July on the Oxford Experience
It has been awhile since I last posted because of the run-up and start of the Oxford Experience summer school programme on which I teach. So far I’ve taught the courses ‘From a Blues to the Symphony’, ‘The Beatles, Popular Music and 1960s Britain’, and ‘The Romance of the Railways’, and everything seems to have gone fine so far. It was interesting to see the reaction Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘Stolen Car’ got on Day 1 of the first course. Several people were obviously quite moved by it, despite its simplicity (mostly two chords but haunting). It was released on his 1980 album The River.
The railways course is really about how they have inspired poets, writers, artists and composers. There are hundreds of railway songs, especially in the American tradition, but less familiar to my students were some of the classical pieces inspired by trains – notably Honegger’s Pacific 2-3-1 (1923), Charles Ives’ ‘The Celestial Railroad’, Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’ (1988) – something of a minimalist classic – and (a recent discovery of mine) a string quartet by the Danish composer Rued Langgaard, the second movement of which is a 2:15 evocation of a fast train ride, written for just the four strings.
I meant to blog about several rock documentaries shown on BBC4 recently. One was on The Who’s Quadrophenia album and the other on Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. Both were eminently watchable, but showed an alarming tendency to make highly uncritical claims. It is rare these days to get any contrary view on a music doc to take the heat out of the exaggerated praise. The world really didn’t change THAT much when Bowie put his arm round Mick Ronson on TOTP one June night in 1972. You would think it was the trigger for the reversal of the magnetic poles and the fall of various governments …
I’ve been listening a lot to various works by Weinberg, the Estonian composer Lepo Sumera, and the Swede Kurt Atterberg. This morning I had a blast of Nielsen’s third symphony, which I don’t know as well as no.4. The more I hear of Nielsen’s music the more I admire the positivity which much of it radiates – a fascinating contrast to another favourite of mine Jean Sibelius, whose music’s positivity is often harder won.
Speaking of Sibelius the man reminds me that for the past two weeks I have watched with horrified and avid (pun intended) attention the drama playing out over the Sibelius notation system’s future. Sibelius was sold by its originators the Finn brothers to the company Avid 15 months ago. Avid have announced that they are closing the London office of Sibelius. This apparently means the break-up of the very team whose skill and dedication have made Sibelius a world-beating notation software. It is unbelievably short-sighted. A campaign to save Sibelius has been launched. You can read about this over at the Sibelius forum. I’ve used Sibelius for 10 years now for my composing and it revolutionized my musical creativity.
And just to prove that rock music documentaries don’t have the monopoly on misleading claims, there have also been a couple of radio programmes about the alleged resurrection of Sibelius’ lost 8th symphony. All that has happened is that three tiny pieces of music – lasting about 3 minutes – have been transcribed from manuscripts in the University of Helsinki Library. They might have been intended for the 8th, but perhaps not. Again, they’re online if you google Sibelius 8.