Thursday, November 12, 2009

Schnittke and Scriabin and my fondness for the noise they make.

Sir Thomas Beecham is said to have remarked that ‘the English don’t understand music, but they like the noise it makes’. Before googling that quotation to track down where it had originated, I had assumed it was by some foreigner putting the boot into Old Blighty and its culture. Beecham was a bit of a card, but given that what he said, however true, was not intended to be complimentary, I am rather puzzled by it. However, I didn’t start this entry to write about Beecham, the English or left-handed compliments. I use the quotation as an introduction because it describes my relationship with music almost exactly.
I know little about music except the obvious and trivial things one picks up, especially if, like me, you have been knocking around with a guitar for more than 40 years (and have very little to show for it). I know chords, I know how I should be able to read music (although I can’t actually read music), I know about keys (and, incidentally, I am rather fascinated at how different keys, no one knows quite why, convey different moods). I know that what most people in the West regard as music is but a fraction of the music being made worldwide and I know there is a variety of different scales. When I was 12 and we were living in Berlin, I had a year’s worth of piano tuition but finally gave up because ‘I wanted to play jazz’ - not that, at 12, I had the slightest idea what jazz was. But I don’t ‘understand’ music in the sense others claim or are said to ‘understand’ music.
Once, a little facetiously but also, in a rather conceited fashion because I thought it was rather a good analogy, I asked someone: say you went to a very good restaurant and ate a very good meal. You enjoyed much about the meal, not just the taste of the food, but the texture, how much care had gone into it’s preparation, the service at the restaurant, the company and the wine you drank. Later - that night at home, or a few days later - you might well find yourself recalling the meal and discussing it. But were you to be asked: ‘But did you understand the food?’, you would be rather nonplussed. It would simply not be an appropriate question. Food is eaten and enjoyed, wine is drunk and enjoyed, a good company, service and ambience are also enjoyed and valued. There would seem to be nothing which might be ‘understood’ about any of them in any accepted sense of ‘understood’. (Yes, I know much faux intellectual noise could be made about the elastic character of the notion of ‘understanding’ were this a Guardian or Independent seminar, but it following that line of discussion would only take us down a rather dull alley, so let’s drop that angle sooner rather than later.)
That’s how I feel about music: I don’t ‘understand’ it at all. I can’t even see what there is to understand of even conceive of what there might be to understand. But I very much like and enjoy the noise it makes. And except for mainstream Grand Ole Opry C&W and all that finger-in-the-ear ersatz English folk which was spawned in the late Sixties, I seem to like virtually everything I hear.
Most recently I have become a fan of a chap called Schnittke. I heard a reference to him on Radio 4’s Front Row in which it was said he claimed the Devil had dictated music to him. Intrigued I turned to Spotify, which is very useful in hearing composers, songs or artists you hadn’t heard before, and listened to some. And I like it a great deal.
I am sure it is not, or would not be, to everyone tastes. I don’t ‘understand’ it. But I love ‘the noise it makes’. Try some yourself and see. If you find you do like it, then there’s Scriabin, too, another composer of enjoyable noise you might like to try. If you want to try some ‘noise’ at the jazz/rock end of the scale, listen to some Dave Fiuczynski, a guitarist who is always interesting and enjoyable. And, no, I don’t ‘understand’ a single second of it.
To my list of C&W and finger-in-ear folk (with added vitamin-enriched sincerity) include some, by no no means all, of the mid-19th century Romantic music, of which a little, for these ears, goes one hell of a long way. If there is a spectrum with romanticism at one end and classicism at the over, sign me up with the classicist. For some reason, romanticism reminds me of a lesser well-known saying by Oscar Wilde: ‘Sentimentality is a bank holiday from cynicism.’ Bear that in mind when you next read of how Nazi concentration camp governors used to organise choirs of inmates singing German carols for their children at Christmas.

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