Listening With Your Ears

Listening With Your Ears (5)

I suppose this might seem an odd title for a blog. 'Listening With Your Ears'. Well, what else do we listen with? I suppose you would have to ask a profoundly deaf person that as we know there are other ways of 'hearing'. The most obvious example is the percussionist Evelyn Glennie who claims to feel the vibrations of the music through her body and able to interpret them into some sort of sense. This maybe more common than we perhaps think. I mention this in a blog not written for some time, as I have just been listening with interest to a new arrival of some re-mastered recordings of the great Australian Prima Donna Dame Nellie Melba. The are many recordings and re-issues of Melba, most of them difficult to assimilate as the sound quality is often less than splendid, and indeed, I have all of Melbas issued work, both on original shellac 78s, and various CD compilations. What attracted me to this new disc, released on the Australian branch of Decca records - their Eloquence label, (which for the most part it is) was the fact that the re-mastering has been adjusted to French pitch around 420hz which Melba apparently favoured, that being slightly lower than our standard A 440hz that modern orchestras tune to.

This, at first thought seems spurious. Melba had great power and sway in her peak of fame, but it seems highly unlikely the pianos and orchestras across London would be re-tuning just for the great diva. In any case pitch in different countries was mostly variable, and London  between the 1890s to the early part of the twentieth century was invariably higher than European counterparts in Paris or Milan for example. Indeed, pitch wasn't made uniform until 1939 when A was set at the familiar 440hz. I remember when I was very obsessively collecting 78s and finding Gramex, a wonderful emporium in Waterloo of 78s, vinyl and compact disc run by eccentric and brilliant proprietor Roger Hewland, who's knowledge of his stock, artists and most importantly the matrix recording numbers is quite extraordinary. He is a very forthright character, and quite happy to expound the virtues of his opinion, which is for the most part most entertaining. I took a pile of rare Melba to the counter and was peered at austerely.

"I don't like Melba, I prefer Tetrazzini" (Luisa Tetrazzini was an Italian coloratura soprano and great rival of Melba. Melba won every one of their operatic battles!)  Anyway, Roger continued, "Still, it's not for me to decide what my customers should buy, so let's see what you've got," and with that he whisked the discs from my arms and at once started looking at the matrix numbers and then scribbling on the cardboard covers like a mad accountant.

"What are you doing Roger?"

"Marking the correct speeds for these discs" I looked puzzled and he replied, "Most of Melba's discs shouldn't be played at 78, mostly they were recorded in the region of between 70 and 72." I continued to look puzzled and he rolled his eyes Heavenward. It makes the pitch more acceptable as Melba didn't record well at 78 rpm you see? I did see and that explained why there could be a somewhat tinny and thin sound to her tone, which in the theatre was legendary for its clarion quality, beauty and flexibility. Armed with my precious discs, I boarded a train home as quickly as possible to test this theory out for myself. Disc on the turntable, spring motor wound, I sat to listen to the great Nellie with the new speed set at 72 rpm. The sound that greeted me nearly knocked me over. There was a vibrant soprano filling the room and I at once understood something of the mystique of her legendary tone. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying my new found sounds. No longer did Melba sound like a twittering soprano a la Snow White! Now, listening to my new and very enjoyable disc, I am delighted to hear a similar quality, but it does occur to me that the recording boys at Decca have got their facts slightly askew. I would suggest that the original recordings were made at the speeds Roger set for me, and the piano and orchestra was tuned to whatever the pitch was at that particular time - London was invariably a half tone higher than the continent, and there would be no need to alter the original masters still further. However, that is only my slant on the whole endeavour, and of course, recording companies are always trying to gain more income via this means of 'new realisation'.

