My summer school teaching is looming, so I will soon be engaged with preparing some new material, including the music of Sibelius and Nielsen. At present, I’m teaching the music of Brahms, and exploring the British music scene in the early C20th as a way in to the art song of Peter Warlock (1894-1930). And I have just completed the fifth month of my symphony-a-day ‘symphathon’.
My research time this year has been taken up researching the earlier music career of Marc Bolan and that has been very interesting. I have a pretty clear idea of the themes nd the scope of the book. Exploring some of the musical equipment used in the late 1960s has been fun too. A new double CD Best of T Rex called For All The Cats has just appeared and I can recommend it to anyone not familiar with T Rex. The first two-thirds of the second CD in particular captures the enchantment of his earlier songs.
Creatively, I’m stockpiling song ideas for an album. Not sure when I’ll get a chance to record it.
I’ve just finished reading a book called The New Shostakovich by Ian MacDonald, first published in the late 80s and since revised and reissued. MacDonald is well-known as the author of one of the best books on The Beatles Revolution in the Head. The book is a harrowing account of the terrible conditions under which Shostakovich composed his 15 symphonies. It raises many interesting points about music and meaning, and music and irony / satire. I was struck by this passage: ‘By reserving the right to project our private meanings on his music, we distance ourselves from the very life impacts that Shostakovich, far from seeking to evade, met head-on and made the subject of his work. To the extent that we turn art into whatever we want it to mean, we forfeit the chance of being changed by it.’ MacDonald then quotes someone saying of the effect of the Eleventh Symphony: ‘The poetics of shock. For the first time in my life, I left a concert thinking about others instead of myself.’
I’ve recently had on loan a copy of the new book on the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake. It’s called Nick Drake Remembered For A While, and it is one of the loveliest books I’ve ever seen dedicated to a musician.
Almost 450 pages, it is compiled by Cally Callomon and Nick’s sister Gabrielle Drake. It includes contributions from a number of writers, including people who knew Nick Drake or worked with him. There is some excellent commentary on his songs (including tips for guitarists about Nick’s altered tunings). Several famous essays are reprinted, such as Ian MacDonald’s ‘Exiled From Heaven’. Most remarkable are the lengthy extracts from Rodney Drake’s diary for the years 1971-74 charting he and Molly Drake’s struggles to help and understand their son during his long mental illness. These rivetting and disturbing extracts should do much to prevent people romanticising the more troubled aspects of Nick’s life.
There are many unpublished photographs, reproduced clippings from the music press, and other illustrations. The design and graphics are marvellous. It is a beautiful monument both to Nick’s music and to his tragic life, and contains much material for long reflection on memory, time and change.
Nick Drake Remembered For A While is published in hardback by John Murray. If you have never heard Nick Drake I would seek out his first album Five Leaves Left or go straight to the song ‘River Man’.
My ‘symphathon’ continues (more on that at the end of the month) assisted in the past week by the wonderful Sibelius performances by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil in London (Symphonies 5, 6 and 7 were screened on British TV’s BBC4). I’ve made a little progress with my book on the symphony.
I’m currently waiting to hear the new remastered Led Zeppelin album Physical Grafitti and its companion audio disc. I have an extended piece of writing about their 1975 Earl’s Court concerts appearing in the next issue of Dave Lewis’ magazine Tight But Loose.
A final thought, a definition: music is pure meaning without an apparent referent.