Monthly Archives: February 2009

The King’s new clothes


Double Dream at Kings Place

If you read that one pianist of a duo was a ‘quixotic Moldavian jazz pianist living in Oslo’, and that the duo’s  recital in which “Schuman merges into tango into Bach into jazz into Stravinsky on two” pianos was “like no piano recital you’ve ever seen”, and if the reviewer (Simon Broughton in Evening Standard on Thursday 19th) gives it five stars, you might be tempted  as I was to rush to buy tickets before they sold out.

I was curious to see Kings Place, as this latest addition to London’s concert venue had completely passed me by, and the Standard review spoke of the ‘open-minded spirit of Kings Place’ which sounded interesting.  That, together with a piano duo recital that promised to play ‘games with concert conventions’ (the title of the review) was enough to make me get the credit card out.

I hated the building, the atmosphere and the implied values so much I nearly left without even going to the concert.  It is so unfriendly, I barely understood how to buy a sandwich and eat it. The checkout assistant gave me a threatening look when I tried to pay, as if to say ‘Yes? What do you want?’ and grudgingly agreed to take my money when I said I wanted to pay. There weren’t enough seats. There were a couple left at one long refectory table like the ones in Oliver! A lonely jazz trio spooned mellow tunes into the cavernous office-like space and stopped abruptly when the hall opened. No-one clapped.  I leafed through the Spring programme. Who goes to this stuff, I thought. It all seemed so worthy. Like it was developed for Guardian readers, or in fact, by and for Guardian writers (as it happens, Kings Place is indeed the home of the Guardian and Observer offices.)

And the concert? Well, it was a recital, in the most 19th century, Hanslickian sense you could imagine. Sit back, shut up and listen with the lights out.  Far from playing games with concert conventions, it was about the most conventional concert I’ve been to since the last piano recital, except that Alperin wore red shoelaces.

Mikhail Rudy’s playing was lovely. Alperin’s was fine too, it was just all the grunts, wheezes, face-making and vocalizing that I could have done without (all hideously enlarged on the overhead video relay. Just the hands will be fine, next time, thanks.) He couldn’t play a note without looking like he was experiencing something between an orgasm and choking on a potato.  The more extravagant the gesture, the less evident the outcome in his playing. Rudy, by contrast, did nothing and extracted honey and chocolate and perfume from his piano. I detected nothing that sounded like improvisation, rule breaking or playing with conventions. The audience tittered occasionally in that way that classical audiences do when some 19th century rule is poked at (but not broken) with a knowing wink from the performer.

Once, as a teenager, I overheard a woman in front of me  at a concert of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra say to her friend ‘It’s good coming to things like this, isn’t it, because if it was on the radio, you’d just turn it off’. I laughed, but secretly, I couldn’t help agreeing with her. And 35 years later, I’m afraid to say I haven’t found a better reason to go to a classical recital.

For ballet music fans…


Thanks to Adam Lopez (who I have to thank on an almost weekly basis these days), genius creator of all nearly all the Wikipedia pages on Petipa, Minkus and Imperial Ballet generally, I have now finally seen a score of Paquita that wasn’t scribbled in biro by a semi-literate child with their hands tied behind their back underwater and faxed from a tenth-generation photocopy on a steam-powered fax machine.

And thanks to this score, I discovered where there are resources (including Paquita) of the kind that a ballet pianist can only dream, including (with the author’s permission) a downloadable copy of the best book on playing for ballet I’ve ever read. It’s by Galina Bezuglaya and is the only one which gives a realistic and practical guide to everyday playing for a company  The site’s in Russian, but as I discovered – also thanks to Adam – Google does a pretty good job of translating it. Click here for the Googlified English version.

More joys of libraries & Der gestohlene Abend

The Institute of Education, London at twilight today

The Institute of Education, London at twilight today

It’s some time now since I finished Wolfram Fleischhauer’s latest novel, Der gestohlene Abend, which I enjoyed so much I wanted to blog about it even before I’d got past page two. But the trouble with his novels are that it’s difficult to describe why you like them so much without giving away one of the greatest causes of the enjoyment, which are his plots.

Then on Wednesday, on my way to Roehampton University to get hold of some articles that were unavailable elsewhere, I realised what it was that I had enjoyed so much about this latest novel, and indeed all his novels.

As I was climbing the interminable West Hill on my bike, freezing my face off and trying to avoid ice patches, then emerging in the quasi countryside of the bit beyond Tibbet’s corner (and nearly coming off my bike in some frozen mud in the underpass), I began to feel a sense of exhilaration and excitement at the thought of finally being able to read these two articles (a very critical review and an author’s response to it) that were so hard to get hold of.

It was partly the physical challenge of getting at the stuff that made reading it so much more exciting.  It’s an odd way to get your kicks, I thought. And then I realised that I’ve always been a bit like this about books and information – the more obscure and difficult to get at it is, the more fascination it holds (see here, for example). It’s a similar concept to Walter Benjamin’s ‘aura’ – by the time I got to the journals section of the library, and finally found the item I had seen referred to so often, but never seen in the flesh, the journal seemed to vibrate and radiate aura on its shelf.

