Desert Island Artists – Concluding Part

prince puppet

And now the final part of this extremely lengthy blog post, and straight in with¬†perhaps my top 2 choices.¬† And 2 more different artists listed side by side it’s hard to imagine…or is it…?

C.8 Benjamin Britten born Lowestoft, Suffolk, UK (1913 – 1976)

I read somewhere that it’s possible to tell where a composer is from when you listen to music they have composed representing storms.¬† So when a composer such as Verdi, in his opera Otello, or Strauss in his Alpine Symphony represent stormy weather it’s full of lots of dramatic Hammer Horror style musical¬†lightening cracks¬†and sudden onslaughts of doomy wind and rain.¬† This is totally in keeping with the sudden, steamy, thundery¬†tempests that hit central and southern Europe in the summer months.¬† Storms in Britain aren’t dramatic and short.¬† They’re endless cold, damp, dark affairs that roll on for hours during the bleakest months of the year.¬† Britten is another of those composers whose music is steeped in the land of his birth and upbringing – in this case the austere cold beauty of the Suffolk coast.

I feel a real kinship with the music of Britten.¬† I’m not sure why. Is it an East¬†Coast thing ( I was born and grew up in Edinburgh, and have relatives who live or lived in Fife, Aberdeenshire, Lincolnshire and Norfolk).¬† There is an east coast sensibility in Britain.¬† We are more reserved, more emotionally buttoned up than our more ebullient west coast counterparts.¬† (I like to think with a simmering passion and fierce intelligence just under the surface though) And Britten’s music and (often extremely controversial) subject matter evoke this in spades.

Much of Britten’s music is not on the surface beautiful or emotional, but it speaks to many people like no other.¬† Even the works I don’t particularly like, I love. Does that make sense?¬† And then there’s Britten the man – possibly the great composer that has had more written about him, and which we have more first hand information on, than any other.¬† A man at the heart of the establishment, yet also (much of it, admittedly,¬†self inflicted) the perpetual outsider.¬† But then, isn’t that how we all see ourselves?

Don’t we?


C8. Prince, born Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA (1958 – )

I think it was Oscar Wilde who once said “when one¬†is tired¬†of Prince, he is tired of life”.¬† Okay, so it was Samuel Johnson talking about London, but Julia Roberts said something very similar in “Pretty Woman” and of course, she is absolutely right.

When I discovered Prince in my early teens I can honestly say it was a life changer. I don’t think I had fully understood the power of pop music up until this point but once I’d been introduced to a few of his albums (for the record, Purple Rain, Sign o the Times and Lovesexy) everything kind of slotted into place.¬† The songs, the musicianship, the look (what a relief to discover you could be skinny, a little bit odd and a sex symbol – just like me at the time¬†– skinny and odd that is, not a sex symbol).¬† And a mystique surrounded him too.¬† He had alter egos.¬† He never gave interviews.¬† Despite being a huge musical presence he seemed to be perpetually outwith the mainstream – an outsider (ah- just like Benjamin Britten!)¬† and with subject matter just edgy and x-rated enough to excite and intrigue this teenage mind.¬† Not surprising that I became mildly obsessed, searching out every recording, any video clip or piece of writing I could find on him.

Today, Prince is still a bit of a mystery, but he does seem to be settling quite nicely¬†into (and apparently enjoying) being the elder statesman of pop – appearing at awards ceremonies, doing interviews etc.¬† But the power of his music , and particularly his flawless live performances continues.¬†Now, I’m the first to admit, not everything he releases is top notch (but even a mediocre Prince album is a damn sight more fun to listen to than most other artists), but there’s so much material to choose from!¬† You don’t like the song he’s just released – don’t worry – there’ll be another one along in a minute.¬† And the performances are always spot on.¬† There are loads on YouTube (if that had been around when I was a teenager I doubt I’d have gone out).¬† Here’s one I found the other day – no one’s favourite Prince song, from one of his more obscure albums – but it still knocks spots off anything else out there.

I’ll never tire of Prince.



Oh – and here’s another one…how many saxophones?!


