Monday, 29 October 2007

When one thing leads to another

Went to Nan's on Saturday afternoon. As ever with Nan and Andy's generous and good-humoured hospitality, one thing (running through some of the Bob Boles bits with Nan) led to another (dinner, a beer, and watching the DVD of the 1975 Covent Garden Peter Grimes until midnight with Abi, Nan and Andy).

Abi and Mario were there when I arrived, making a start running through the enormous challenges of Ellen Orford and Grimes. Mario had hurtled over for the weekend from Cardiff, where he is based as a full-time medic. He spends his working weeks doing whatever it is that surgeons do, mostly making PowerPoint presentations about next year's budget.

Abi stayed for the evening's viewing, and finished up as depressed as I was: it's really very affecting opera, Britten on top emotionally-disturbing form. Jon Vickers is a very powerful Grimes, a role he legendarily made his own: big and strong, gruff and frustrated, misunderstood, unable to connect with the villagers. And he sang fabulously. Heather Harper has a touch of the staring-eyed, flashy-teethed madwoman about her, an Ellen Orford with an emotional deathwish.

Bob Boles is fine in a shouty sort of way, but to me he looked like the Quaker Oats man rather than a scary, Paisleyesque, fire-and-brimstone misery-monger, and I hope my drunk is nastier than his. Norman Bailey, as Balstrode, is the commanding and peevish voice of reason, though put me in mind of a what-ho pipe-smoking yachtie from a 1970s Condor advert.

A very affecting production, though, so it's no wonder we went home feeling subdued, as Grimes meekly submits to cruel fate and sails out to commit suicide. I biked home through Brixton at midnight, which some people might think is the same thing, but it was fine. It's mostly downhill back to Kennington from Streatham; Brixton was buzzing and full of queues of people waiting to get their mobile phones stolen in clubs; it was dry and mild; and I was back home in as long as it takes for a deranged fisherman to scuttle his smack.

So: can we do it? Can we, a small scruffy South London college best known for trendy modern artists and a building made of giant tagliatelli, stage such a big opera as Peter Grimes? Of course! It doesn't need backdrops as it's all supposed to be on Suffolk's featureless, sparse, misty-grey, mud-brown coast anyway. All we need is a load of nets, some tables and mugs for the pub scene, and a few fishing boxes.

Oh, yes. The singing. That could be a challenge, guys.

Anyway, before watching Grimes, we saw a few highlights of the Charlton House concert last August. Abi and Nat did a lovely duet and looked and sounded like total pros; they have such lovely voices and stage presence.

In fact, there are many Goldies who you'd happily call proper singers, with the ability and drive to make a successful career of it. Professionals, in other words. Which raises the question of what I'm doing here, a website editor and arts journalist with a slapdash approach to life who started studying music older than the leaders of most EU accession countries. An amateur, in other words.

I think, mainly, it's because I've been blessed with one rare natural talent that I intend to exploit to the full, something given to very few people: the ability to turn up.

And when you do keep turning up for things - well, one thing leads to another.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Grimes doesn't pay

You can find a PDF of the entire Peter Grimes libretto thanks to the relaxed attitude to legality of Italian state broadcasters RAI.

Looks dodgy copyright-wise to me, and the Britten estate will probably have a hissy fit if they find out. But seeing as I've just subsidised them to the tune of sixty quid by buying a legit score, I don't have much sympathy with them.

Whatever, download it before they find out and tell the Italians to take it down as soon as they can (ie sometime next summer).

Rustle, rustle, rebrand

Following the excellent suggestion by my bodily modified colleague Mr Crowhurst, I've renamed this blog A Life of Grimes.

This narrowly beat 'Grimes Against Humanity' and 'Grimes of Passion'.

The rebranding has been carried out on a budget of two pounds fifty for a can of coke, packet of crisps and a sandwich.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Fishing trip goes adrift in Seven

Third rehearsal yesterday. We hacked our way through that 7/8 round about Joe and his infernal relatives going fishing, which was clearly stolen from a Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, written 20 years later.

Actually, it went relatively well. We started together and finished together, many people sang when they were supposed to, Tim was still smiling at the end, and instead of looking desperate and miserable, Nan only looked deeply worried, so we're up on this stage last year.

It interested me that we had less trouble with the asymmetry of the time signature than Nan expected. I think it's because pop culture has embraced asymmetry in an occasional, but often memorable, way; so anyone younger than, say, David Bowie, has grown up with it, if fleetingly.

