Categories
Conducting Music Technology

Going paperless as a conductor: iPad + forScore

One of the advantages of being half classical musician, half tech nerd is that I’ve actively enjoyed being forced to grapple with new technologies as a result of the pandemic. In order to keep doing some version of what we do, musicians have adapted to make use of video-conferencing, audio recording, and pretty much anything else we can get our hands on. I’m now the proud owner of a fancy webcam, various peripherals, and a ring light apparently designed for make-up tutorials (a potential side-hustle I will consider carefully).

Even before the pandemic, though, I had been thinking about going ‘paperless’, or something approaching it. Environmental reasons aside, I live in London now, and most of my scores are stowed in an attic. I don’t own a printer; keeping it stocked with ink (expensive) or paper (wasteful) would be a pain.

For most of my life, going paperless hasn’t been a viable option. The technology and hardware either haven’t existed or haven’t been cost-effective. Now, it seems, the tide may have turned. In this blog, I’m going to detail my experiences with going paperless, and how it’s turned out.

Tablet: iPad Pro 12.9in

I was advised by friends to go for the biggest screen possible – anything smaller than A4 doesn’t allow you to display enough of a score to work from. This led to the eventual purchase of a 12.9in iPad Pro 2020 – together with the most expensive pencil I have ever bought, the Apple Pencil 2. I decided it was worth doing it properly – and after all, as a professional tool, at least part of it will be claimable against my taxes this year.

Despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Windows advocate, I have to admit that Apple make a really good product. It’s quick, sturdy, and it looks professional, especially in the natty case I purchased for it. Apple fans tend to say ‘it just works!’ and, even though my customary response is ‘where’s the fun in that?’, it does indeed just work.

Score-reading app: ForScore

There are now a handful of apps for managing and viewing your scores, and a fair amount of variety between them. I’m indebted to the Scoring Notes blog for the thorough review of forScore which convinced me it was the one to go for.

forScore is available to download for a one-off payment of £19.99. It’s a powerful bit of software with a lot going on under the hood, though you don’t need to mess around for too long to figure out its basic functionality.

There’s still a degree of orientation required, and you have to get used to tapping the right part of the screen for what you need, for example to bring up the menu. In other words, it needs a little investment of time to ‘learn’ the software. For the first two or three rehearsals using it, I brought along hard copies just in case I couldn’t negotiate the app quickly enough, but it wasn’t long before I was happily zipping through my digital scores.

There’s no lag between page turns, which was something I had initially worried about – they respond instantaneously to a touch on the relevant side of the screen, in the same manner as Amazon’s Kindle. I’ve found I’m able to turn a page much more quickly – and with a more economical gesture – than when using a physical score, though this is a tradeoff for only being able to view one page of a score at a time.

It’s interesting the difference that this makes. As a conductor, you want to be able to absorb the salient points of a score at a glance, rather than spending all your time with your head down. Arguably, the two-page open layout of a regular physical score would be more useful in this regard. But it’s possible, with practice, to flick rapidly back and forth while conducting, due to the speed of the page-turns.

forScore has a wealth of other features including an onscreen keyboard and a metronome, which I haven’t used a great deal, but are nice to have.

Mark-up view in forScore

Markings

Remember that expensive pencil? Well, it does more than clip to the side of the tablet looking pretty (and charging via induction). forScore’s integration with the Apple Pencil is rather clever, and I’ve quickly grown accustomed to using it for markings.

It’s easy to reach for it, and as soon as you start marking the score, the software puts you into marking mode. This works well, and you can double tap on the Pencil to turn it into an eraser, which, with a little practice, is reasonably intuitive.

My only problem here was with not always remembering to exit marking mode (by clicking the ‘Done’ button) after having replaced the Pencil. As such, when I went to turn the page, I ended up jabbing fruitlessly at a corner before realising the software was still in mark-up mode. It turns out there is a feature buried in Settings which fixes this by automatically exiting mark-up mode after a short delay.

I’ve enjoyed marking up my scores in this new environment. I’m not a big colour-coder, but the potential is there, and it’s reassuring to think that you can scribble all over it and erase it later if you go overboard.