Having spent half of my life listening to ancient and scratch recordings (eggs and bacon we call 'em!) I am always irked when people are desultory about them, with such quotes as "Of course, if they were around now, they'd get nowhere, we wouldn't put up with such sounds", or "They all sound so thin and so out of tune". These of course, are the ramblings of the ignoramus. Puccini called Melba the 'Mimi of my dreams' when she appeared as the heroine of La Boheme, and she was on friendly terms with Verdi, Saint-Saens, Gounod, Massenet, Thomas, Sullivan & Tosti, and it's unlikely they would have tolerated anything than the best. No dear reader, you have to listen through the murk. It takes time, but the rewards are manifold, and I almost feel like I shouldn't be eavesdropping on the past. I am glad I do, as it's invaluable as any sort of reference for modern singing, which is so often about shouting rather, and not having any style whatsoever. In Melba's day even the basses had enviable trills and cadenzas at their disposal. As to singing loudly, all of these 'Golden Age' singers knew whether they were in Grand Opera, Light Opera of the Music Hall, the importance of allowing the voice to just be as it is, freely produced and then filling the auditoriums; something our erstwhile modern counterparts should take heed of. You can bark your head off onstage at Covent Garden, and close to would sound a large and magnificent sound no doubt. But does it get further than the back of the Orchestra Stalls? I very much doubt it.

So, 'Listening With Your Ears' may not be such a strange title after all. How many of us actually listen to the person they're talking to? I should hazard a guess that not one in fifty really listen. Do try! It's one of our greatest sensual attributes, and without it, the world would be a much duller place.

Sunday, 25 June 2017 13:07

A Little More Mojo Is Needed

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I am an intermittent blog writer it seems. This is not through want of trying, but that old adage 'there aren't enough hours in the day.' Apart from learning music, sitting in my studio staring at canvasses, and writing my autobiography, it seems that no sooner have I woken, showered and got on with these things, that it's then time to shower and go to bed! However, it is my intention to blog more often. Of course, in order to do this, one must have a subject to choose from to write about, and as I type this has yet to happen, but the very act of writing usually spurs something to mind. We shall see. .  . 

I write one week after my fifty fifth birthday, which is in itself, quite remarkable to have got thus far without anything unduly hideous happening to me; the usual aches and pains as muscles and bones go into atrophy after fifty, and loss of loved ones which are all the trials of life and must be taken on board sensibly and without fuss, as I was brought up to do, and must say I have an abject loathing of incessant grief which seems to afflict folk in multitudinous ways it seems. We live in troubled times, with an unstable government who couldn't run a chimp's tea party, a distrust of foreigners in a way I don't remember observing before, and with some of the extreme violence brought about by lunatic so-called religious rebels, the country as a whole is rather down at heel. I notice this particularly as I rely to some extent on my paintings being sold to keep me, if not in mink exactly, buoyant and head above water, not drowning. This year I have found that not only are commissions down, but so is the actual process of going into the gallery (where some of my works hang) and buying a painting. Having said that, buying a work of art is not like going into Waitrose on a Sunday morning because you fancy fillet o beef for luncheon, and, as expensive as that particular cut of meat is, it's not like buying a painting which is likely to be very much more expensive and is a decision to be taken carefully and with consideration.

I mention this, as I have not been in my studio for a month, which is at once horrifying and somewhat depressing as I love the space I work in, but over the last month I have had a number of concert and stage performances and the two do not mix very well. Or rather, they don't in my befuddled mind! There are many theatricals who paint and think nothing of taking their various accouchements pertaining to that particular art form, so during the daylight hours when, matinee permitting, they may sit and sketch in the market square, or by the River Avon, is something that is anathema to me. I can only concentrate on one art form at a time, and if I'm singing, then I'm singing, and if I'm painting, I do that. I remember the wonderful Northumbrian artist Colin Moss saying exactly the same thing "You can't paint when you're on tour of course, because the discipline needed for singing is all encompassing, and the same for painting." But, dear reader, as I type, I am confident that once back in my studio tomorrow I shall get on with the task at hand and at least start a new work, as well as finishing off any number of half painted canvasses. Not only do they look somewhat forlorn, they are also in the way, and space is at a premium. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, my birthday being a week ago, the celebrations tend to continue for at least a week, with rather more visits to the Jolly Woodman, my preferred hostelry of choice than there should be, but now I'm ready to explore the wonderful world of paint again. Some abstract landscapes inspired by Keswick, Margate Bay and Cornwall, re-igniting my life long project to paint all of the theatre architect Frank Matcham's auditoria, and to continue my successful pop art take on famous show business and sporting celebrities. I have some desire, crazy or otherwise to paint Leonardo's Last Supper as a piece of pop art, substituting Christ and the disciples with members of the Royal Family. I have decided who will be the Christ figure and who should be and Judas Iscariot too, but the rest will take their place as I think fit. I started a canvas entitled 'From The Gods' being a representation of the auditorium and proscenium arch at The London Palladium, which I never really cared for, and perhaps because of this, I managed to damage the frame whilst transporting it from a friend's house where it had been on exhibit, and has lain miserably in my studio ever since. When staring at it a few weeks ago, I realised what was wrong with it. The courage of my conviction had let me down, and indeed, the Palladium being a very large and cavernous space was on a canvas too small for it. As a matter of course, I prefer large paintings to small, but have also at the back of my mind that most houses can't take a six by four hanging, as most suburban houses neither have the height of room or indeed actual wall space. So, wish me luck with my future endeavours - I shall need it!

