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 – eek!) 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 – The 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  – Clinton born Kannapolis, North Carolina (1941 – )

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 – my 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.  Cliché 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 – )


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!




















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