrey Faulkner, sitting at the bottom. Faulkner was a fine batsman, the finest South African batsman of his generation. His fame, however, largely lies in the manner of his suicide in 1930. David Frith, a usually reliable cricket writer, included his story in his book By His Own Hand: A Study of Cricketing Suicides.****** The thesis that cricket as a sport is uniquely given to provoking suicide seems too slender to merit more than a newspaper article. To focus an entire book on such a study seems to privilege the private tragedy of the individuals concerned above their public performances on the pitch.

So it was refreshing to go to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this week that didn’t pretend to any great psychological depth or hint at personal tragedy. Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon, produced in collaboration with the film star’s family, is frank in its presentation of the surface rather than the depths of her life. It’s the kind of honest dishonesty that seems a more adult proposition than the dishonest ‘honesty’ of the music biopics. Hepburn’s image was tightly controlled from very early on – as a ballerina, as a model, as a minor English starlet, as a major asset of the Hollywood star system and finally as a woman in control of her own career and image. The exhibition joyfully lays out how the intersecting worlds of photography, film-making, fashion and PR combine to produce a figure, ‘Audrey Hepburn’, that is as much an outstanding artistic production as any song by Kurt, Elliott or Amy.

Similarly, while I was happy to trace the movements of Sherwell around the Empire and note his performances as a cricketer I had no desire to find out if he kicked his dog, hit the bottle every night or slept with his neighbour’s wife. His interest for me as a historian lies in how he was presented as a role model of Anglo-South African manliness, and as a sports fan for how he thrillingly held his nerve to hit the winning runs in South Africa’s first win over England in 1906. As for those singers – why should I have some right to their personal sadness? I’d rather go to the extraordinary music they made and feel how they transformed their experience into a work of art that talks to me about the life around me now. Roddy Cutts had some sense.

* All going well it is due to appear in 2015/16. It will be a successor to B. Murray and G. Vahed (Eds.), Empire & Cricket: The South African Experience (UNISA: Pretoria, 2009). My own contribution to the first volume was something of an addendum to some excellent work by a range of cricket historians.

** Non-cricketers might not be aware that back in the day England tours were officially billed as tours by Marylebone Cricket Club with only the international or test matches being designated as England games.

*** All writing should of course be at least mildly interesting; aspiring to entertain even when serious.

**** Anthony Powell, Books Do Furnish A Room (Arrow: London, 2005), p. 88

***** He doesn’t appear comfortable. In Wes Anderson’s Royal Tannenbaums his Needle in the Hay is used very effectively. I hear it and it sends a shiver down my spine at the intensity of the feeling that Smith communicates. The same way now as it did the first time I heard it by chance on the radio years and years ago.

****** David Frith, By HIs Own Hand: A Study of Cricketing Suicides (Stanley Paul: London, 1991). Ironically the foreword is by Peter Roebuck.

On small museums

June 28, 2015

This post picks up on something I wrote previously about the Royal Academy of Music and comes in a week when I went back to RAM for an extraordinary celebration of the work of Erik Satie. It was an impromptu visit; an expected evening with friends having fallen through I was at a loose end between finishing in the library and going to work in the evening. Impromptu often turns into serendipitous though doesn’t it?

Erik Satie. Dude.

Erik Satie. Dude.

Satie is someone whose work most people will be familiar with if only for its overuse by ‘thoughtful’ documentaries. The Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes can become hideously groan-inducing when used to accompany fuzzy slo-mo footage of falling autumn leaves.

Of course Louis Malle was the man who saw the steel below the melancholy of the pieces in using them for the sound track to Le Feu Follet, and I think if you’ve seen the film it’s hard to hear them again without recalling the quiet despair of Maurice Ronet. By contrast it’s enough for one to reach Alain Leroy-like for the service revolver when one hears yet one more hackneyed documentary reaching into the Satie back catalogue for pathos.