 

Friday, 23 May 2014 17:43

A Life Spent in Hotels and Pensions...

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Sitting rather mournfully and gazing out of a window in an hotel on the borders of Eccles and Salford, it dawns on me even more mournfully, that the British really don’t ‘do’ hotels very well. Of course, we have some magnificent ones; The Savoy, Dorchester and Ritz all spring to mind, but sadly, these are in the minority and are usually prohibitive of price. Can it really be so difficult to muster up a good establishment to stay in? What does a good hotel or boarding house need? Ideally, it should be friendly; that is, the host should be welcoming. The room should naturally be clean and tidy, not too much furniture, but what is there should be good quality and well thought out. Certainly no chintzy, suburban-ness, every space adorned with some knick knack or other, all harbingers for dust and dirt. Repulsive! I wouldn’t say my hotel, which shall remain nameless is the worst I’ve ever been in, but I can’t help thinking that it’s recently been taken over. For instance, in the bar area (not open so far which is irksome) there are any number of photographs or the great and the good of Manchester United football club, from slightly misty late Victorian prints, to the celebrated heyday of the fifties and sixties, when Busby’s Babes were the toast of the game. Familiar faces such as Bobby Charlton, George (ie) Best and Nobby Stiles look down implacably from their privileged positions as part of that stock as I munch on my toast, which is not as described as being as much as you can eat, but rather disappointingly rationed to two cold pieces (I hate cold toast!) 

Surely, having the bar open in the evenings must be a good thing? Especially if one, being the hotelier, provides some light bites, such as good old Manchester fare, maybe meat and potato pies, but done as delicate finger food, or some retro cheese straws – anything that might encourage the patrons to relax, and when you have relaxed patrons, they’re much more likely to spend more money which is beneficial all round I’d say!?

I have been indeed fortunate to have stayed in some marvellous premises around the world on my work and pleasure trips. Particularly wonderful was the arrival in Hong Kong about to board The Seaborne Sun for a work cruise and staying the night in a magnificent hotel, the name of which escapes me for the time being. 

Complete in its elegance, spick and span and glamorous, the tired souls who arrived in a jumble from a packed flight from Heathrow airport were delighted to be treated, for once, like stars! This was a memorable trip in every way and we set sail from Hong Kong harbour at night, which I might suggest is even more impressive than Sydney by day, for a three week cruise taking in Pattaya , Cochin, Bangkok, Singapore, and Rangoon,  before arriving at Mumbai, and there were many delights along the way. Of course, The Seaborne Sun and any other large cruise ship is in reality a luxury hotel, and certainly being onboard this fine vessel and then transferring onto QE2 in Mumbai was extremely exciting, not to say glamorous! On arrival in Mumbai we had a night in the Oberoi Towers Hotel, magnificent in furnishing and cuisine and sadly set on fire by extremists some years ago. One of the highlights was the enormous swimming pool in the shape of a rather flat kidney on the roof of the lower part of the hotel. Mumbai was extremely warm and the pool ice cold. Fantastic and invigorating. Mumbai was, like many of these Asian cities, a place of enormous diversity and culture. Three streets away from the stunning Oberoi and its inclusive/exclusive clothing shops, one found the most appalling poverty; fascinating and terrible all at once to behold (I will certainly never complain about my homeland again!) and somehow inexplicably cheerful. A rather sage taxi driver took us on a tour in a rather derelict cab, and the enormous railway station built by British architect Claude Batley was an incredible place – people even live on the concourse! I can’t see that ever happening at London’s Victoria Station!

