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?
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 – )
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 cliché, 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 – )
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.
And there we have it – the 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…