And then I remembered that this is often what happens in Fleischhauer’s novels.  There’s a search for some truth that is not necessarily even hidden, it’s just that no-one except one of his protagonists can be bothered to look for it, because the journey is hard. It usually involves a real, physical journey, and physical encounters with obstacles to information like difficult librarians, illness, early closing, being attacked, or hindrances like misinformation, concealment, or simply mistakes. It might involve detours and time-consuming blind-alleys, or having to gain new skills and knowledge in an unfamiliar field.

The search for truth, which often hangs on some minuscule detail, involves his heroes and their circle in adventures which are every bit as exciting as the truth that is about to revealed, and the reverse is true too: Fleischhauer’s searches for truth are like cognitive car chases.  His novels are, even if this is not their main aim, tales of the thrill of investigation and curiosity.  You rejoice that your hero refuses to let things pass until he or she has solved the mystery, crime, conundrum that everyone else is happy to leave alone. And sometimes, things you’ve been looking at all the while (like the title of the book) are found to reveal unexpected secrets and meanings.

Funnily enough, I wouldn’t have been able to describe my excitement in Walter Benjamin terms had I not been reminded of the  book in Der gestohlene Abend. I must –  finally – read that book, I thought, and so I did. Benjamin’s book is about art works in an age of mechanical reproduction, but every time I visit a library, I get an excitement about being in the presence of information,  and the possibility of finding things in some quiet corner that no-one looks at, that is unrivalled by anything you can do or find on the web.

Der gestohlene Abend on

The bit the Tories left out about teaching in Singapore


Amused, in a despairingly cynical way, to see that the best the Tories can come up with as an educational policy is to give teachers the power to seize iPods. Tories would also “introduce a longer term plan to attract a higher grade of graduate into the teaching profession. [Shadow education secretary Michael] Gove is looking at Singapore, where only the top 30% of graduates are allowed to become teachers.”

The bit they’ve left out about the Singapore system is that the Ministry of Education in Singapore offers a bonded system (the MOE Teaching Scholarship), where they’ll fund the teacher’s entire degree, including maintenance and flights if you study abroad in return for a promise of at least 4-6 years service in the Singapore education. If you fail the degree, or don’t fulfil the bond, you are liable for liquidated damages.

One of Obama’s education advisors has been telling the new President similar good things about Singapore (Obama education advisor thinks U.S. schools could take a lesson from Finland and Singapore) but they seem to have a very different take on the story to the UK tories. How could such a generous scheme get turned into ‘We’ll only let the top 30% of graduates into teaching’, with no mention of funding or context? Or is the power to confiscate iPods the thing that is going to attract all those high-flying graduates?

Michael Phelps: why I’m not disappointed


From, What Michael Phelps Should Have Said. The article is what I would like to have said, only Radley Balko’s said it better.

I’m not given to having sporting heroes, but being a swimmer, if I have one, it’s Michael Phelps.  And he’s still a hero, despite the best efforts of the News of the World.

I for one am not in the slightest bit ‘disappointed’ in him for the bong incident (USA Swimming have suspended him for 3 months to  “send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people”).  How could you be disappointed in someone who has already achieved so much, they are out of anyone’s league to start with. Whose business is it anyway? And frankly, if you can win 8 gold medals, and smoke cannabis, you should probably get a 9th.

He’s 23. He’s an international hero, not for clean living, but for swimming. Leave him alone. Kellogg’s have dropped him as a sponsor after February. Probably a good thing. I’d be more disappointed if he continued to mislead kids into thinking that it was cornflakes that contributed to his success. If this stops people eating cornflakes, good.

Multi-tasking, cognitive load, mobiles


Since my previous rant on multi-tasking, I’ve discovered that the key word I needed to prise this issue open was ‘cognitive load’, which I discovered while monotasking (reading a book on music and psychology).  So for those who want a weapon against the tide of pop-psych multit-taskers, read this article from Psychology Matters (Multi-tasking –  switching costs). If you can’t be bothered, here’s the important bit:

Understanding the hidden costs of multitasking may help people to choose strategies that boost their efficiency – above all, by avoiding multitasking, especially with complex tasks. (Throwing in a load of laundry while talking to a friend will probably work out all right.) For example, losing just a half second of time to task switching can make a life-or-death difference for a driver on a cell phone traveling at 30 MPH. During the time the driver is not totally focused on driving the car, it can travel far enough to crash into an obstacle that might otherwise have been avoided.

American Psychological Association, March 20, 2006

Yes, laundry and phoning = OK. Texting while driving, or a doctor looking at a computer screen while trying to talk to patient = not OK, on many levels. And, actually, even just walking down a crowded street listening to music doesn’t bode well for your ability to see and avoid other humans.