Changing the annotation settings

Scores

forScore is reasonably good at importing scores from cloud-based services such as Dropbox (which I use) and Google Drive. You can then edit their title and composer information in the metadata as you please.

Here I’ll admit to a tiny bit of frustration. The integration with cloud services such as Dropbox isn’t two-way, and I’d prefer it if my markings on a score could be synchronised to the cloud-saved file. As it is, you have to manually export the score back in order to do this (unless there’s something I’m missing), which is too fiddly to do regularly. As such, I have ended up with two digital copies of a piece: one unadulterated but on the cloud, accessible anywhere on any computer; and one beautifully marked-up, but accessible only on my iPad.

The other quibble concerns the Labels you are able to add to scores, helping you organise them in the digital library. It’s nice being able to give things ‘Tags’, ‘Genres’, and ‘Labels’, but it’s not clear how each are supposed to be different. This is because each field is actually customisable and can be anything you’d like. In practice, though, I find myself getting confused trying to remember whether I’ve decided that ‘Canticle’ or ‘Sacred’ are Genres or Tags, and as such I haven’t really made use of this function.

Conclusions

First, the pros. I can travel light, with one tablet instead of multiple scores. All the music I need for multiple projects is accessible in one place, with all my markings, backed up on the cloud. The device is robust, and using it is a pleasure. I make more markings, and spend more time with my scores, because they’re always right there, just a click away.

That said, it’s not without its drawbacks. One obvious thing that I haven’t mentioned is that in order to make use of it, you need to possess a pdf or scan of the score. This is all very well with music in the public domain, which these days is available on IMSLP or CPDL – but contemporary music is a different story. Publishers have been wary of digital downloads, perhaps waiting for an app which can control permissions, like Amazon’s Kindle. It would be great, for example, to be able to have heavy books such as choral warhorse Carols for Choirs or my Bärenreiter B Minor Mass available in pdf form.

And one more important warning: remember that the iPad itself, while not exactly heavy, is still weighty enough to slide off an insufficiently robust music stand. It’s enough to give you Black Mirror-style cracked-screen nightmares.

These caveats aside, I’m very glad I took the leap. I now find it difficult to imagine my life without the iPad as my primary score-machine. It looks good, it feels good to use, and it does pretty much everything I need it to. I don’t have to worry about printing a lot of music for a one-off gig. Summoning a score I need at the touch of a button – well, it feels like the future.

Also, I can amuse myself by playing its little onscreen keyboard for hours on end. Myself, mind – I doubt anyone else is amused…

Categories
Career Creativity Music

Why do I want ‘work artefacts’?

I sometimes wonder if the reason it’s difficult for freelance live performers to motivate themselves lies in the lack of a tangible product of the work. A sculptor can point to their work with a certain satisfaction and say: there, I did that, that was the direct result of my work. An author can look over a day’s worth of pages and feel that something has been accomplished. But the product of the live performer is intangible: a rehearsal, a performance, a moment shared (or none of the above, as is more likely at the time of writing).

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always enjoyed the process of recording CDs. Not only do you get the intense focus of working on something with other people and making it as perfect as possible – that true feeling of team effort – but at the end of it all you have a product, an artefact. You can send it to people, as if to prove that what you do is real work after all, because it had a physical product.

While there are may things I would do differently a second time around, making my first CD as a conductor in 2019 was a fascinating and rewarding process for many of the above reasons. Add to those the post-production process – going over and over tracks, track order, booklet layout, album art, &c – and you had the feeling of polishing something until the final product gleamed. (I would be remiss not to acknowledge the patient expertise of Convivium Records who guided me through it.)

However, that process is very much the exception in my life and career as they’re currently configured. There are rehearsals and services in their hundreds (2020 excepted), concerts and workshops and recitals – but they’re over in a flash, leaving only a memory. Of course, that’s what makes them precious – the thrill of the live, the electricity in the air, the limitless potential of what might happen. But I do occasionally struggle with the lack of some kind of longer-lasting artifact, one that can prove to me that all those things weren’t just a dream but something I did.

Workism

In doing so, I am probably succumbing to a little workism. If you’re unfamiliar with the coinage, start with this article in The Atlantic. Workism is the idea that we define ourselves solely or principally by our work, by producing things endlessly, keeping our economies chugging along and our money-machines going brrr. In the article, Derek Thompson writes:

In the past century, the American conception of work has shifted from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning.