Now, Peter Grimes is full of passages in such odd time signatures (usually disguised by being written across the bar in 4/4, though there is a long hymny bit 15/8 sung in church by the Borough congregation). And classical composers had been banging away in all sorts of lopsided rhythms for ages (Shostakovich could get a big rollicking 7/8 going very nicely thank you - think of the hurtling section in the Piano Concerto No. 2).

But popular music has always been suspicious of it. Or at least, the producers have, ever worried that the feet of the great unwashed are unable to tap along to compound times. Dave Brubeck's Take Five in the 1960s was nearly spiked by the pradoocers, it's said, but the piece's three-two switching became the epitome of white-cool jazz. And what since then? Well, prog-rock used such arithmetical legerdemain all over the place: Yes were particularly famous for it.

I remember the theme tune to BBC's Look North being a clear Brubeck ripoff in the early 1970s, with a chunky piano stumbling along in 5/4 and everything. It seemed in the 1980s that unusual beats were a prerequisite for a TV theme tune with a punchy, thrusting, current-affairs, new-techie cachet (morning news broadcasts had quavers urgently going missing everywhere, and Tomorrow's World's theme was in 7/8, I seem to recall, though I was more concerned with looking at Maggie Philbin's knockers).

And the Stranglers' single Gordon Brown - sorry, Golden Brown - had three bars of three followed by one of four, which makes 13, which is pretty impressive for a punk band, but then they were always cut above the usual gobbing power-chord thrashers who, frankly, just scared me. I bet Maggie Philbin wouldn't have been impressed by the Pistols. No, more of an Abba fan, I expect.

And I'm now sitting at work listening to, the fantastic online radio station that generates playlists according to songs you say you like, and have been enjoying all sorts of spikily-rhythmed pieces from long-haired 1970s stalwarts such as Yes, King Crimson and UK, to mysterious modern bands from Quebec or Colorado with names like Miriodor or Thinking Plague or Godzik Pink. It's just fab.

Maybe I like all these odd rhythms because I'm so rubbish at dancing. If I try to waltz it comes out in five anyway.

So not many sevens flying around in pop culture to establish the idea of uneven rhythms in our young heads; but at least a few. So I wasn't entirely surprised that we could repeatedly count to seven en masse with reasonable reliability.

The only thing that worries me is the remaining 95 per cent of the opera.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

More about that dodgy ENO Carmen

My review of ENO's notorious Carmen is now up on line (on the Sky Arts website). In short, it's been panned by pretty much everyone.

Now, if you ask any critic, they'll tell you that they don't enjoy writing bad reviews. This is rubbish. They love writing bad reviews. It's much more fun.

For example... There is only about one way to say Alice Coote has a lovely, rich, well-controlled mezzo. But there are loads of ways to describe her curious posture on stage. An East German swimmer waiting for the starting-gun. A Dutch tennis player receiving serve. A drunk HR woman at the office Christmas party about to stage-whisper to you that her husband has left her. A circus mime artist pretending to shift a large wardrobe. See? Much more entertaining.

The intention here isn't to get at Alice C - I thought she sang really well, and if her Carmen came across as passionless, that was mainly down to the direction. Neither is the intention to get at Sally Potter's direction (though I did think it was a bit clueless at times: Why CCTV stop after Act I? Why dog get biggest round of applause of night? Why suddenly jump-cut to Spain? Why children wearing white Elvis wedding stuff? Why whizzy streetdance over wary, nervous music at start of Act III? Why seven-foot-tall transvestites? Why no dialogue? Why Carmen's entrance so flat? Why my packet of crisps at the interval more exciting than opera? etc. If I'd paid 140 quid for two posh seats for all that, I'd be hopping mad.)

I'm just making the point that, whatever they say, critics absolutely love productions such as this: ones that take risks and then fail. When they meet up with each other at some record industry bash, what will they be talking about over the glass of complimentary chilled white, poured by their Polish post doc waitress? ENO's fine Magic Flute? ROH's Elisir d'amore? Nope, they'll all slagging off Sally Potter, with a few rolls of the eyes, and loving every minute of it. Nobody loves a turkey, but everyone loves talking about it.

It was with this in mind that I told my friend Jo, who has tickets for tonight, to go along, and not to sell them on eBay. (Anyway, she'd be lucky to get a fiver for them.) Go expecting the worst, I said, and you might enjoy it.

Anyway, Bizet's music is robust enough to make it an evening well spent - you don't have to look at the stage. You can always close your eyes or read the surtitles or simply gaze around to see if there's anyone famous or with an amusing combover sitting nearby. But if you do watch the stage action closely, you'll come away with a dinner-party conversation to last you years.