An old-fashioned weighing machine had to be investigated and caused great consternation and amusement to the general populace. I was on this expedition with two colleagues, Joe Shovelton and Stephen McGlynn, and we were encouraged to try our weight. Stephen on first, and the machine calculated your weight and then gave you a ticker tape of the result, but not before pronouncing in trumpet tones what you were. Stephen was “Middle Fat” (he isn’t fat at all!) Joe was “Little Fat” (a lathe is Joe) and I was “Big Fat”. I shall say nothing. . .  After that. . . well, embarrassment, we boarded the taxi again to be shown the railway lines in action. I was astonished to see not a door on the carriages and passengers hanging on for grim death as the trains hurtled along tracks that had clearly never seen a track gauge corrector. It was a mystery how the carriage bogeys stayed on the tracks at all. Some trains slowed down to negotiate points and then swarms of people would launch themselves onto the track like some misguided fledgling birds, as I suppose the trains had no intention of stopping at all? Forwards then to the outdoor laundry, where men and women sat diligently pounding their poor cloth with rocks and clubs in water that was rat infested and filthy; the single-mindedness of the work to be done seemed to have a trance-like state on the people, who were for the most part oblivious of the rats running over their feet, indeed, some of the cheekier vermin pausing to sniff about to see if any of the rags were worth chewing! Our last port of call was, for want of a better description, the red light district, which was unbelievably squalid, and the poor women who perused the shabby, dusty pavements hoping to make enough money for their numerous mal-nourished children were not only a sorry sight, but a thoroughly unpleasant and degrading one too. I suppose prostitution at any stretch is any of the above descriptions, but it somehow seemed even worse here in this city where one hundred yards away, elegant courtesans were being treated to dine by their many suitors at elegant establishments such as the one in which we were staying.

After our stay in Mumbai, we were flown to Singapore to join QE2 who was awaiting our arrival in the docks, and my goodness, what a wonderful sight was she! Everything an ocean liner should be, and full luxury and cuisine that was simply out of this world! We embarked on the next leg and our last three weeks across the Indian Ocean stopping at The Seychelles and Mauritius, before arriving in Durban and finally Cape Town. A great deal of personal excitement ensued on this leg of the cruise as it was discovered that the headliner star entertainer who would be giving two concerts was Petula Clark, and as a lifelong fan of Pet, I couldn’t have been more delighted. Miss Clark proved to be a most attractive lady in all respects and not only did she tear the place to pieces with her two excellent sets, she was a congenial and entertaining lady to talk to. She had just arrived from Liza Minelli’s wedding to David Guest, where she was, inexplicably, as she put it, one of the flower maidens, all dressed in black. “It was highly Wagnerian”, she quipped with a twinkle!

There is not much more one can add to that!'

Thursday, 15 May 2014 09:24

The Vagaries of Musical Horror

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It’s been one of those weeks which seems to whoosh by and I don’t get nearly all the things done I wanted. Finishing off a run of The Gondoliers in Ipswich, and then hot footing it back to Beckenham after the Saturday evening performance to go to a Eurovision Party, may not have been eminently sensible, but I thought might be a bit of a lark. Of course, going to a party late, when everybody has been there for a few hours, bonded and maybe imbibed in a few light refreshments, one is always reminded that a late party arrival is a bit like a dog in a manger – out of place. However, duty done and somewhat tired from the journey and four shows back to back, I was able to get away and into the wonder that is my own bed. You only realise how grateful you are to have spent too much money on a bed, when you’re a touring turn staying in boarding houses and hotels around the country. After a shorter sleep than entirely necessary (I often find that being away for a while, the first sleep isn’t entirely successful as I have on my brain buzzing around all the things I must do the next day) I decided to watch the recording of The Eurovision Song Contest from the previous evening which had not been able to see owing to being on stage at the time. 

What struck me was how dumb we’ve all become, even with this sort of broadcast. I will never say Eurovision was anything more than a bit of fluff, but even fluff must have some sort of integrity to make it work.  The production of the show was very slick and very impressive. Lots of lighting effects and dancers in hamster wheels (why?) and all the mad paraphernalia that this contest is famous for, but I neither enjoyed the spectacle, nor the fayre in it. I am always rather irked when people tell me that the Eurovision Song Contest is rubbish, and nothing very good ever came out of it. I always challenge them with the fact it was originally intended as a bonding process for Europe after the Second World War, which, on paper was a good idea. Of course, all it’s done is prove how obdurately alien the UK is to the rest of Europe – indeed is criticised for not taking the contest seriously enough, but cut off as we are, even with the Channel Tunnel in situ, we’re still a bit out on a limb.