C.9 Ralph Vaughan Williams, born Gloucestershire, UK (1872 – 1958)

The legendary American conductor and composer had this to say about English music:

“Too much organ voluntary in Lincoln Cathedral, too much Coronation in Westminster Abbey, too much lark ascending, too much clod-hopping on the fucking village green”.

I actually find the above quote extremely funny it but with all due respect to Lennie, what’s wrong with a bit of heritage music? VW was an avid collector of the¬†folk songs that surrounded him¬†and he wove them into his own works.¬† Isn’t that exactly what Bartok was doing in Hungary or Copland in the US – too many barn dances and eating beans by the sodding camp fire?!

I’ve mentioned this before, but I reckon Vaughan Williams is both simultaneously over- and under-rated.¬† Yes, wallow in¬†his English country garden music and depictions¬†of old London town.¬† But don’t be deceived by that tweedy old farmer look he perfected.¬† This is a man who was writing movie scores, concertos and ambitiously scored symphonies right into his 80s, like this snippet below.¬†¬†Time for a¬†reassessment.


P.9 Miles Davis, born Illinois, USA (1926 – 1991)

I’ll be honest here.¬† I¬†may have¬†broken one of ¬†my own rules here.¬† The list should be of artists that you want on there, rather than artists that you feel you ought to have on there based on trends or received opinion etc.¬† I was determined to have a jazz artist on the list.¬† I find it an intriguing and involving form of music.¬† The training and thought processes that go into creating it are very different to that of Classical forms and I’m often frustrated that I haven’t had a formal training with regards to attempting to perform it myself.

Because so much jazz is created and performed “in the moment” it almost seems perverse to pick a performer based on their recordings as so much of what makes it unique is down to an individual performance.¬† And like pop, rock and classical forms of music, there are also a wide variety of styles and traditions to choose from – bebop, hardbop, smooth, fusion, latin etc.¬† Only one performer/composer really¬†encompasses it all – and that is Miles Davis.¬† It’s hard to put into words what a¬†huge shadow he casts over almost all of jazz through his long career – the different styles he performed and created, the huge numbers of performers he collaborated with.¬† So whilst there’s a lot of Miles’ music I don’t really love (and a load of other jazz performers stuff I probably do love – Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus) for the sheer volume, eclecticism and yes, in this case, textbook importance, there is really only one choice.


C.10 Stephen Sondheim, born New York, USA (1930 Р)

A¬†night out watching a musical is still pretty much the most fun you can have with your clothes on without a drink in your hand.¬† It is the case, however, that once you get beyond the so-called golden era of Broadway (Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser etc) most of what has been written since, wonderful shows though they are, musically tend to fall into the realm of pastiche.¬† The exception to this rule is, of course, the legendary Stephen Sondheim.¬† No one more than him has moved the medium of Musical Theatre (different from plays, different from opera, different from revue) forward into the realms of high artistry.¬† Sondheim has a major advantage over many of his theatre composer colleagues in that he is a (possibly the finest ever) lyricist/composer so he has complete control over every element of the song, what story it’s trying to tell, where it fits in with the theatre of the piece.¬† Read his two books where he discusses in microscopic detail every lyric he has written, his word choices, what works – and doesn’t –¬†and why.¬† The thoughtfulness of his approach and understanding of the craft and the art is frankly terrifying.¬†Much of the reason for me writing this blog is me trying to get my head round and sometimes clumsily articulate the differences and similarities between the art and the craft of music making.¬† For want of a clich√©, inspiration versus perspiration.¬† Sondheim exemplifies this – total commitment to his craft results in phenomenal pieces of art.

Amusingly, Sondheim does tend to attract the most zealous fans and disciples.¬† Some even attempt to write songs and shows just like he does.¬† Only instead of following his adage of “content dictates form, less is more and god is in the details” – they succeed in copying the tics and idiosyncrasies of Sondheim’s style – thus creating their own Sondheim pastiches.¬† Which is ironic, don’t you think?