But that’s beside the point, the evening on Friday was a joyful one. A wide variety of Satie’s short pieces, accompanied by his very funny, crystalline aperçus delivered by a talented bunch of performers.* The treat of the evening was a showing of Entr’acte, René Clair’s surrealist silent film, accompanied by Satie’s music on piano and percussion.

On the Set of Entr'acte

On the Set of Entr’acte

I’d seen the film twice previously (and you can see it here on youtube) – once at the Man Ray/Picabia show at Tate Modern and another time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with full orchestra under Charles Hazelwood. The Tate was in a small, dark room with tinny music (as I remember) … it being in the show because Picabia also collaborated on the film (there’s a very funny scene of him and Satie jumping up and down in slow motion).

The Hazelwood was okay as I remember but didn’t have as profound an effect as Friday. A big show at the QEH lacked the intimacy of being right next to the musicians and squeezed into a small auditorium at the RAM. Two pianists sharing one piano with two percussionists performing the score was perfect at capturing the home-made essence of the film, which is a ramshackle series of sketches using primitive special effects that have the paradoxical effect of giving a feeling of modernity.

And the good humour of it! Satie and Picabia bouncing around in middle age and having a whale of a time in a way that really radiated from the screen. Looking at the crowd it reminded me of the scene in Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants where the camera watches the joyfaced schoolboys watching Charlie Chaplin and it made me think that in these days of monster festivals (yes, it’s Glastonbury weekend) isn’t it a pleasure to be able to sit somewhere quiet and companionable for an hour that you didn’t even know you were going to have.

Such surprises can come through music but also in museums. I decided this year to privilege visiting those museums that I’ve never got round to visiting. So much as I love the big beasts it’s the Year of the Small Museum for me. Of which the RAM has an excellent example.** One of the regrets of the Satie evening was that I hadn’t slunk out of the library earlier in order to go to a concert of baroque and classical keyboard music held in the Keyboard room of the Museum.

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

On my first visit to the museum this was the absolute highlight. But imagine seeing and listening to these machines in action! A selection of instruments that tell the tale of the development of the instrument, and more pertinently to my own work the centrality of London in that development. John Broadwood is probably the most famous of the London piano makers but they have a map there which shows how there were piano workshops all over Soho, Fitzrovia and beyond in the nineteenth century, competing and innovating in a thriving market.


And it made me wonder if there were a possibility that in this back to the analogue age there might ever be the chance to revive a piano workshop on Great Pulteney Street. Where craftsmen produce bespoke machines to rival the big beasts of Steinway and Yamaha in the same way that small bicycle manufacturers are now finding a niche in their market.

It’s a dream. I want a hipster joanna.

* The individuals are named below …

Cast list

Cast list

** And it’s free

On Lunchtime Music in London

May 13, 2015

Humphrey Lyttleton and Jimmy Rushing (among others) doing their thing.

Humphrey Lyttleton and Jimmy Rushing (among others) doing their thing.

This was a picture that I culled from the Financial Times a while ago that was partly responsible for my taking up the trumpet late in life (sorry Denize, I know it’s loud). Rushing, if you’re not familiar with his work, was in his pomp in the 50s when he recorded a version of his biggest hit – Mr. 5 by 5 (so called because he was said to be 5′ tall and 5′ wide) – with Lyttleton’s band.

It inspired a feeling in nostalgia, not because I remember the 1950s, I’m not quite that old, but because I was introduced to jazz by listening to Lyttleton’s Best of Jazz on Radio 2 when I was at sixth form. While other people switched on to John Peel (and I would turn to him after Lyttleton’s hour was up) I would get a selection of the best of jazz and feel my whole musical world expand. He was a ‘curator’ before there were ‘curators’.*

So, at the end of my PhD, aside from trying to find an academic job and writing up articles/books, I needed a project. The manager’s vacancy at Perfidious Albion had been filled (it’s currently open again if anyone wants to apply). Music was on my mind. I’d seen Rusbridger’s exercise in egoma … errr, interesting project of learning the piano heavily publicised by the middle class media and the thought of trying out an instrument seemed a good one. But not the piano, I like it too much to spoil it. My son was/is learning trombone and I had the sound of brass in my head. And I wanted something portable and with an adaptable sound. This picture struck my eyes and a plan to play the trumpet was born.

