A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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A sort of memoir


Music Remembers Me by Kirsty Beilharz

The Memory of Music by Andrew Ford

We’ve all experienced time travel. It’s called memory. Not the handy, short term stuff you need to function in every day life, as you hunt for your glasses or try to recall the name of the person walking towards you. No, I’m talking about the longer term stuff, those visceral, whole body experiences where your memories are multi-dimensional, multi-sensual — the feel of the grass beneath your feet, the scent of the madeleine. The moment you experience a different time and place with such intensity that the transformation is almost total – you really are there. Almost.

I expect we’ve also all experienced how music can be the key to the time machine. Like the way Elvis Presley singing ‘Return to sender’ still sends me rocketing back the 1970s, driving down a narrow country lane on the way to Slapton Sands, wriggly with excitement as my brother and I scan the horizon, wanting to be the first to see the sea. (I’ve remarked on it here too).

It’s serendipitous, then, that two books exploring the relationship between music and memory should land on my desk at the same time.

Kirsty Beilharz is a composer, designer, and maker. She is also Director of Music Engagement at HammondCare (Learning and Research Centre) and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Edinburgh U.K., applying music research in the context of dementia and palliative care. Her book, Music Remembers Me, is intended as a guide to understanding how music can be used in caring for patients suffering from dementia. It’s full of insights, some of them practical — the best headphones to use, playlists to get you started, how and when to use music — and some of them profound. The how-to text (which bears its scholarship lightly but is thoroughly referenced) is interspersed with vignettes of real life stories of how music can transform. Stories of patients like ‘Bob’, who repaired his shattered sleep patterns and broken appetite with structured listening; or Marion, whose beaming face on the cover shows her reliving her time as a singer and dancer through her headphones.

Kirsty’s descriptions of hands-on experiences alongside her research make a strong case for how music can be a powerful tool for improving quality of life in dementia care but it goes beyond being an anecdotal ‘how-to’. As she addresses the various applications of music in detail she also explores the condition of dementia, and the affects it has, not just on the patient, but on the carers, on family and friends, and on the broader community. She prescribes music not as a blanket of comforting noise to be thrown over a difficult environment, but as a precision instrument which can be tailored to an individual’s needs. In short, it can help people be, when the very act of being is difficult.

On the cover of Andrew Ford‘s latest book, The Memory of Musicis a picture of a naked music box, its workings exposed. But of course, it’s more than a music box. It’s actually a time machine, with which Andrew takes us on a journey beginning in Colwyn Bay, Liverpool, and zig-zagging across time and space via Bradford, London, Sydney and the Southern Highlands.

Ford calls his book a ‘sort of memoir’, but he tells his story without fanfare or self-congratulation. The story is, instead, a good excuse to construct a fond and fabulous play list of a life. 1960s Liverpool hums to the sound of the Beatles, while South London rocks to Beethoven, Boulez and Bowie. If you’re looking for a traditional biography, this is not it: Ford lets the music take him on a myriad of winding side roads and historical tangents. After all, not knowing where you’re going when you step into the time machine is half the fun.

However, as the story meanders on, in the comfortingly chatty but erudite manner much loved by listeners to The Music Showit’s anything but pointless. Yes, Ford revels in the offbeat, offtrack observation, but his observations are never random. They are spotted, collected, inspected and then pieced together to form a personal world view which is much more than just a collection of reminiscences. Ford investigates his memories, his music, how it makes him feel, how it makes others feel, like a questing bloodhound, piecing together exquisite details and fragile links with all the skill of an artist. Or a composer.

Music is, of course, his constant companion and, on the way, he tries to answer questions about how it works. What is music? What does it mean? Can it be political? Why do I compose? Where do ideas come from? What is authenticity in music? Why do I like this, but not that? He’d be the first to admit that he doesn’t know all the answers.

The Memory of Music is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. If Ford is at first a faintly reluctant subject of his own story, he has by the end revealed much of himself — his views on religion, on war, on politics, on family, to name but a few. But, more than anything, he has made a passionate case for listening with a generous and open-minded spirit. As he says, “If you’re open-minded, open-eared, open-hearted, if you have a little faith, the music may speak to you.”

Hear hear to that.


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Big Music

c7arydgw0aeouhtA fantastic Sydney Symphony concert this afternoon. Benjamin Northey conducted the band in Andrew Ford’s Headlong, followed by Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Simon Tedeschi as soloist, and Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 to finish.

