The New Year, Handel, and Technological Disruption

I suppose I should think about a New Year’s resolution or three. One obvious resolution might be to post a tad more on the jolly old blog. On the other hand, maybe I should give up. According to a new poll over at Telescoper, the only thing worse than Peter’s blog is mine.

Another resolution could be to decide once and for all whether I am elitist or populist and act accordingly. I’ve noticed I tend to be snooty about books and populist about music.

A couple of days back I went to the annual New Year performance of The Messiah at the Usher Hall, with classically minded friends. The interval picnic was rather fun. I also enjoyed the classical concert version of the seventh inning stretch. When the Hallelujah Chorus bit arrives, everybody stands up. Apparently this may or may not be something to do with George II standing up at this point in seventeen umpty ump. Chum Robin calls it “Heaven’s National Anthem”. The music is rather good. Lots of fine tunes, and enough complexity to entertain. Occasionally very profound and moving. But the singing … hmmm. Still can’t get this. Opera singers and classical singers don’t seem to actually sing the note, but kinda surround it in a sort of weird oscillation. Compared to normal modern popular music singing, operatic style singing just doesn’t seem musical.

Of course, historically, this weird ugly style of singing came about because it was the only way to sing loud enough in big halls and approximate being in tune. It didn’t take long after the invention of the microphone for Bing Crosby et al to re-invent the art of singing. Together with recording technology and the radio, this completely transformed the performance, distribution, economics, and demographics of music.

But ”classical” singing remained unchanged.   Opera and classical fans seem to have an instinct that the wobble thing is a truer and better way to sing, and that amplification is always distorting, but I ain’t convinced. It looks to me like hanging onto the weird singing style is a sociological thing, going along with the picnics and the standing up bit, as well as the performer dress code and the unspoken rules about when you applaud and when you don’t, and never speaking to the audience, and so on and so on. Its particularly strange when performing Handel, or Monteverdi say – its not that it preserves the original atmosphere, but a strange upper middle class Victorian atmosphere from a time somewhere in between the creation of the music and our own time.

There are some analogies to academia here … but thats another post…

16 Responses to The New Year, Handel, and Technological Disruption

  1. telescoper says:

    Reminds me of the great Anna Russell’s description of the voice of a Wagnerian dramatic soprano as “like a factory whistle”…

  2. Mark McCaughrean says:

    Is there any reason you have to choose between being elitist and populist? Why not just embrace whatever takes your fancy, regardless of the nominal labels?

    For example, while working at home yesterday, I listened to most of Richard Strauss’ “Guntram”, his first and rather sub-Wagnerian opera. That could be characterised as elitist from many non-opera perspectives, but probably as populist from a high opera one. But since it doesn’t require much intellectual effort to enjoy, it allowed me to concentrate on what I was writing, in a way that “Elektra”, “Salome”, or “Die Frau Ohne Schatten” would not have.

    Then, in the evening, I watched / listened to a video of the song “Lies” from Glaswegian electronic band, CHVRCHES, more times than I should admit. That’s something that assuredly grabs 100% of your attention. As they’ve only been around for a year and have yet to release an album, that’s likely an elitist taste by some standards, but since the Grauniad has been touting them as one of the great pop breakouts for 2013, they’re probably already seen as hopelessly populist in other circles.

    As for the prog gig I was at in London just before Christmas, well, a whole novel could be written on whether that genre is populist, elitist, or even a genre, but the place was stowed oot with happy punters regardless …

    So yes, opera and operatic style singing is a decidedly bizarre way of making music, but it works for me. On the other hand, Adele’s apparently rather popular way of killing the English language not-so-softly with her songs ain’t. YMMV, but that’s the whole point with art, isn’t it? 😉

    • Prog gig? You don’t mean prog-rock, surely?!