P. 10 Randy Newman, born Los Angeles, USA (1943 Р)

Most people will know of Randy Newman from his film score writing, particularly those songs that make you tear up every time you watch Toy Story.¬† But before that he was one of the world’s most commercially unsuccessful pop stars.¬† This is mainly due to the subject matter of his songs.¬† Like Kate Bush and the opera and theatre composers on this list, Newman writes songs where the singer takes on a persona. In Newman’s case, the singer’s of his songs are¬†real villians¬†– racists, rednecks, a slavetrader,¬†a US president who’s determined to use the atomic bomb, a god who is completely disinterested in his creation and the carnage caused by his fanatical followers.¬† His only hit, a song called “Short People”, a metaphor on¬†how pointless prejudice and racism is, caused such upset that there was no chance of a hit follow up.¬†Just goes to show that the majority of people are too stupid to understand even the simplest of satirical ideas..

And wonderfully incongruously, the sordid subject matter of these songs are all wrapped up in the prettiest of melodies and most sentimental of arrangements.  Even more incongruous is that these beautiful melodies are sung by Randy himself who has, it is universally acknowledged, a distinctively terrible singing voice.

He’s Awesome.



And there we have it Рthe end of my epic quest to pick the 10 classical and 10 pop/rock artists, that would be my choices if all other music was taken away.  I may come back to this post and let you know the also-rans when I have a moment to think about them.

Have I learned anything profound about myself with regards to my choices? Probably not. I think my interest in theatre has certainly pushed me in the direction of music with a strong story narrative.¬†I’m reminded of another Bernstein quote where he would ask an audience the question “What is Debussy’s La Mer, about?” Audience answer: “The sea”.¬† Lennie’s reply “No! It’s about the whole tone scale!”¬† But it is about the sea – and once¬†again the whole¬†craft¬†of music informing¬†the artistic goal is there for us to witness.

I was surprised at how much, in the pop list, lyric writing played an important part in the choices. Given what I’ve just written above I probably shouldn’t be. I was less surprised by how much spectacular arrangements and orchestrations informed both lists.¬† As a trombonist I tend to spend my life in reserve for those spectacular moments.

Perhaps the thing that has surprised me most stemmed from my initially rather flippant decision to list my choices in a sort of ¬†geographical order.¬† It really highlighted how much I, possibly romantically, link different music with different countries and cultures.¬† This is particularly true of the great Classical music tradition within Europe – the icy landscapes of Sibelius’ Finland, the fiery heart on the sleeve temperament of Puccini’s Italy and the complex games of class and manners¬†played out in Britten’s Britain.

Likewise, for me, the pop/rock tradition is inextricably linked with that of the USA.¬† 8 of my 10 choices hail from that great country and the artists I’ve chosen evoke to me the length and breadth of a land I love to visit.¬†¬†The¬†Californian suburbs¬†that Steely Dan and Randy Newman evoke,¬†Sinatra’s Chicago¬†gangster clubs, the sophisticated Manhattan world of Sondheim and Miles Davis, through to the hippie festival craziness of the George Clinton family of musicians.

So there you go – my choices and my reasons.¬† One thing’s for sure, everyone¬†else will have a completely different list – and there’s a hell of a lot of¬†music out there to choose from…



Desert Island Artists – Part 2

mahler hammer Picture credit -

Here’s what you’ve missed so far:

The rules of the game.

Posts on Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, Sibelius, Kate Bush, Amy Winehouse and Steely Dan.

For more info check out the previous post – Desert Island Artists – Part 1.

Cracking on and Classical post number 4….


C4. Gustav Mahler – born Kalischt, Bohemia (then Austrian Empire) (1860 – 1911)

Mahler is another composer who seems to write mini operas (or possibly feature films).¬† He calls them symphonies and there’s no¬†indication¬†as to ¬†what the plots are, but by the sounds of things his hero¬†is repeatedly¬†put through the¬†emotional and physical¬†ringer before the inevitable happy or tragic ending.

Amateur orchestras love playing Mahler’s music.¬† It tends to be at the limit of their technical ability but more often than not they rise to the challenge of a credible performance through sheer chutzpah, a devil may care fearlessness that adds to the drama, unlike the earlier classical repertoire whose transparency of form can often be let down by anything less than 100% perfect technique.