He goes on to point out just how damaging this view can be. If you don’t succeed in work, your whole being becomes suspect. My desire for some tangible outputs to show for my work probably stems from a desire to join the class of people with that sense of meaningful work.

But, to quote Admiral Ackbar, it’s a trap. After all, the goal of human society shouldn’t be 100% employment, but 100% unemployment, with humanity doing what it wants, and the machines doing all the things we don’t want. It’s another reason I’m uncomfortable with the economic justifications for creative work – creativity is a human good.

That doesn’t help me with my dilemma – where is my artifact? Take today, for example. The ‘work’ content of my day consists of the following: learning some music; programming music for some upcoming services; thinking about the structure of next season’s programmes; processing some invoices; preparing for and then leading an online session for a choir. At the end of the day, although plenty of work will have been done, I won’t be able to admire it hanging on a wall, or observe it like a half-finished sculpture in the middle of my workshop.

In having this problem, I find myself somewhat surprisingly aligned with the information-economy workers of my millennial generation. Thompson again:

Blue-collar jobs produce tangible products, like coal, steel rods, and houses. The output of white-collar work—algorithms, consulting projects, programmatic advertising campaigns—is more shapeless and often quite invisible.

My output may not be as economically useful as a programmatic advertising campaign, but it’s just as invisible most of the time. Thompson argues that one result of this is that we feel the need to prove our accomplishments by preening our images on social media and making what we have done in a given day seem meaningful.

‘You are what you do’

‘Career as life meaning’ might be a relative newcomer to the workforce at large, but we in the so-called ‘creative’ professions have been haunted by it for much longer. We’re constantly told that what we do is meaningful, and, if caught complaining, will invariably be rebuked with something along the lines of ‘yes, but you get to do what you love/follow your passion/etc’.

Our careers have been expected to be our life meaning for a long time, probably since the 19th century elevated artists to the lofty plane of suffering genius, and persuaded people that being creative wasn’t a career but a calling. Artists succeed, we are told from a young age, because of their burning and unquenchable passion. But we didn’t undergo some Pokémon-like evolution from the travelling court musicians of the Renaissance into beings with a higher calling; we are still crafts-people, and if for some reason I’m not so ‘driven’ as to stay up all night thinking about Brahms, it doesn’t make me a lesser musician.

Combine this already damaging view of art and artists with contemporary millennial workism and you’ve got a toxic, if not lethal, combination. TwoSet Violin are perhaps the most successful classical music YouTube channel in the world, and their message strongly parallels hustle culture: practice, practice, practice. You can even get a hoodie with it on. I’m not about to say they haven’t done a great deal for classical music’s reputation with young people – and we all know we need to practise – but the fact that they might have worked themselves into the ground doing it doesn’t fill one with confidence.

In their haste to prove that artistic work is just as much work as anything else is, some turn to workism. ‘Today’s office’, as a caption on a picture of a beautiful concert venue, is ubiquitous among musicians on social media, and I think the intent is to make the reader recognise that art can be work too, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the privilege of occasionally working in beautiful spaces. However, it also feels a bit like workism – not only is this work, it seems to say, but it’s meaningful. I’ve almost certainly done this myself over the years. Who doesn’t want to prove that they’re a useful, productive member of society?


I think the pendulum might be slowly swinging away from workism. Personally, I’ve begun to stop idolising workaholic musicians and instead contemplate the people I respect for being curious, creative and chilled-out. The social-media grift-porn is wearing thin. There’s a better and healthier way.

Back to those work artifacts. Perhaps it’s a realisation of the need for some kind of product to show for my day that I’ve tried to use my non-work time to produce something more tangible. No sculptures, mind, but at least one or two drawings, and, if I finish it, the very blog you’re reading now.

Categories
Conducting Creativity Music

Mantras

Lean back when you want something.

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the idea of lucid dreams. In a lucid dream, you are aware that you are dreaming; you acknowledge the unreality of your situation, but you are at peace with it, and can even exert a certain degree of control.