      • Mark McCaughrean says:

        Absolutely, I do … but do I sense an anti-prog tirade being brewed in the background here? Fire away … 😉

      • No, not at all. I wrote too quickly, thinking that Peter Coles had been to a prog concert. (Shurely shome mishtake!) He probably confuses them with modern beat combos. In addition to mediaeval, Renaissance, Baroque and (mostly English) folk music, I listen to quite a bit of rock music, much of it progressive. I never could get too deeply into Yes, ELP etc, nor King Crimson after the first two albums, but am a big fan of Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Rush, Kansas (at least some of their stuff) etc as well as some hard-rock groups with some progressive tendencies (Wishbone Ash, Uriah Heep etc). Although I’ve known they exist for almost as long as they have, only recently have I been listening to Iron Maiden, who definitely have a progressive side to them. (I was led to believe by Eddie that they were basically a joke, but actually the music is quite good, the lyrics, while not great, are a huge cut above most heavy-metal lyrics (and better than most lyrics in other types of popular music) and the intricate and technical complexity of the music appeals to me in the same way that, say, Bach’s pieces for solo violin do.) I don’t really see them as heavy metal, though, even though they are the most important traditional-metal band. For my ears (and eyes) they are much closer to 1970s hard rock than other types of heavy metal. (For the elitists in the audience: there is more variety among heavy-metal music than among all the rest of music.)

        There are also a huge number of newer prog bands which I’m just getting to know.

        So, who played at the gig?

  3. Mark McCaughrean says:

    Ah, that’s good to hear, Phillip: thanks to 1977 ‘n’ all that, prog was summarily consigned to the wilderness for 25-30 years, despite being very broadly popular in the early 1970s. Certainly, neo-prog bands like Marillion, IQ, and Twelfth Night carried on through the 1980s, but only out on the deeply unfashionable fringes.

    But as you’ve noted, there’s a strong prog revival going on, in part, I believe, because the web allows much more room for musical diversity now right across the spectrum, as well as closer connections between bands and their devotees.

    While many of the latter listening again to prog are “born again” 45-55 year olds, including me, there are also a large number of much younger fans who simply like the music, unencumbered by any right-on political baggage from the late 70s and 80s.

    The mainstream media seems at least to have realised that prog is viable and popular again, although they seemed to believe that it’s largely down to a rehabilitation of the old groups and their 1970s back catalogue. In fact, in my experience, it’s just as much down to the new groups that have emerged in the past 10 years, many of who have a rabid following.

    For me, that’s the band Frost* (yes, complete with the asterisk), and they were half of the bill at the Scala in London, for their traditional “Annual General Meeting” gig. It’s hard to describe Frost*, but their mix of serious musicality, complexity, great song-writing, very modern production values, and a mad sense of humour completely captured me about 5 years ago, and I’ve been to see them many times since. Utterly brilliant, as is the community of fans around them.

    I’d suggest looking for their two albums “Milliontown” and “Experiments in Mass Appeal” on the web, as well as watching the many, many videos by Jem Godfrey, the main man, on YouTube:

    In addition, there are many audience videos of their gigs, including the jolly amusing (well, perhaps you had to be there) “Brummie Speak ‘n’ Spell” sequence from the Scala:

    The other half of the Scala gig was played by “It Bites”, a band with a longer history, and who currently overlap with two members from Frost*. I’m not as familiar with them, but they played well and had a very enthusiastic bunch of fans too.

    Beyond this, there are many other bands worth checking out, including Tinyfish, Arena, IQ (still going strong), Magenta, Dec Burke, Moon Safari: one way of getting a broad overview of what’s going on would be to listen to the fortnightly podcast called “The European Perspective” on the Dividing Line Broadcast Network.

    Enough said for now; glad to know my initial suspicions were wrong 😉

    (Andy: sorry for hijacking your blog here, but, well, y’know …)

    • I carry around a spiral notebook in which I jot down names of bands to check out. These are gleaned mainly from the pages of Mojo and eclipsed (yes, lower case; a German magazine which concentrates on prog, classic, hard, art etc rock, both old and new). When I have some spare time, I go to Saturn, a record store, and hold the CD barcodes under a scanner, which gives a few seconds of each song over the headphones. (This service runs on VMS, by the way.) Most of the bands aren’t good enough that I would buy anything, but occasionally there is a gem to be found. I saw Arena about a year ago, and Beardfish recently (opening for Flying Colors). Interesting (and live I find more things interesting than on CD), but not good enough to win me over. I recently saw a double bill of Thomas Zwijsen, who has a record called Nylon Maiden—-not what you think (nudge nudge, wink wink), but rather arrangements of Iron Maiden songs for solo classical guitar; worth checking out (searching for Nylon Maiden on YouTube does, indeed, bring up said Dutchman and not something else) and a group called Maiden United who do acoustic versions of Iron Maiden songs. Also worth checking out. I was really impressed with the singer, Damien Wilson, whom I knew sings with a band called Threshold, but what I’ve heard of Threshold seems a bit too formulaic.

