The Great Composer: A Tale of Two Concerts

A tin ear, an iron lung, it’s not easy being me. When I venture out to hear music being performed, I send a scout ahead of time to survey the venue and check the acoustics, lest a poorly modulated sound wave wreak havoc with my innards.

This year I’ve attended two orchestral concerts; the John Barry Memorial Concert that coated the crimson interior of the Royal Albert Hall with a melodic lacquer, and the Barbican’s presentation of Brian Ferneyhough, that didn’t. I’ll now compare and contrast these two events for your reading pleasure, answering a question you didn’t know you’d asked.

The John Barry Concert was a grand affair. That these memorial occasions exist at all is something of a curio. The one performer you’d wish to be there never can be. Invited speakers and your conscience tell you that you’re there to celebrate a dead man’s work, mark his achievements, but actually you just want to insert yourself into their story, if only as an inconsequential postscript. Thereafter rights revert back to the world.

Despite Barry’s absence, though his face glared at the audience from a screen mounted above the muse-ishuns like the Melody Minister in Big Brother’s cabinet, it was a memorable occasion that succeeded in showcasing the composer’s complimentary oeuvre and really succeeded in teasing out the wonderful tensions that are brought to bear on what are, by tradition, highly regimented events.

The questions that give organisers the most headaches are ‘what’s appropriate when celebrating the work of the recently deceased while we’re still flush with the glow of nostalgia and what tone to strike?’ It’s not enough to do what Barry would have wanted – maybe an evening of Jazz by the pool with a free bar; no, there’s a paying audience out there and they come with expectations that must be satisfied. This, I believe, is why every artist, whatever their stripe, should make time to leave a commemorative will at the first sign of ill health. Else you invite the myth makers to take the reins and the pressure on performers to honour that fiction can be unbearable.

This was much in evidence at the Barry concert. Admirers like myself (I resist calling myself a fan, I don’t have a original John Barry Seven record on vinyl or a t-shirt with his scowling face adorning the space between my nipples) were resoundingly satisfied by the sweep of the selections – Bond by way of Midnight Cowboy, Zulu, Out of Africa and, in a nice touch, one of Barry’s last songs performed acoustically, and improbably, by his professional impersonator, David Arnold. Who knew the Independence Day composer could hold a tune?

If you loved Barry’s sound – those soaring strings, that gaggle of French horn, the blistering trombone at the back and a parade of trumpets, then you couldn’t fail to be moved by the Royal Philharmonic’s rendition. Barry’s widow called it ‘perfection’ and I don’t think anyone in the hall would have argued. We weren’t permitted to speak you see.

More interesting to anyone not bewitched by the bittersweet atmosphere, was the tension that existed between memory and reality, myth and man. First up, the Louis Armstrong question; contrary to the sentiments expressed so vividly, time had in fact run out for the jazz singer, some 40 years previously. Armstrong had been one of Barry’s favourite artists, handpicked to sing We have all the time in the world. No pressure then, on the poor fuck chosen to fill in for the evening’s reprise. This is a particularly problematic song to perform because the vocal (it’s amazing the terminology you pick up from X-Factor isn’t it?) is as iconic as the melody. It’s a song no one else can reproduce, in the same way that Shatner’s Rocket Man stands alone.

Wisely, a decision was taken to choose the antithesis of Armstrong, to derail the comparison express; this despite an audience hostile to the slaughter to sacred cows. The singer chosen was Rumur, whose old school, some would say derivative sound, might have convinced the organisers that they could have it all; youth and reassurance – Radio 2 with curves.

The problems began the moment Rumur, not to be confused with a rumour, which is an unverified account or explanation of events circulating from person to person and pertaining to an object, event, or issue in public concern, opened her trap. Off key and shaky, she tried a novel technique whereby her left arm was used to supplement Nicholas Dodd’s conducting; an unusual attempt to bring the orchestra in line with her notes rather than the tried and tested converse.

When that didn’t work she just kept going. It’s not that her voice was poor, it wasn’t, but it was too small for such a large venue and was never going to reach Armstrong’s heavenly ear drums. That might have been enough to stifle her ambition but she then made the only performative clanger of the night by coming in too early and singing a line during an instrumental break.

This struck me and I think everyone else in the hall, as odd. Barry’s ditty doesn’t exactly move at breakneck speed. It’s hard to jump in too soon. Oh, and doesn’t everyone with a passing interest in Barry know it by rote? Everyone in the hall knew when that cue was, everyone in the orchestra did – it’s a side effect of knowing the song, having heard it 36,000 times over four decades. Only Rumur it seems, the singer selected to perform it live, didn’t know she was several beats away from her contribution. Was she nervous? Impatient? I don’t know but the next time John Barry dies she’s unlikely to get a call.

