Yesterday we learned that James Horner’s soundtrack to Titanic is the biggest-selling classical album of the last 25 years. According to the Ultimate Classic FM Chart, Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture has sold more than one million copies in the UK alone, surpassed 30 million copies worldwide and risen to number one album in 20 countries.
You know you know it. Cast your mind back to 1997. First come the uilleann pipes: that’s Eric Rigler, an American player who previously worked with Horner on Aliens and Braveheart and has a band horrifyingly called Bad Haggis. His grace notes communicate right to the album-buying soul of America’s Celtic diaspora. Then comes the breathy vocalise of Sissel Kyrkjebø, the bass lines lurking like icebergs in the deep and Horner’s intriguing ability to make the real instruments of the London Symphony Orchestra sound like midi files. Celine Dion’s big tune pops up all over the place, relentlessly rousing, though without the full force of her larynx it never feels quite right. (Eventually we get Celine herself, after an agonising hour.)
A case study. Last summer on the shores of Lake Tuusula in Finland, at a music festival directed by violinist Pekka Kuusisto, I heard a performance of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet with singer/songwriter Laura Moisio interspersing warped pop songs about love and hurt between the movements. The previous day, when it was announced composer Einojuhani Rautavaara had died, Kuusisto walked on stage alone and played a solemn traditional Finnish polska. That night he blazed his way through the gypsy dances of Bartok’s Contrasts with a rugged, unapologetic virtuosity. “Our Festival is gentle,” Kuusisto wrote in his manifesto. “Our Festival wants to invent new flexible forms for concerts, where the message is more important than dress codes or good behaviour.”
Kuusisto and his brother Jaakko (also a violinist) grew up improvising. Their father would sit at the piano playing jazz standards while the two boys sat on either side adding bass lines and solos. Pekka’s formal violin training was elite and in 1995 he became the first Finn to win the International Sibelius Violin Competition, but he says his artistic epiphany happened when a friend took him to a folk festival in northern Finland. “Those fiddlers looked so happy,” he told me. “It seemed like they had an honest reason for playing.”
A primer for school workshops on music criticism. Absolutely & definitely not exhaustive!
Why write about music?
Let’s start with the fundamentals. First and foremost you are writing about music because you love it. For me there’s an unashamed element of evangelising: I think that music matters, I want it to be thought about, argued about and enjoyed by as many people as possible. So my aim is to write about music in a way that means something to other people who already love it — but also in a way that might make someone who has never gone to a classical concert think, “hey, that sounds intriguing, maybe I’ll go along next time.”
That said, music criticism is not cheerleading. As a critic you shouldn’t be afraid to criticise and you shouldn’t swallow marketing hype. Offer an opinion that is honest, well-informed and clear-headed. Not every performance is great and not every new piece of music works; it’s crucial that you’re able to say so and to discuss why. A negative review is a vital contribution to any cultural ecosystem – as long as that review has been thoughtfully written.
A composer writes an orchestral piece by inviting every member of the ensemble to visit her at home, one-by-one, to devise their parts collaboratively. This is how Eliane Radigue makes music: slow, exacting, verbal, personal. In many ways her work is a paradox. She writes drone music that dances. It is simple and rich, spacious and detailed, unhurried and full of movement, spiritual and non-didactic, narrative and abstract. Over the past 50 years she has honed a uniquely concentrated creative practice in order to access an expansive realm of partials and subharmonics — “sounds within the sound,” she calls them. She works instinctively, and her instinct has always drawn her to slowness and subtle modulations, yet she demands from her performers a kind of precision that is physically and mentally virtuosic. She claims with a shrug that her technique boils down to “fade in, fade out, cross fade,” whether in her early long-form synthesiser works or the acoustic pieces she’s been writing for the past decade. Yet it’s the complex, iridescent interior expanses of her music that achieve exquisite lift-off.
For many decades Radigue entrusted nobody but herself to illuminate those sounds within the sound. In the 1960s her vision went deeper, longer, lower and higher than the musique concrete pieces that Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were producing — she worked as an assistant to both, then stayed extra hours in the studio experimenting with the ephemeral potential of electronic feedback. And while feedback was conventionally a noisy domain of wildness and abrasion, Radigue trod gently and tamed the beast to make breathtakingly delicate pieces like Jouet Electronique (1967), Stress-Osaka (1969), Usral (1969), Omnht (1970) and Vice-Verse, Etc (1970).
First published in The Herald on 21 December, 2016
Here are ten of my favourite classical releases of 2016. I’ve taken a pretty relaxed approach to the term ‘classical’. It’s a subjective list. I’ve cheated by adding an extra five at the end. And no rankings: how to score late Beethoven sonatas against the final recording by Pauline Oliveros? Basically these are the recordings of the year that most opened my ears and that kept me coming back.
In mid-November, those confounding days after the American election, I kept coming back to Laurence Crane’s Sound of Horse (Hubro). Crane is an English composer who builds graceful, discreet music out of ordinary things. He sets musical objects spinning like points on a Calder mobile with plenty of space and time and elasticity between them. It’s about the beauty of small and immediate sounds, precise and properly done sounds. Experimental Norwegian ensemble Asamisimasa treats his ensemble pieces with exactly the right tenderness and deadpan anarchic humour. Everything appears new and not new, and in November that seemed to fit. The album has been released on vinyl as well as CD just in time for Christmas with a gloriously blissed-out bonus track called Sparling on the vinyl edition.
I’m just back from Only Connect hosted by the venerable nyMusikk and Tectonics (ie Ilan Volkov) at a swish new Oslo multiarts centre called Sentralen. Enjoyed it greatly. I was sorry to miss Asamisimasa’s concert of Laurence Crane music — it clashed with Ánde Somby yoiking in a bank vault and I was literally locked in — but otherwise my highlights were, in chronological order:
Kimberly A. Francis (Oxford University Press)
Skim the title of Kimberly A. Francis’s new book and you could be forgiven for assuming that Igor Stravinsky had at one point been a student of Nadia Boulanger. And why not? La grande dame of 20th century French music pedagogy taught basically everyone: Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla — heck, Quincy Jones. But she never taught Stravinsky, who was five years her senior and already on the brink of international stardom when she was first knocked sideways hearing his music (the Paris premiere of The Firebird) aged 23 in 1910. Two decades later, now a revered teacher at the École nationale, she did teach his son Soulima and thereby became Stravinsky’s friend, advisor, ardent champion, sometime surrogate family member, maybe more. Theirs was a shifting and not-always-clearly-defined relationship, and in Francis’s hands it makes for engrossing reading.