Most of us have had this experience once or twice. I spent quite a lot of time reading about the phenomenon, and trying various techniques to induce this state of lucidity. I enjoyed moderate success, inducing a few such dreams over a couple of months, during which I had immersed myself in the lucid dreaming world (then confined to a few self-help volumes and some old-school internet fora). In fact, the only reason I stopped is that I was becoming too tired, from waking up constantly after vivid dreams.

What unlocked the latent ability to induce waking dreams during that time was the use of simple mantras, along with conditioning certain repeated patterns of behaviour.

For example, one book encouraged the prospective oneironaut to get into the habit of poking the finger of one hand into the palm of the other, as if testing its consistency. One did this at various times during the day, with the goal being that the subconscious mind would do it too, in a dream, prompting one to become aware of the dream-state. The first time it worked for me, my hand remained perfectly solid, but I found one of the fingers had tied itself into a knot – a giveaway that I was not in fact awake, but dreaming.

The mantra worked more simply: repeating the phrase ‘I will remember my dreams. I will become aware that I am dreaming’ or a variation on it, over and over, before going to sleep.


I recently had an opportunity to reflect on the efficacy of mantras and habitual physical behaviours. I had gone to conduct a rehearsal – my first after several weeks of lockdown-enforced inactivity – buzzing with enthusiasm. I thought of the choir, what it would sound like, the music, what I could do with it. I was excited.

In the event, my running of the rehearsal was mediocre, and my conducting execrable. It became apparent to me that I had ‘forgotten how to conduct’ in the previous few weeks.

Now, this is not to say it would have been noticeable to the singers, who were far too busy exercising dormant singing muscles, huddling against the chill, and straining their eyes to sight-read in the semi-gloom of the rehearsal space. But when you know, you know. My posture was all over the place; I spoke, too often and in rushed fragments, and practically fell over myself at some points. My gestures were wild, unpredictable, my habitual ellipse a deranged parallelogram. I was a mess.

I returned home despondent, questioning everything. How could I have forgotten everything so easily? Did it really only take a month off for all of my discipline to leave me?

Next time, on the train to the rehearsal, I decided to take a different tack. I remembered some words I had been told, and they stayed there, hanging in my mind for a few minutes: lean back when you want something. This is not the title of a self-help book – though it could have been – but a very good piece of advice from a very good conducting teacher. It was originally a corrective to a classic problem of mine, which I would describe as an inability to separate an inner musical impulse from an unhelpful exterior mannerism. It usually manifested in a strange forward motion accompanying something I wanted to happen – a stress, an accent, a particular effect.

I held it in my mind for a while, repeating it a few times, and felt my body relax from a tension I didn’t even know had been there. Later, in the rehearsal, I had regained the control of myself that I had lacked on the previous occasion. I felt the return of the elusive, tingly spidey-sense of heightened awareness that accompanies listening, really listening to what was around me.

Let’s return to my earlier description of a lucid dream: ‘you acknowledge the unreality of your situation, but you are at peace with it and can even exert a certain degree of control.’

The rehearsal room is the dream-state: an unreal experience in which a number of people stare at you and expect you to lead or guide them. The only difference is that in the real thing you are normally permitted to remain clothed. Sometimes it’s a nightmare, in which nothing goes right no matter how hard you try. Sometimes it merely has the uneasy feeling of uncontrol that comes with a meandering dream.

My brief use of a calming mantra generated a physical response, which triggered in the rehearsal. When I wanted something – ensemble, diminuendo, rubato, breath – I leaned back. The situation was still unreal, but I was at peace with it, and I had regained a little control – over myself at least.

Again, probably noone else in the room detected anything. That universal and seemingly unlikely truth – that nobody is really thinking about you as much as you think they are – holds just as true for the conductor as anyone else. I don’t imagine anyone else noticed the small adjustment. But when you know, you know.

If I were in the business of coining terminology – like Mark Gibson, whose conducting tome I explored earlier – I would probably be trying to make lucid conducting happen right now. Good physical habits and mantras triggering subconsciously, to calm the mind and render the bizarre world of the rehearsal or concert hall less alien and more manageable. An induced state of flow, the conductor’s Witcher-sense, deep listening as opposed to surface-level fire-fighting.

Lean back when you want something. Perhaps we can come up with some other good conducting mantras. Small hands, big listening. Or maybe simply Breathe.