Mahler is also one of those composers for whom the mythology of what he said and did has served to surround him and his music with a wonderful mystique – in particular the notorious hammer blows of the 6th Symphony.¬† Famously Mahler cut the number of blows from 3 to 2 before the first performance, concerned that¬†the¬†3rd¬†strike delivered the killer blow to the work’s¬†hero – a figure he saw as himself.¬† The musicologists¬†have since had many a field day, because these hammer blows have since been seen to represent and foreshadow¬†later tragic events in Mahler’s own life – Mahler’s own prophesy seemingly having been fulfilled.

Bollocks I know, but amusingly I have been able to assign the hammer blows of fate to positive events in my own life.  Mahler 6 was the piece, when I was very young (probably 6) that instilled in me a love of orchestral music, when I sat in on a number of rehearsals as my dad performed the piece with the Scottish Sinfonia.  Many years later, it was whilst performing the same piece (also with the Scottish Sinfonia Рeek!) that I met, playing in the violins, the lady who was to become my wife!

Who knows when the hammer will strike again….


P4. Frank Sinatra – born Hoboken, New Jersey, USA (1915-1998)

Sinatra almost didn’t make it on to the list.¬† For a long time I was humming and harring over putting something far more modern down – probably a bit of hiphop or R&B but I don’t know enough about them to know who to choose.¬† Perhaps they’re still too new to know who the lasting big names are to be?

And, anyway, how could I miss out a whole bunch of music that I have so much fun listening to and performing?¬† Because Sinatra isn’t just about the man himself.¬† It’s the song choices – all those Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin American songbook classics.¬† Not to mention¬†all the wonderful musicians and arrangers that feature on his performances – Count Basie, Nelson Riddle, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones (now there’s an artist who spans the generations – responsible or both Sinatra and Michael Jackson’s greatest recordings).

But let’s not forget Sinatra himself.¬† In my opinion, he was the greatest exponent of these songs (certainly head and shoulders above his ratpack contemporaries.¬† I know a lot of people rate Sammy Davis jnr – as an all round showbiz performer- yes – but as¬†a vocalist?) Possibly Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington come close – but there’ll never be another Frank…


C5. Richard Wagner – born Leipzig, Germany (1813 – 1883)

2 facts that everyone knows about Wagner:

1.  He wrote really long boring operas.  (I mean, like reeeeally long РThe Ring Cycle is famously about 18 and a half hours long, performed over 4 days)

2.¬† He was Hitler’s favourite composer and the Nazis based a lot of their ideology on subject matter present in Wagner’s operas.


Well, for sure, ¬†Wagner wasn’t a Nazi.¬† Yes, he was almost certainly not a particularly nice character, probably racist, definitely egotistical and manipulative.¬† Frankly, however, I have little desire to meet most of the names on my list. (Except for Kate Bush obviously – she sounds lovely!¬† I like to think she’d¬† bake a cake if you went round for a chat.)

As for the other point concerning length… Well, if you read my previous post you’ll know that that’s kind of the point.¬† Yes, “The Ride of the Valkeries” is great, but to listen to it on it’s own is a bit like just watching the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.¬† Or being helicoptered on to the summit of Everest.¬† Nice view.

That bit happens¬†3 or so hours in to the opera¬†after listening to the story unfold of two total strangers meeting, getting to know each other, discovering they are brother and sister and then deciding to commit incest with each other as a political act!¬† When the Ride of¬†the Valkeries happens, snippets of the music teasing us¬†for the previous 3 hours,¬†it’s the beginning of the end for centuries old¬†lines of authority, brought down by the common man.¬† And there’s still another ten and a half hours of story to go!

Back in the day they use to base children’s cartoons on this sort of stuff…


P-Funk. George Clinton/Parliament/Funkadelic  РClinton born Kannapolis, North Carolina (1941 Р)

Another artist on my list, like Steely Dan, that has a remarkably low profile in the UK.  But if there had been no George Clinton, there would be no funk music.  If there had been no funk there would have been no disco, hip hop, R&B, rap.  George Clinton is considered to be on of the most sampled musicians ever.

And the list of musicians that were the Parliament/Funkadelic collective:

Bootsy Collins (bass), Bernie Worrell (keys), Maceo Parker (sax), Fred Wesley (trombone Рmy personal favourite trombone player)  and many, many more.

With punk, the UK created anarchy in musical form.

With funk, the US created anarchy in musical form performed by some of the best musicans on the planet.