And you might even think up a witty new way to describe Alice Coote's posture.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

A Carmen travesty

Went to English National Opera last night to see Sally Potter's Carmen. I was reviewing it for Sky Arts's website, and so had the luxury of press tickets. This means you get to see it free, and then get paid for slagging it off and telling people not to go, which is agreeable but seems a trifle unfair.

Anyway, it also means you have a spare free ticket, and so can take someone else along with you. Normally I go with someone from Goldsmiths, or one of my drinking chums, in which case I bring a bottle of cheap Cab Sauv, two plastic tumblers, and a saucer of crisps, and we have a quick party downstairs during the interval. This time I invited Nan, so I did things a bit posher, such as not picnicking next to the toilets, and having a shave beforehand.

I won't describe the ENO Carmen here, partly because the full review will appear on the Sky Arts website ( in due course, mainly because it's a bit rubbish, with too many visual gimmicks at the expense of dramatic and musical coherence. What, for example, those three blokes in full female flamenco dancer gear were doing there, I don't know.

Still, they were rather striking, in their high heels, extravagant polka-dot gypsy dresses, and skyscraper mantillas, which made them about seven foot tall. I can see Dan getting ideas already...

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Rhythm methods

Second rehearsal today. We blundered our way through the chorus bits of the Prologue and of Act I, particularly the storm chorus. People complain about student behaviour sometimes, but I was pleased to see the altos, in particular, so well behaved. We didn't hear a peep out of them all afternoon.

The music in Grimes poses a lot of interesting problems. Few of these are related to notes: Britten naturally writes in quite a vocal way, with lots of stepwise, modal or harmonic movement. He's also very considerate at giving you your entry notes: the series of otherwise difficult D-sharps on which Bob Boles starts his rants in Act I, for example, are supplied helpfully a quaver in advance by the oboe. Except we won't have an oboe until June.

But the rhythms are something else. The choruses work in lots of short, repeated or sequenced phrases which overlap, but whose overlapping scheme is never that obvious. Successive entries of your phrase might come in on beat 1, then on beat 3, then beat 2 1/2 but half speed, then beat 1 1/2 but with half of it double speed and the other half half speed. And all this time you're being put off by the sopranos and basses who are doing the same sort of thing but in different ways, often from each other, but I don't think that was in the score. Not the altos, though, obviously.

Nan's hot tip is to practise the chorus parts by speaking the rhythms first, to get those cemented in the head, before proceeding to secondary issues such as notes, dynamics, etc.

As my guitar teacher was fond of saying, rather often in my lessons in fact, get the notes right but the rhythm wrong and everyone will notice; get the rhythm right and the notes wrong, and hardly anyone will notice. Well, for anything written up to 1913, that is. For rather a lot of music after say 1950, you can get the notes and the rhythm wrong, and even the composer won't notice.

When it's done right, all this chorus stuff in Grimes is really, really exciting. Britten has the skill to make these simple units build up, thanks to their varied overlaps, into genuine harmonic and textural momentum.

We're a bloody long way from doing it right.

Still, as Nan reminded us, when she was at Scottish National Opera the chorus managed to learn the whole darn opera in a week. Either they were fantastically committed, or there's nothing else do on an autumn evening in Glasgow. I suspect it's the commitment thing, though.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Paisley patterns

I've now had a chance to look through the part of Bob Boles, the ranting, Bible-bashing, drunken, leering Methodist fisherman. Typecast again.

My mum thinks I ought to do it all in an Ian Paisley accent, which shows you why my mum isn't an opera director.

It's an enticing thought though. Perhaps I could bellow out "Harl it yerrsalf, Greymes!", or "This lost soul of a foshermon most be shonned bey ruspuctable soceyety!!", or - most excitingly, as Boles gets into brimstone mode while the chorus fret about the approaching storm in Act I - "Re-pant! Re-pant! Re-pant!!!!!", in the stentorian manner of Rev P shouting "Tharr shall bee noooooh sorrrrendooorrrr to the Ey Or Ay!!!!"

I suppose a Suffolk accent would be more appropriate, whatever that is. Like my Uncle Wally? No, come to think of it, he came from Norwich. He'd have been a rubbish Bob Boles anyway, about as fiery and threatening as Bernard Matthews trying to persuade Grimes to come and work in the marketing department of his turkey factory.

Second rehearsal tomorrow....