You don’t hear these pieces often. The Rach is a monster to play (not that Simon Tedeschi seemed to have any problems…). The Copland is huge and complex and requires virtuoso performances from every corner of the stage. And Headlong is by an Australian composer not called Percy Grainger, which is a tough place to start. Add to that its scoring, for basically everything in the box, including celesta, harp and kitchen cabinet of percussion, and the fact that the composer, Andrew Ford, pulls no punches in terms of what he expects of the players, creating a real concerto for orchestra. The SSO more than rise to the occasion, of course, but it’s not the sort of piece you could sneak into any program on a whim.

It’s also not, in my opinion, Ford’s most successful work. Not yet, at least. In his program note he explains how it has changed since its first outing, in 2007, introducing more space and a flamboyant but intricate final bar (which instantly, and delightfully, set off my Rite of Spring sensors). There is still, however, a level of opacity to the work which doesn’t fit with my sense of Ford as a subtle and insightful arch-communicator. It feels like there’s all this stuff in the texture which wants to be heard, but isn’t.

I’d never heard Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 performed live before and it was a fascinating experience, not just for the eye-wateringly tricky solo, but also for the way that the music forms a seamless continuum with the rest of Rachmaninov’s work. The first movement begins in media res, as if picking up from where the previous concertos left off, and there are constant wisps of melody that seem vaguely familiar. Is it possible to generate the feeling of nostalgia, without the knowledge of what one is nostalgic for?

Out of the crashing waves of melodic energy the soloist emerged not as the triumphant hero but as someone very much at one with his surroundings — far more part of the orchestra, a fellow musician, than the flashy virtuoso. A heroic anti-hero, if you like. Tedeschi’s legato is astonishing (and achieved with minimal pedal, it looked like) – giving Rachmaninov’s music a diamond-cut clarity, sorting out the themes from the nutty mountain of notes.

58.102While the piano was being moved for the Rachmaninov conductor Ben Northey gave the audience a few insights into the final work, Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. This is the one that builds up to and integrates his previous work, Fanfare for the Common Man, in its blazing last movement. Northey pointed out that this passage appears at first as a passacaglia in the flutes, rather than a declamation in the brass (and you can hear the bones of the chord progression forming in the first movement too…) The point being, that this is not intended as a bombastic work, and far less a nationalist one, even though it has been dubbed the Great American Symphony. It’s stirring, it’s noble, but we needn’t conflate high ideals with a particular nation.  Hence the concert’s subtitle, Symphony for a Common Man.

Well said, Ben. And well played, SSO. Big music for big ideas, and a huge orchestra, held together by the finest of threads, all knitted together by Northey. Many soloists deserve a shout out — Ben Jacks and Rosemary Plummer in particular were outstanding — but in truth, this was the ultimate Concerto for Orchestra.


The black and white photo above is taken by Catherine Scudamore and is part of the Summer School Archive. It shows Aaron Copland (r) and Manoug Parikian (l) in front of the steps to the Great Hall at Dartington in 1968. You can see more of the archive by pledging to buy my book, Sanctuary. Do take a look!



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Voices of artists

Christmas. Carols. Joyful singing. Love it or hate it, you can’t avoid it. So I go with loving it, especially when the joyful singing is courtesy of Gondwana Choirs.

Photo credit: Ben Symons

Photo credit: Ben Symons

Last night they gave their end-of-year concert, Voices of Angels, at City Recital Hall. It was everything an end-of-year concert should be: slickly directed, ably compered, with a quirky but seasonally satisfying mix of repertoire and, most importantly, fabulous performances.

Two days before I’d had the privilege of attending a carol service at my daughter’s school. Again, fabulous performances (under the direction of a truly inspiring music master) and lumps-in-throat a-plenty. But there was a key difference. There, the singing came across as a glorious expression of community, voices raised in song bringing us all closer together. But at Voices of Angels, while it was certainly a celebration of a vibrant community, there was an added element: artistry.

Lyn Williams, the artistic director of Gondwana Choirs, has long appreciated the power of the child chorister. As she says (in a podcast interview with Andrew Leigh last month), “A children’s choir is quite a different instrument, as a violin is to a cello, and it has its own special qualities. To me the children’s choir instrument has a great purity, a great power to communicate with integrity and honesty… It also gives children the opportunity to perform at a professional level.”