Other slips were harder to anticipate but no less discombobulating. Michael Caine, hard at work on the latest Bat-flick and so unable to be there, though he might have made the effort for his lifelong friend, was at first a mite defensive about his absence, ‘I have to work, it’s what I do’ and then absent minded when describing the moment he first heard the melody for Goldfinger, a tune that Barry made the finishing touches to on the piano while a lodging Caine tried to sleep upstairs. ‘Do you know,’ he said, well okay he didn’t start like that but he should have done, ‘that I was the first person in the world to hear Goldfinger’. Well, no one liked to say ‘but surely the first person was John Barry, Michael?’ It wasn’t worth starting an argument.

Another pre-recorded speaker, Richard Attenborough, inadvertently sprang a trap for the organisers which they walked into like the proverbial somnambulist. Dickie, discussing Barry’s score for Chaplin, suggested that the composer’s strength was that he was never simply content to riff off his previous work. ‘He always strives to create something new’ he gushed. Well, some would argue that Barry’s appeal lies in the, er, intertextual nature of his work, but the piece chosen to follow Attenborough’s spiel felt like a joke at the composer’s expense. The beautiful suite from Out of Africa filled the hall – a lovely piece of music, which it so happens was also a cribbing of several cues from Barry’s own Raise the Titanic.

Understandably, having created one of his best scores, the late tunesmith was peeved when the movie bombed and no one got to hear it. His solution was to re-use portions, turning it into an Oscar winner, possibly the first bona fide Oscar for best self-plagiarism. Did anyone responsible for the running order know this? I knew it. Many in the hall would have known it. Now you know it. If you decide to run your own John Barry memorial evening beware the same trap.

Still, mistakes happen, running orders change, rights clearances aren’t always granted, but one thing you have complete control over, at least in theory, are booked speakers. For the most part they were warm and sincere. Michael Parkinson recalled meeting Barry during his days at Granada television. Finally, we were getting a eulogy for the lost world of regional broadcasting, a mere 20 years after deregulation began the slow crawl toward merger and mediocrity.  George Martin addressed the hall like a favourite Uncle and Don Black, the lyricist and gender traitor that penned the words to Diamonds Are Forever, had some dull but good natured anecdotes. In short, nothing could have prepared us for what was to come. His name was Timothy Dalton.

Dalton was to read a blessing, in keeping with the strange mesh of commemoration and celebration that characterised the evening, and I, like many I imagine, expected a sober and perhaps emotional address. Dalton, however, came not as a mourner but as an actor.

What struck me almost immediately was that Dalton didn’t know Barry very well. My suspicions were aroused by the actor’s decision to ham it up in front of a capacity crowd. With Black, the words were salted with tears, with Dalton it was pure theatre. His preamble, ‘the man I knew…’, entered into without so much as a good evening, was imported from the stage and his three minute oratory followed the same course.

It was a ridiculous spectacle, self-conscious and melodramatic, complete with pregnant pauses, narrowed eyes, a controlled, penetrative delivery and oodles of high drama. This was a man delivering a reading less like John Hannah in Four Weddings and a Funeral and more like Olivier doing Henry V. It wasn’t the reading itself per se, by any yardstick he read the poem out with vigour and vitality as only a RADA trained thespian can, rather the total absence of any sincere or unguarded emotion. Dalton’s good sense was edged out by his ego. He was due to speak at my funeral but has now been cancelled.

A strange evening then, in which only the dead composer met expectations. Shirley Bassey, who performed two songs (she never warmed to Moonraker), had none of the subtlety that characterised the classic recordings. She belted out both songs with undeniable power but the “forreevvoouuurrrrrr” on Diamonds are Forever, reminded me of my own karaoke version. This was Bassey doing Bassey.

There were two sound technician gaffes in which feedback pings nearly deafened the audience, and as ever, I was sandwiched between the only people in the auditorium who couldn’t sit still and keep quiet – a pair of giggling adolescents to my left and a woman, too thrift to buy a programme, who instead scrawled each performer’s name down with her scratchy, half-blunt pencil to my right – a pencil she was lucky not to see weaponised.

Ferneyhough’s wall of sound

John Barry’s music was traditional in the sense that it was modeled on the classical composers he admired. He wanted to engage the emotions, lift the spirits, if there’s any such thing to lift. A very different philosophy was apparent when I went to see Brian Ferneyhough at the Barbican back in February.