I am fortunate enough to live close to a top class young trumpeter (‘James The Trumpet’** to distinguish him from my son) who was a student at the Guildhall when I first started but is now doing a Masters at the Royal Academy of Music in Marylebone. I’ve been an avid concertgoer for a long time but it wasn’t till I met James that I thought to go to the RAM for a bit of lunchtime music (I haven’t managed to see him there yet, to my shame) and its different atmosphere to my usual haunts (the Wigmore and St. James’s Piccadilly) put me in mind to do a little round up of what’s on offer in the West End at lunchtime for a time-rich, cash-poor music fan.*** Because each (and I’m using SJP as an exemplar of the free music on offer in lots of churches in London at lunchtimes – another favourite is St Bride’s, Fleet Street) has a very distinct profile both of performers and market.

But my main concern is to publicise the fact that these things happen at all. When I go to these venues, from the library or from home, I invariably have to walk along at least one portion of three of the busiest shopping streets in the country – Marylebone High Street, Piccadilly and Oxford Street. One of the attractions of going to a lunchtime concert is that you step from the noisy sea of humanity that is the West End into places of absolute calm and thoughtfulness. And I don’t intend to give the impression that going to a lunchtime recital is a relaxing experience in some shallow cheesy listening classics way.

Far from it.

These concerts are for thinking; for engaging with the relationship between performer, sound and architecture. And above all, if it’s going well, a concert gives a satisfying rush of emotion, of diverse emotions over the course of an hour long performance. In many cases it’s for donations only, or for the Wigmore (where the performers they have on Mondays are extraordinarily good) for 13 quid.

What troubles me though is that even for an established venue like the Wigmore it isn’t difficult to get tickets. The church and college performances are sometimes moderately, sometimes sparsely, attended. There are thousands upon thousands of people shopping, scoffing sandwiches, boozing, idling within minutes of the doors of these venues who would surely enjoy a more cerebral, or more visceral lunch.

I think one of the off-putting things is that if you haven’t been you don’t know what to expect. There’s very little commentary on what happens in these places on the internet, except among those already in the know, and hard as the publicity departments of the Wigmore and the Colleges work it’s obviously very hard for them to compete with the tidal wave of garbage on Twitter.

And I remember that when I worked in the City (nearly twenty years ago) I used to walk past a sign for concerts quite frequently (usually at St. Mary-at-Hill, sometimes at the Pepys church) without being tempted in because somehow I thought (as a Sarfend/pit village raised geezer) that they weren’t for me. Which is the kind of blinkered nonsense it took me a long time to get over.

So in a spirit of encouraging fellow chip on the shoulder sufferers, and I hope with not too much disrespect to the institutions themselves, I offer this brief guide to two venues I’ve been to a lot and one venue that was new to me with my thoughts on who goes there, what’s on offer and how to get the best out of the experience.

1. The Wigmore Hall

The Mighty Wigmore

The Mighty Wigmore

The Wigmore Hall is the daddy of all chamber music venues in London. It has a fascinating history, which I won’t go into here because that’s not what this post is for (but do look it up). Just walking through the door you can feel a sense of history. This oozes out of the grand architecture and is backed up by portraits of the multitudes of performers who have played there over more than a century of music-making.

The crowd is similarly historic and one could be forgiven that some of them were there for the opening night way back before World War 1 (the war was significant for the Wigmore, it had previously been known as the Bechstein). These venerable patrons mix with obvious high-brows and a range of eccentrics who put the regular Joes and Josephines (among whom I count myself, I’m often among the youngest there) in quite a small minority.

So architecture and punters can combine to make up a pretty intimidating atmosphere for the lunchtime neophyte.

