‘Shaddap You Face…’

Displaying 300 dpi.jpgMy latest piece for Musical Opinion Quarterly has been out for a fortnight now — and, as usual, there’s been a bit of feedback from folks who’ve pondered what I wrote and found that it’s left them with thoughts or questions. Since I’m always delighted when readers get in touch (yes, even people who want to give me a hard time over something!), I thought I’d mention one or two of the messages here — and use the resources of the internet to respond in a way that’s fully substantiated.

If you saw the piece (and the April-June issue of MOQ is still on sale, if you didn’t!), you’ll know that part of it was concerned with discussion of what I consider some truly disastrous examples of TV ‘music presentation’ — a couple of which I actually wrote out in full, and both of which I denounced as markedly less helpful than simply broadcasting the music with no spoken introduction at all.

Since a couple of people have got in touch to ask me for details of the programmes and performances I was referring to, I think it makes sense to share them on here — not least because it so happens that both films are currently to be found on YouTube and can very easily be coded up so as to make precisely the points I wanted to put across in my article.

The first of the performances which I suggested would have been far better served by being broadcast without its spoken introduction was this one — which you can now hear with the introduction surgically removed:

As for the imbecilic and unhelpful spoken introduction itself, let me now present it on its own, as an extract, accompanied by the verbatim transcript that I put in my article.

Here’s the spoken introduction on its own:

And here is my transcript, for everyone who doesn’t quite believe what their ears are telling them, and needs to see it all written down in order to be sure:

C major is very, very difficult to describe, this, and, er, in my music it’s written, just for me, ‘No Comment’, and it’s just blank. And why? Er, because C major is, er, only white keys, yeah? [Overlaid recording presents extract whose second-highest pitch is an F-sharp] It’s very, technically, very difficult, to sustain, you know, er, very even playing, because playing only on white keys is, it’s bad: there’s no, I mean, nothing to play with, no black keys, very uncomfortable. The piece is very white! That’s what I can say! It’s just . . . white! [Pianist flaps hands in the manner of little wings] Could be angel-like, if you wish. Could be not. But it’s white.

Now let’s move on to the second of the two films. Once again, I’m presenting a coded version that plays without the spoken introduction — allowing us to hear the piece as nature and Bach intended:

And, once again, I’m presenting the imbecilic and unhelpful introduction separately, along with my transcript.

Here’s the spoken version:

And here, just as before, is my scarcely more believable transcript. (As I explained in my article, I’ve annotated this so as to show not just “wrong statements and trendy trash”, but also to highlight “the tiny alarm bell that rings in the head of every competent music educator when he or she encounters something guaranteed to prove meaningless or misleading to [those] who haven’t been taught any musical terminology or theory”.) Here is the rubbish written out in full:

The A major Prelude sounds like a piece of jazz, almost. [No, it doesn’t] Because it’s got a chromatic line [Ding!] underneath it, well, it’s in three-part [Ding!] counterpoint [Ding!], which means that every time, you can play it in any way you like [Ding!], you can put any of these lines in any way [Ding!], and that’s what Bach does all through this prelude: he just keeps swapping the lines round [Ding!]. But if you listen out for this descending chromatic bass [Ding!], it’s the kind of thing you’d expect in a jazz trio [No, it isn’t], that you’d expect the bass player to be able to play this. And there’s a really lovely, uh, melodic riff above it. And then it goes on to a rather, a rather, um, obscure fugue [Ding!]. Because it starts with a single note, and then there’s a gap, and then it carries on, mounting. And then half way through the fugue there are semiquavers [Ding!] that come from nowhere. They just start, and then these semiquavers [Ding!] start. So it’s very unusual.

As you’ll know if you read my article, I didn’t make a big deal about who the performers were — in fact, I didn’t name them at all. For one thing, picking on these two performers wasn’t any part of my point: these individuals aren’t the only people producing garbage like this, and I’ve no reason at all to think that they are the worst offenders either. The people who got in touch with me, however, were very curious about who the performers were — including a dear friend of mine who sounded pretty astonished when I told him that the awful second extract came to us courtesy of Joanna MacGregor. “But … but … she has a reputation as a gifted communicator!”, he said over the phone.

Maybe she does; maybe she doesn’t; I honestly wouldn’t know. But if there’s one thing I do know about our corrupted and collapsing culture, it is that the world is absolutely awash in ‘reputations’ that lack even the slightest realistic justification.

It’s a situation that I have elsewhere characterised as ‘Insider Takes All’: once someone has achieved ‘insider’ status — perhaps (but not necessarily!) on the basis of a genuine skill or achievement — they then become ‘marketable’ as practitioners and exponents in a whole variety of other activities, quite irrespective of their actual abilities in those directions. And, as we see every day — if we’re awake! — an insider can fail at any and all of those other activities with complete impunity: nothing they do, however pitifully inadequate, will ever be diagnosed as the disaster it actually is — except by someone like me, entirely lacking in all the required social and professional graces.

These recordings, for example, have been in circulation — broadcast, sold, re-sold, re-packaged and  pirated, on TV, DVD and online — for very nearly 15 years … and no-one — absolutely no-one — has called out their damaging stupidity until now. Thus it is that an anointed, untouchable elite rides the money-go-round, decade after decade — while the actual job goes on not getting done…


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