Interest was aroused when I heard his music being described on The Today Programme. The report is here. Allegedly it was “the hardest music ever written”, hard to play and hard to listen to.

Those that accused Ferneyhough, an English composer, of being willfully obscure, or only interested in arousing his own emotions, were missing the point. The man existed to challenge our preconceptions about what music was. By taking the constituent parts of a melody and liberating them from their obligations to the other notes, he was abolishing sonic slavery, inviting you to enjoy the beauty in chaos. When I heard a sample of his work, which to my untrained ear sounded the musical bleating of a garrulous drunk, I knew I had to hear the whole piece, so duly booked tickets.

Wikipedia describes his style thus:

“He’s closely associated with the so-called New Complexity school of composition (indeed, he is often referred to as the “Father of New Complexity”), characterized by its extension of the modernist tendency towards formalization (particularly as in integral serialism). Ferneyhough’s actual compositional approach, however, rejects serialism and other “generative” methods of composing; he prefers instead to use systems only to create material and formal constraints, while their realisation appears to be more spontaneous. A recurring feature of his works is the use of rhythmic tuplet notation, and layered polyrhythms. Unlike many more formally-inclined composers, Ferneyhough often speaks of his music as being about creating energy and excitement rather than embodying an abstract schema. His pieces rarely use 12-note rows, but do include microtones and frequent use of glissando.”

Got that? Now, I’m a bit of a bore, so I tend to like an abstract schema, it gives my ears something to tune into. But what did the Barbican crowd expect? Were they, like me, there because they wanted to say they’d gone, or did they have NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL NEW COMPLEXITY! 35 on their iTunes and were here to see their JLS?

Anyone who’s sat in a Barbican audience will know that it’s extremely difficult to work out whether they’re taking the piss or actually believe themselves to be connoisseurs of the arts. There are the beards, the middle-aged women with beaded necklaces and the boyfriends trying to impress a new girlfriend with a page from their cultural portfolio, both pretending to enjoy themselves, with him thinking  about the sex that will follow and her hoping that The Only Way is Essex recorded properly, because it didn’t last week.

Finally, there are the parents desperate to broaden their kids’ horizons before it’s too late, though the tadpole’s fidgeting suggests it is. Oh, and there are people like me, the take a chance brigade, who’ve noted that the concert will be recorded by BBC Radio 3 and wonder if they can get a random “fuck” past a sleeping sound technician.

I suppose I became nervous when the sheet music was carried in, as big proportionately, as an open copy of The Telegraph to a four year old. Then, the conductor, who looked sheepish, as though he were about to perform a live abortion, attempted to ease us into it by allowing different parts of the orchestra to play their sections in isolation. This, I think, was designed to orientate us and give our ears a fighting chance of picking out different notes amidst the cacophony, but once the music began it was obvious that Ferneyhough had designed this preamble as a tease.

His full orchestral pieces, some of which employed choristers in thankless roles, were musical approximations of sitting in a hall listening to five hundred people talking at once. You were being asked to hone in on and enjoy Adrian and Amy’s conversation and the way it complemented that of Trevor and Nell, but how to hear them in this din?

Sitting there, listening to each note smash into another and getting cut by the shards, the thought occurred that contrary to the hype, this was in fact the easiest music ever written. It was impossible to fluff. Sure, the orchestra looked stressed, as though each and every one of them had a bomb taped to their instrument, with the remote detonator wired into a patch attached to Ferneyhough’s forehead and triggered by a frown, but in reality if one of them hit the wrong note, who’d know?

Sure, Ferneyhough might have written the piece but he, like us, was only human and as such had ears that could only differentiate between a certain number of frequencies. This jumble of sound could offend no one. The tragedy is that it couldn’t move anyone either.

That, my friends, was the curious tale of two concerts. At Barry’s the music essentially made the contributors, and the audience, an irrelevance. Had the guests sat and listened as we did, without feeling the need to emote, no one would have felt deprived. I understood why the crowd got to its feet when Barry’s son took to the pulpit to thank us for coming and give a ceremonial wave but the larger part of me thought he had nothing whatsoever to do with his Father’s achievements and should take a seat.

Contrast with Ferneyhough, very much alive, whose music and presence was nigh on irrelevant to the success or failure of the evening. On that occasion it was the crowd and their willingness to indulge the composer and play their part that made it work. ‘John Barry’s work will be played as long as people love a great melody’ said Michael Parkinson. Well, if the day came that they didn’t, at least I’d have a recommendation.

The John Barry Memorial Concert took place at The Royal Albert Hall on June 20th.

Brian Ferneyhough’s Total Immersion played at The Barbican on February 26th. No one was hurt.

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