Fear not, this is one of the most knowledgable music crowds you’ll ever be among and if you dare to break the ice with someone at the (excellent) bar before or after you’ll generally be very welcome. The Wigmore costs (13 pounds on Monday) and I’m aware this can be a barrier to entry for some but it’s cheaper for students and you get an excellent small programme included. The bonus of the Wigmore series is that since it’s featured on R3’s lunchtime slot you can listen live and then listen again at home via their website or on Sunday when it’s usually repeated.

My own ideal routine goes an hour in the library, sweets (overpriced but cough candy is a bit of a madeleine for me so worth it) from Mrs Kibble’s in St Christopher Place, a cheeky little pre-action Viognier in the bar with the crossword (the staggering distance pubs are not good) and then get there just in time to an end seat if possible. The regulars do not like being made to stand up once they’re sitting and the seats are quite tight.

The repertoire is generally solidly Baroque/Classical/Romantic big beasts, with the odd bit of twentieth century/contemporary thrown in from time to time, meaning that if anything too atonal isn’t your bag there shouldn’t be too much to frighten you here. The performers are uniformly outstanding (and I mean world class), whether established artists or members of the BBC’s New Generations programme and the Hall’s acoustic is reputed to be one of the best in Europe. The first time I went there I thought there was something wrong because I could hear the music too clearly. My brain had to adjust to the crystalline sound in order to make it appear normal to me. That’s a feeling that still returns if I haven’t been there for a while and have been going to mudpits (see StJP below).

So what I’m saying is one shouldn’t count oneself a Londoner without at least one visit to this, the best music venue in London bar none.

2. St. James’s Piccadilly

St. James's Piccadilly

St. James’s Piccadilly

St JP is worth a visit even if not for the music and I think the first time I heard some music there was because I happened to be visiting to do some research for a walk when a concert was about to start. The building is by Wren, with much restoration following bomb damage in World War II, and being at the heart of St James’s has oodles of connections with the rich and famous through history.

Its position on Piccadilly means that the crowd it gets is a mixed bunch. A lot of the un-idle retired (as always at these things), with a smattering of youngsters (especially if the performer is a music student), some local office workers and a dollop of more or less confused tourists, depending on whether they knew in advance of their visit to the church that there was a concert on. This means that for the newcomer, by contrast to the Wigmore, you will not be alone in being new.

Of course another upside at St. James’s, if you’re not sure you’re up for the lunchtime music scene, is that the concerts are free (although if you’ve enjoyed the gig you’d be an ingrate beast not to make a donation on the way out) and performers are not concerned if you leave in between pieces (although NOT in between movements) as there will be some in the crowd who don’t have the full hour off for lunch and necessarily have to leave.

Those on a budget can get cheap eats before/after out the back of the church where there’s a street food stall, with park benches in the Square for scoffing space. And naturally there’s plenty of sandwich bars and restos in St. James’s and environs. Booze hounds might want to check out the Red Lion for its Victorian interior though the crowd in there can be a bit brayingly hedgey.

The repertoire at StJP is similar to the Wigmore – mostly killer no filler. Occasionally there’ll be a new piece (sometimes with the composer in attendance) as this venue is one where students often come to get some concert practice and they’re more adventurous. So probably a bit more variety than at the Wigmore. But be warned – there are three potential downsides. The acoustic is not the best and it pays to sit near the front. If you want to do this you’ll need to get there early as the front rows often fill up quite quickly. There is also a lot of construction in St. James’s. Those builders don’t stop for anyone, not even Schubert.

Also, if you’re there for the duration try and judge that the person in your row is there for the music and not liable to get up halfway through/start scrunching their sweet packet/be jabbing their phone. The pews are uncompromisingly pew-ish too, be prepared for a bit of fidgeting to get a comfortable lie.

Thirdly, standards can vary too! The students are generally excellent (to this untrained ear) but there have been occasions when I’ve been in attendance at performances that were excruciatingly bad. I mean not just bad but downright offensively amateurish car crashes of recital.

You might think, ‘I’m up for a bit of car crash classical.’ You are wrong.