A different instrument. A professional level. So their voices have an unique quality which is simply not available to adult choirs. And the senior choir is not just jolly good for their age. They’re real musicians who can hold their own against the Sydney Symphony Orchestra or Opera Australia, with whom they regularly perform.

Seeing the different levels of Sydney Children’s Choir singing in Voices of Angels laid this all out. We met the Senior Training Choirs, on either side of the stage, singing diligently but with the telltale drift of eyes, the restless wriggle of the under-tens. There were the Junior Performing Choirs, a fiercely attentive army of choristers singing independent parts with confidence. Then there were the members of the Senior Performing Choirs, the Young Men’s Choir and the Gondwana National Choirs, all on stage, all singing with a steely sense of focus, the music they wanted the audience to hear almost written across their faces. I looked at pretty much every face over the course of the evening. They were all so individual in the way that they were experiencing and communicating the music. So individual in their expression, yet blending into a seamless sonic whole. Finally, there were creators, the artists who dreamt up the tunes the choirs sang, and these included Samuel Feitelberg, a member of the Young Men’s Choir, whose impressive composition The Stars Around the Lovely Moon had its world premiere.

From fidgeting, to focus, to having something to say, to saying it.

I’m not going to break down the evening into works but I have to mention Lyn Williams’ eerie A Flock of Stars, Owen Elsley’s lively arrangements of ‘We Three Kings’ and ‘I Saw Three Ships’, and a tantalising whisper of a new commission from Andy Ford, a choral opera based on Peter Pan. And Sally Whitwell’s luscious ‘Lux Aeterna’, and Joseph Twist’s ‘Jubilate Deo’ and the magical beginning with Eriks Esenvalds Stars, complete with glass harmonics and penlights. And… And… All so good.

There’s no rest for the wicked, nor yet for Gondwana Choirs after tonight’s final performance. A quick Christmas break and then it’s on, on towards a grand choral jamboree at the end of January, their first Festival of Summer Voices. I won’t be able to go – my family break – but I hope can, because this is not just an expression of community nor yet a chance to see happy smiling faces on cute kids. It’s something very special. This is art.

Thank you to Gondwana Choirs for inviting me to Voices of Angels. If you like what I write here on this blog, do please check out my book, Sanctuary, which is crowd-funding now at unbound.com/books/sanctuary. I’d love your support, either financially or by sharing the news of my book on your favourite networks, social, media or other. Merry Christmas!




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Sydney Phil: the other side of the story

The previous post tells the official story. If it’s a bit dry, apologies. I was rattled, and up against a deadline, so I thumped out the review.

Why was I rattled?

Because of the abominable behaviour of the person I was sitting next to.

St Mary’s was packed out for the concert. In fact, half an hour before it began there was a queue stretching back from the door for about 500m (snaking past the pop-up Masterchef restaurant, which had no queue at all…) Mass ran late, so we had to wait. No worries.

I was seated in a pew up close to the action, alongside some other musos. Shortly before the concert was to begin, when the choir were already on stage, a distinguished looking gentleman arrived and sat down next to me. He huffed and shuffled and turned around to greet people, and with each greeting he added a comment. “Awful piece, this one coming up. Might as well go and get a coffee.”

He was referring, of course, to Andrew Ford’s new piece, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’. 7 minutes of new music. Yikes.

Sadly, he didn’t take his own advice about the coffee, but instead sat down to endure. He did not suffer in silence. Several crunchy chords had him muttering ‘disgusting’, and shaking his head in pseudo disbelief. Then mid work he got up to take his coat off in the nave and slumped back into his seat. After the work finished he continued his commentary, turning to me to drag me into agreement. The only thing that shut him up was the start of the Rachmaninov.

I then spent the rest of the concert trying to think of smart rejoinders and / or respectful responses. What do you say? For a start, it’s common courtesy to listen and not stuff up someone else’s concert experience. But if you really are offended by a work (a pretty inoffensive work but, hey, it’s a free country) what should you do?

Over the years I’ve been variously annoyed / alarmed / bored / irritated / impressed / bowled over by new works. I’ve never yet felt moved to interrupt the performance. Maybe I’m just too polite.

Anyway, that’s why I didn’t particularly enjoy the Sydney Phil concert last Saturday.