Volare, the big Italian song of 1958 which, having won the San Remo Song Festival was aired in the Eurovision coming third, although everybody thinks it won, has become one of the best-selling songs from the contest at over 22 million and given artists such as Dean Martin big chart hits from it. L’amour Est Bleu from 1967 is perhaps so familiar that it may not even be recognised as a Euro hit, and of course Abba, so famously sweeping the board in 1974 and have gone onto become something of an institution. I am not going to pretend that any of the examples are life changing moments in music like a Beethoven or a Mozart, but they are well crafted and catchy songs, and as an addendum to that statement, perhaps in their way they are life changing?

It used to be an honour for an artist to be asked to represent the UK in the contest, and routinely, the biggest stars of the day were routinely wheeled out to compete against our ‘friendly’ European rivals. Matt Monro and Kathy Kirby, if not exactly the latest beat trend of the times were big star names which would draw a large audience, and both were high flying acts which could command large fees; Kathy Kirby was the highest paid singer in the country but unfortunately managed to blow the lot on alcohol and unsuitable marriage, ending up in the bankruptcy court and fading badly into drink related problems. 

Sandie Shaw, Cliff Richard (twice!), Lulu, Mary Hopkin and Clodagh Rodgers were all well-known chart acts selling millions of records and obvious choices for the contest, and indeed this practise continued until the mid-seventies when the format was changed and many unknown acts came into the fray to compete for a chance to go to Euro Heaven. Throughout the late seventies and eighties, any number of faceless wannabes appeared and disappeared, and I rather lost my, well, if not interest exactly, my reason for watching. I liked the fact that a young Olivia Newton-John was doing her very best and to see how it all panned out and progressed – I wasn’t so interested in the ‘made for Eurovision’ pop group. Things improved in the nineties with the BBC returning to the big star outine and Michael Ball and Sonia both holding their own and flying the flag to a respectable second position – Sonia missing the winning spot by only one point. Thank you Greece for that! After this, the contest really became what is today, a massive and glorified Karaoke competition. Gone were the orchestra after 1999, and artists could you use backing tracks completely; the whole thing became a somewhat shambolic and irritatingly long broadcast of something like X Factor, or Britain’s Got (No) Talent. Whatever possessed the BBC to put ageing acts such as Bonnie Tyler and Englebert Humperdinck into the melting pot of the arena is a complete mystery, but I suppose they were paid handsomely for their endeavours so why should they care? This was my Sunday morning entertainment – the Euro from the previous evening. As I mentioned earlier, a marvellous spectacle, but somehow without any soul, and I thought as I watched in a state of disappointment, rather like a roman arena where the crowd come to cheer and jeer the hapless gladiator or enjoying the lions chomping their way through a chunk of prize chuck slave! I may not bother again!

The other musical divertissement for the week was to support the local operatic society for their presentation of The Pirates of Penzance, which at once filled me with dread and horror as much as anything else. I am not fond of going to the theatre. As somebody who works in the industry, I''m afraid it has put me off going to anything if I can possibly avoid it – the busman’s holiday of abject Hell, but I manned up and trotted off to see it. It proved a more enjoyable spectacle than I had hoped for, which was a relief, and the choral moments were very well displayed and accompanied by an excellent orchestra. A piece that was written in 1880 for a Victorian society - indeed, to poke fun at that very society and the absurdity of the social boundaries that were in place, is remarkable that much of the comment is completely apposite today for a modern audience to enjoy. WS Gilbert was, as we know, a skilful and brilliant writer, erudite and biting at once, and Sullivan ably foisting his shards of metal with music which is as witty and sometimes genuinely beautiful with moments of real pathos that fit the drama perfectly. As I reflected on what I had seen, I decided that I really have a wonderful life, enriched by experience, but more importantly that I have not yet become some old blunder bore that is not open to conviction and can still have my feelings stirred by a piece of fluff, be it the Eurovision Song Contest or The Pirates of Penzance.

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