After 2 minutes of somebody murdering a masterpiece I promise you that you’ll be holding your head in your hands and silently praying for it to stop. I once had the misfortune of listening to someone in StJP hesitatingly, stutteringly, ham-fistedly not picking their way through Beethoven’s PS 32. This work was described by Robert Taub as “a work of unmatched drama and transcendence … the triumph of order over chaos, of optimism over anguish.”

I was left only with the anguish.

After the pianist had finally stopped I turned to the feller next to me.  ‘Was that as bad as I thought it was?’ I whispered. ‘No’, he replied, ‘It was worse.’

It haunts me to this day.

But it isn’t always like that! Mostly it’s good times in St James’s, well worth the trip if you’re in town and want to rest your feet.

3. Royal Academy of Music

Royal Academy of Music

Royal Academy of Music

The RAM, as mentioned above, was new to me and it was thanks to James the Trumpet that I took a look in there last week for a concert of a Notturno by Haydn and Mozart’s Gran Partita in the Duke’s Hall (I think there’s another hall for chamber works). The Duke’s Hall is smack on the Marylebone Road but you wouldn’t notice once you’re inside the building. All is peace. Well, bustly peace. There are students everywhere and this gives a buzzy atmosphere and makes for a younger crowd than at the other venues. As the concert I attended it was half old buggers like me and half students.

Again, this concert was free and unlike StJP there’s no expectation of a donation – the point of the exercise is for the students to gain concert experience so you can enjoy it for nowt guilt-free. If you’re skint you can lunch in the canteen downstairs. If you’re well-heeled Marylebone High Street is across the road. The hall is purpose built so the sound is great and there’s all sorts of portraits of musicians around the walls to keep your eyes occupied, as well of course as the museum next door (which I may talk about another time).

The performance I saw was introduced and conducted by Trevor Pinnock (though he denied that he needed to conduct these pieces) and was phenomenally good. I knew neither piece and to come to something fresh, performed by outstanding young musicians with a top-rank musician in charge was a privilege. Though if you only have an hour for lunch they weren’t concerned about that, I think the performance lasted about 70 minutes – though again there was no tutting at people ducking in or out between pieces.

As it was my first go I haven’t got a handle on their repertoire yet but I’m assuming that of these three venues it will be the widest as the students learn the full range of serious music – classical, contemporary and jazz. Thursday they’re doing Shostakovich (I’m only just getting into him) Trios and since I’m working in the evening that day it might be the perfect break between library and job.

If you’ve made it to the bottom of this page then I know you’re either a lunchtime concert-goer already or you’re thinking about giving it a go.

Do so. Do something different that might improve your state of mind for the cost of an hour of your time.

* Except of course he wouldn’t have been daft enough to use that term outside of describing someone who worked in a gallery.

** If you want his details for tuition you can contact me here. He is a gent.

*** It also has a stonking museum that I’ll blog about anon.

On Pop Music

April 15, 2015 at Somerset House

This last week or so has been an unusually poppy week (being more a classical hound by nature (of which more anon … that’s for another post)) but I wasn’t thinking to write about it until I stumbled across the Secret 7″ exhibition space at Somerset House.

By chance it was the first day of its opening to the public (yep, most of my most hipsterish moves are usually by accident rather than by design and I was wandering around Aldwych in a post-pub (The Lyceum on the Strand, recommended if you’re skint in the West End, you can get a booth and you don’t mind Sam Smith ales) funk trying to kill time before going to a mate’s party. The party is relevant.). So yes, a little caffeine freshener at Fernandez & Wells in the courtyard of Somerset ‘Arse (stumpy, it has to be a stumpy) and then a wander to see what they had on for free, my visits to the Courtauld being less frequent now that I’m no longer a UoL student and have to stump up cash like a regular Joe.