      Of the neoprog stuff, I admit to liking the Fish-era sounds-like-Genesis Marillion best, especially the stuff with Minimoog (which, actually, Tony Banks rarely if ever used, being an Arp man). I’ve seen the “new” Marillion twice, once a year ago and once 20 years go, but can’t really get into them.

      I saw IQ at a “Night of the Prog” (actually more than one night) concert at the Loreley, an annual festival not far from where I live. (I went there mainly to see Jethro Tull.) I couldn’t get into their music much, but remember being impressed by John Jowitt on bass, whom I also saw with Marillion about a year ago.

      Considering that I haven’t actually heard anything by most of the bands in my notebook, I suspect there are a few good new bands I will discover, but it will be difficult to top, say, 1970s Jethro Tull. (The new Thick as a Brick 2 album by Ian Anderson, by the way, is truly worth checking out.)

      So, next concert is Wishbone Ash on 5 February.

    • “thanks to 1977 ‘n’ all that, prog was summarily consigned to the wilderness for 25-30 years, despite being very broadly popular in the early 1970s”

      Broadly popular? Jethro Tull was the biggest band in the world in the early 1970s, and one can’t get much proggier than that.

      OK, Mike Merrifield will lambast me, but who cares: what a load of bollocks punk was! Not just the lack of skill (favourite quote, from some Mojo interview: “The other groups just pretended they couldn’t play, but we really couldn’t play.”), but the whole us-against-them mentality. Genesis as boring old farts (they were 27 years old at the time)? Well, if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it, but painting yourself a revolutionary is more pompous than ELP ever were. What is more, it wasn’t even real. Malcolm McClaren essentially invented this, merely replacing one superficial subculture with another fashion-conscious subculture. Like in the Life of Brian when the crowd shouts in unison “We are all individuals”. I saw him a couple of years ago on a chat show discussing disco-era Bee Gees (which has had amazing staying power), saying how innovative and forward-looking the music was. What a hypocrite! As Ian Anderson (who referred to Kurt Cobain as “that chap who died who did something with a cello on MTV”) said, had Johnny Rotten and co been born 5 years earlier, they would have been in a blues band, and 5 years later they would have been playing synthesizers dressed as pirates.

      Popular or not, many bands are still playing and, in some respects, probably getting more enjoyment out of playing to small, dedicated audiences today than being in the tabloid press back in the day.

  4. andyxl says:

    Sorry. I only see degeneration. Yes, King Crimson, Nice, Egg, and early Pink Floyd were musically interesting and still sound good. ELP were good but pompous. But in the eighties… Rush, Marillion, Kansas etc ? Formulaic. Derivative. Similar surface appearance to those seventies bands that were labelled “progressive”, but actually rather dull and foursquare and unimaginative. And I tried a few Frost* clips but I’m sorry I was bored. In the Planet Frost link, they claim to be demonstrating 7/8 time but it seems to be just 2/4 as far as I can tell. Nowhere near as good as Radiohead. Guess thats me off your Christmas card list.

    • If you’re listening to Rush and Kansas from the 80s, that’s too late. To be sure, I’m not a big fan of Kansas, but if you can find some Rush between the too-science-fictiony-1970s stuff (not to mention the Zeppelin-derivative hardrock from earlier) and the too-much-echo-on-the-drums overproduced 80s stuff, it can be quite good. I do recommend listening to Moving Pictures (from the very early 80s), probably their best album. Actually, just the drums on this album are probably better than most entire records. Rush went downhill after Moving Pictures. Oh, it was still better than, say, Bananarama or Adam Ant or whatever, but they didn’t regain a semblance of form until a quarter of a century later.

      • andyxl says:

        So, sir … your opinion of Handel, and heavy vibrato ? Or how culture adapts to technology?