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

The nightmare starts here

Friday 12 October

I bought Foyles's only score of Peter Grimes down Charing Cross Road on the way home from work last night. Even with ten per cent student discount it cost £60. This is a frightening amount of money, especially given the second-rate photoreproduction of Boozy & Dorks' edition, evidently done on Mr Blobby's disposable camera.

I mean, SIXTY QUID: I've spent less than that on all-you-can-drink weekend citybreaks (though, granted, these were to cheap, shabby, forlorn, economically desperate corners of the EU, such as Poprad in Slovakia, Szeczin in Poland, or Middlesbrough.)

But on the other hand, it is nearly four hundred pages, so that's only 14p per page, roughly the cost of photocopying it at Goldsmiths.

But on the other other hand, that's nearly four hundred pages of often very challenging music that we've got to learn by Christmas. It's as long as Carmen, with far less obvious notes.

Oh my God.

Saturday 13 October

Talking about cheap, shabby, forlorn, and economically desperate, here I am in Hull, seeing my mum and brother. He and I bike out on the 15-mile cycle path to the east coast. The path is final part of the 215-mile Trans Pennine Cycle Trail, and ends up in the resort – yes, as in 'last' – town of Hornsea.

This is exactly the coastline that Britten conjures up in Peter Grimes so effectively. It may be a hundred miles north of 'The Borough' (Aldeburgh), where Grimes is set, but geographically and atmospherically it's exactly the same. It's a marginal world, the edge of a flat, grey, featureless agricultural plain that transitions seamlessly into a flat, grey, featureless North Sea. The oxymoronic 'Amusement Arcades' are closed or empty, their lights hardly penetrating the mist (they call them 'sea-rokes' here, apparently). It's lunchtime but the tea rooms are shut. We have a sandwich on a bench overlooking the dreary, rust-coloured beach, then a couple of cheap pints in a friendly pub already festooned with Christmas lights and plastic Santas.

Grimes would feel at home here: mists, storms, big skies, small minds, claustrophobia, not many surnames in the phone book, surplus fingers, wary stares towards anyone who has something considered strange, such as a job. There's even a village called Aldbrough further up the coast, though not for long, because like most of the coastline it's crumbling into the sea with the feeble inevitability of a forgotten ginger biscuit left suspended in weak tea.

So the bike trip's all good research. Perhaps I can claim the cost of two pints of Tetley's and a pack of Seabrook's cheese'n'onion against tax. We cycle back home, and suddenly Hull seems vibrant and cosmopolitan.

Monday 15 October
On the train back to London. I really shouldn't do my score-bashing in bed. The last three nights have been turbulent, seething, mildly nightmarish. My customary bad-dream activities (pursuit by assassins, missing trains, unrevised-for exams, subsident housing, and the disturbingly Freudian one of trying to close a door that is too small for the frame) are all being played out to a Grimes soundtrack: one of the Sea Interludes, the Act I storm fugato, or that pesky 7-4 round of Joe Sr and Jr going fishing. Britten was pretty darn good at the nocturnal atmosphere, and there's a feeling of night-terrors-around-corner in a lot of his work (the Nocturnal for Guitar, for example, which I can't play either).

Then again, the blitzkrieg of wine and beer at these family weekends may have had something to do with it.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

So. Peter Grimes, it is, then.

Ah. Right. Opera Gold's 2008 production will be Britten's Peter Grimes.

It's a Big Ask. Not as big as the Ask in Chichester, where I had a sausagey pizza on a bike trip in 2005, but sizeable nevertheless.

Anyway, we had the first rehearsal today, piling through the Prologue and some bits of Act I. It was nice to see so many familiar faces: Dan, Jonny, Jenny, Nat, Jenny, Casey, Abi, Hamish, Ryan...

Jonny's appearance was particularly noteworthy. He sustained a broken thumb while playing cricket. (With a twig-snapping susceptibility to injury like that, he clearly has a future on a Central Contract for England.) So, he now has one of those 21st-century minimalist splints in his thumb: a metal spike through the bone that is pinioned at either end by a black stud, one such stud sticking out of the region between his thumbnail and joint, the other sticking out the top of his thumb, like two tiny licorice pellets.

At any other London Uni, people would be squirming, or sympathising, or pretending not to notice. But, this being uber-trendy Goldsmiths, everyone thinks it's a body modification fresh from LA, and they all say wow, that's really cool, where d'you get it done. They probably think 'Cover Point' is a tat parlour in Camden.

I might be doing Bob Boles, the drunken Bible-basher, so I've started preparation for the part by having a couple of cans of lager. I'll get round to the singing tomorrow.