And there, at the river end of the building, I found a crowd of hipsters admiring rack upon rack of hand-made single covers. The record cover as a fetish object with people having selfies, taking portraits, coveting and discussing them. Secret 7″ ask celebs, artists, designers and other random groovy f*ckers to decorate the sleeves then display them anonymously. The public are then invited to pay half a ton for a unique, potentially very valuable, item on the day of the end of the exhibition. The  proceeds of this and other charitable acts (a roll-a-penny chute that tishes a cymbal,  limited editions of the records by named designers) goes to Nordoff Robbins, a charity that uses music as part of its therapy for people with problems of a variety too numerous to go into here.

A view of the bridge from Secret 7"

A view of the bridge from Secret 7″

All very worthy but why bring it up here? ‘What is point?’ as the feller on Down the Line would ask. The aforementioned friend just gave a paper at a conference about the nostalgia for Britpop (he’ll be giving another on this phenomenon at the seminar series I co-convene at the end of June). I also saw Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young the previous weekend. And the night before I went to the exhibition (and my friend’s party) I’d been to see Courtney Barnett at the Electric Ballroom in Camden.

So this is my theme. Nostalgia in pop music. In Baumbach’s film the young hipster is a man obsessed with the eighties, or the bits of it that he likes (the Miners’ Strike, Kajagoogoo, Ipswich Town’s decline from a footballing powerhouse to a provincial bit-player and Thundercats don’t get a mention), who has a pristine record collection (i.e vinyl, see above) alongside his domestic chicken pod. In short, he’s a major irritant for using nostalgia as a generator of supposed originality.

Which I guess was one of the points that Baumbach was trying to make. That we seem to be living in a desperately unoriginal and conservative culture, in spite of the constant hum of creativity being the supposed fuel of post-industrialised Western economies. And that this conservatism appears to be affecting the very people who shouldn’t be giving a shit about what their parent’s generation did, i.e. people like me (sorry Mum, I know the 70s had good bits but I never chose to be born in them).

And I began to see this everywhere. At Secret 7″ – which is a fantastic cause, don’t get me wrong, and has some wonderful things for sale that would grace any hipster’s wall. But what music do they have on the singles? The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, Peter Gabriel, Underworld, oh and The Maccabees and St Vincent for the ‘kids’. You can almost sense the ad agency carefully weighing the revenue/gender/ethnicity issues in a finely calibrated balance. But not age because age always wins out in the world of pop music nowadays. The labels have to exploit those old acts. Dinosaurs are big in music.

And Courtney Barnett? She’s a great performer, I love her lyrics, I wish her well. But her sound? It’s a bit underwhelming; it reminds you of other things. And when I go to a thing I might want to be reminded of other things but not other things that are better than what I’m at. And the last few gigs I’ve been to (The Orwells (who at least had the relative novelty of being absolutely badly behaved, quite rare in modern pop), Darlia, Barnett) have not been original enough for me to have thought that I wouldn’t have been better off going to a pub and watching a local band do something that I could get a decent pint at and chat to them afterwards (if I wanted to, unlikely given that I’m not especially sociable).

Which is part of the point that Dion was making in his paper. Recycling is happening (of course it’s always been there in pop music, brazenly) and it’s more commercialised than ever before. Blur release an album on the twentieth anniversary of Britpop to rave reviews and wall to wall coverage. Somehow Liam Gallagher is popular enough with the (dwindling) purchasers of the NME to merit being on its cover on a seeming four week cycle. And young acts want to tell you they love Bowie/Gabriel/Suede instead of wanting to spit on their corpses and kill their wizened fans. London, that once spiky culture, has turned into Paris, the most faux-radical city in the world.

No wonder when anyone under 40 can hardly afford to live in the place and it costs excruciating amounts of money to get around. The ‘creatives’ can’t afford to connect with the places where the money is. Unless they connect with the conservative culture that money tends to like.

So, in anticipation of a further post about London’s thriving classical music scene I’ll finish by saying that I think that the most radical things are now being done in those areas that I would have thought the most conservative when I was a youngster – jazz and classical. If I want to hear something I haven’t heard before I’m more likely to get it at Café Oto or the Guildhall than in Camden or Brixton.

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