Sorry Britain, I’m with the yanks on this one….


C6. Giacomo Puccini – born Lucca, Tuscany, Italy (1858 – 1924)

I’m always wary when people who want to get into classical music/opera ask the question, where do I start?¬† What will I like?¬† What’s an easy in?

At the risk of sounding like your teacher, I’m afraid there is no easy route in to classical music.¬† No magic bullet which will instantly open your eyes to it’s wonders.¬† (Check out what I wrote about long and short form music in the previous post).¬† If you really do want to give it a go, my recommendation is start from the inside. Heard a little snippet of something you like on a film or an advert?¬† That’s a good start.¬† Find out what it is.¬† Do a bit of research.¬† Listen to the whole piece.¬† Find out the context, the history, why it was written, different interpretations, different pieces by the same composer, pieces written at the same time etc.¬† And work your way outwards.¬† The detail and the minutiae will fuel your enjoyment of this complex art form.¬† Clich√© alert – the more you put in, the more you will get out.

Having said all that, if you’ve any inkling that you might like to try the¬†most ridiculous of all art forms – opera –¬†Puccini is a pretty good¬†starting point.¬† There is a reason most opera houses programme at least one Puccini per season.¬† Firstly, they’re nice and short!¬† A full length Puccini is shorter than the first act of Wagner’s Gotterdamerung.

But more importantly, Puccini really makes you understand why the power of the stories he is telling is increased by having the stories sung rather than just acted.¬† Ordinary people in extraordinary situations, their raw emotions conveyed to us through music.¬† And the music carries on telling the story, unstoppable.¬† No awkward pause for dialogue like in many musicals or awkward recitative transitions¬† (“here’s the plot bit”) into arias (“here’s the emotional bit”) or choruses (“here’s the spectacular bit – bring on the elephants”)

You don’t have to work that hard to enjoy and be moved by the immediacy of Puccini’s music.¬† This does mean that some of the snootier musicologists out there don’t rate it.


They’re wrong.


P 6.  Stevie Wonder, born Saginwaw, Michigan, USA. (1950 Р)


Can’t really think of anything profound to say except it’s…


…Stevie Wonder!


Glad to see Obama in the clip below pointedly NOT joining in clapping on the 1 and 3…

Oh – and this is gig I saw him play.¬† That’s me there on the very back row of the arena.


C7. Maurice Ravel, born nr Biarritz, France (1875-1937)

Ravel’s a late addition to the list.¬† It was originally going to be Richard Strauss – but I decided I had too many heavyweight Germanic composers on the list as well as too many beginning with the letter S…

And, as I’ve mentioned before, I do love French classical music – Debussy, Poulenc, Messiaen, Milhaud – full of playful humour and sensuality.¬† And we’re not very good at playing it in this country – we’re better at the solid authoritative tones of the nineteenth century central European repertoire.

Ravel’s the best of the bunch – every piece dazzles.

Here’s an interesting curio below.¬† You’re a musical instrument manufacturer who wants to market your range of shiny new harps.¬† What do you do?¬† Why, hire an internationally renowned composer to write a piece to show it off, of course.


P7. Earth, Wind & Fire, founder member Maurice White, born Memphis, Tenessee. (1941 – )

Should Earth, Wind & Fire be in my top 10.¬† They’re the probably the closest thing in my list to just being a standard pop band.¬† Nothing smart or profound about their music – just great pop songs.

No.¬† REALLY¬†great pop songs.¬† Beautiful precision arrangements.¬† Soaring vocal melodies.¬† And just really fun.¬† They’re also reassuringly uncool!¬† So they never go out of fashion!¬† I (and millions of others) love em!




And that feels like a good place to stop.¬† We’ll finish off this epic post next time.¬† This is the music I’m committing to for my lifetime on a desert island after all so it’s important to take time to choose wisely!¬† I would still love to hear your choices too!



Gig guide

I’m playing one of the composers who just missed out on the list, Richard Strauss, this Saturday.¬† Check out his modestly titled autobiographical tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life) this Saturday with the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra.¬† Details at the link below.


And then on Wednesday 22nd April I’m off to see the legend that is George Clinton himself at the Manchester Ritz!¬† Maybe see you there!