      • I have a few CDs by Händel and will certainly buy some more, but I am not a fan of pre-1960s vocal music in general, except from the folk tradition (a finger in the ear is better than a vibrato in the voice). Interestingly, Bach wrote music in every genre of his day except opera. Yes, he did write a bunch of (mostly sacred) vocal music, but to me the best parts of it are the instrumental parts. Of course, I prefer his instrumental music, mainly the orchestral and chamber music. Fortunately, Händel, along with Bach, Vivaldi, the strangely neglected Telemann etc wrote a huge amount of good instrumental music. There is so much good instrumental Baroque music one doesn’t have to waste time listening to vocal music. 😐

        What I don’t know is whether the people at the time actually sang the way people tend to sing now. Does anyone know? There were no recordings, of course, and since Bach and co were deemed too old-school, there wasn’t even a continuous tradition. And, of course, it was boys, not women, singing the high parts.

  5. Mark McCaughrean says:

    No, not at all, Andy (well, you’re not on it at the moment anyway, so it’s a bit moot :-)): I fully appreciate that there’s no one-size-fits-all in music, and so much the better for it.

    I agree with what you said re: the early prog bands and, to be honest, pretty much agree with what you say about the neo-prog bands being derivative.

    But I do think that some of the newer prog bands are plowing their own furrow and Frost* are definitely among them. That said, I did add those links with a degree of trepidation, because all of the video tomfoolery is fun when you know the band and when it’s considered in addition to the actual music, but it probably shouldn’t really be the starting point.

    Listen to “Milliontown” or “EIMA” all the way through (they’re available in their entirety on YouTube, although I probably shouldn’t be advertising that), and see if that takes your fancy then. “Hyperventilate”, “Black Light Machine”, or “Milliontown” the track are all very good starting points, IMHO, along with “Dear Dead Days” from EIMA.

    And they are fantastic live, I can promise you that; all proper musicians and then some. But in the end, I have no problem if they don’t work for you; there’s plenty of other music to go around, prog or otherwise.

    As for Radiohead, yes, sure, they’re an excellent band as well and, I’d suggest, in many ways heavily influenced by prog or at least the spirit of prog.

    I’ve seen them play live a few times (including a memorable if rather bizarre gig in Berlin on September 11, 2001), but must admit that I’ve drifted away somewhat after Kid A and Amnesiac. Not because I don’t like the more electronica-based stuff, or Jonny Greenwood’s sonic explorations, but probably because it’s just not especially, err, involving anymore.

    p.s. That PlanetFrost* video re: odd time signatures is purely a complete piss take, of course, but if you have any doubt about Craig Blundell’s abilities as a drummer, have a look at some of his videos online. He’s a well-known session and demonstration drummer in his day job. You could do worse than start at:


  6. Mark McCaughrean says:

    Oh, and the other reason I’ve drifted away from Radiohead is because they disappeared up their own fundament of utter pomposity many years ago … at least Frost* are absolutely determined to have a good laugh along the way.

    Keep in mind too that it’s none of their day jobs: they all make real money doing other things. Jem Godfrey’s day job is a record producer and co-owner of a production company, Wise Buddah, and among many other things, did this recently:


  7. andyxl says:

    Phillip – sounds like we roughly agree on the wobbly-singing thing. As to how people sang in Renaissance and Baroque times.. well I don’t know too much, but I suspect that its not a coincidence that the singers I like best who operate within the “classical” arena are early music specialists like Emma Kirkby

  8. John Peacock says:

    Andy: I thoroughly agree about vibrato. But it’s a fashion that comes and goes – and applies to more than singing: when I listen to 1960s violinists, I hear more vibrato than is typical today. And I think the sort of singing you describe should be considered old-fashioned, as opposed to typical. People like Kirkby set an example of using less vibrato (not zero – she uses what to my ears seems the right amount), and the current fashion increasingly places emphasis on just singing/playing cleanly in tune. I bet Kirkby would make Wagner sound fantastic – and I look forward one day to hearing people sing it that way. That may take time – but Handel or even as late as Mozart ought to be a solved problem by now. Buy yourself the Dunedin Consort’s Messiah and hear it done properly.

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