Categories
Creativity Music Technology

Round-up: Pods, books, and music that helped make 2020 less, well, 2020

As 2020 staggers to its conclusion, everything feels a little apocalyptic. New mutant viral strains, hiding in plain sight, out to get us. Brexit, heralding a future in which we in the UK will either mightily prosper or fall into ignominy, with seemingly nothing in between.

It looks increasingly likely that, by March, most musicians will have spent a full year dealing with the disruption to our work. For me, the missed opportunities and connections not made have been the hardest, the inescapable feeling that I will simply have stagnated for a year, treading water.

And I’ve had it easy – I have been able to keep working in some form or another the whole time. Others have been less fortunate, through no fault of their own, and the concomitant loss of talent from the musical world is devastating.

However, as the year draws to an end, I am trying to look back at it through a more positive lens – to drag my thoughts out of the negative spiral, and rebalance the scales a little. I’ve decided to self-indulgently highlight things I’ve discovered this year that have brought something new, added value, or made me think differently about life, creativity, and art.

Podcasts

In the first couple of months of lockdown, I listened to fewer podcasts. They’re normally what I listen to while travelling to rehearsals or gigs, and since that wasn’t happening, they didn’t fit into the new lockdown routine.

However, later in the year, once I discovered the magical productivity-boosting combination of podcast+wireless headphones+housework, the podcast floodgates were open again.

Song Exploder

Having been a fan of Hrishikesh Hirway’s other podcast, The West Wing Weekly, I’m surprised it took me so long to check out Song Exploder, which has been around since 2014. In fact, I’m sufficiently late to the party that this is probably a meaningless recommendation.

For me, though, it’s been a really interesting insight into the process of modern pop creation, and what creativity looks like in the studio setting. It’s been a way to reconnect with music I’ve loved for a long time – Lindsay Buckingham talking about Go Your Own Way – as well as introducing me to artists I’d heard of but hadn’t really listened to – Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa.

I’m fascinated by the craft of modern pop production, and what elements go into a really good groove. The inclusion of track-by-track audio breakdowns allows you to zoom in on how it’s actually done – a goldmine of information.

Not Overthinking

https://notoverthinking.com/start/

Not a music recommendation, but I’ve got a lot of value this year from listening to the frank, introspective, occasionally combative conversations between YouTuber Ali Abdaal and his brother Taimur, who runs a tech startup. Indeed, an early episode persuaded me to restart this blog – ‘putting yourself out there’ – but the topics covered have ranged from ‘productivity’ (a word I can only use in scare-quotes now) to how to treat children morally.

There’s also some useful observations about creativity, and plenty of recommendations for thought-provoking articles and books. I don’t always agree, but I almost always find it interesting. And in those darker lockdown times, when I haven’t been able to myself, it’s felt like hanging out with friends.

Honourable mentions: Ear Hustle, Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review, The Crate and Crowbar

Music

Bill Evans

Last year, I would occasionally stick on Bill Evans as a relaxing soundtrack for work or reading. This year I actually started listening to the music, whilst trying to introduce myself to some of the fundamentals of jazz piano playing using Mark Levine’s The Jazz Piano Book.

Pretty early on, the book introduces the concept of left-hand chord voicings, which free up the right hand to play the melody, or solo. I find these absolutely magical, largely because they can suggest a chord often without even sounding the root – so for example a V7-I progression in C can be played without a G or a C. I vaguely knew this could be done, but how effective it is still blows my mind.

I’m a long way off learning all the voicings, but there’s a beautiful elegance to the way they manipulate the role of thirds and sevenths. Bill Evans is the master, and I’ve enjoyed applying my rudimentary knowledge to his playing this year.

Honourable mentions: BTS, Bohren & Der Club of Gore (my most recent paean to them here)

Books

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper

As lockdown kicked in, it seemed the right thing to do to immerse myself in the lives of people who had travelled widely and done interesting things. By far my favourite was this biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose writing I have hugely enjoyed for its almost cavalier richness of description and joie de vivre.

It helped alleviate my frustration at having so many weeks of travel plans hijacked this year, allowing me to spectate as the intrepid hero wanders a delightfully pre-lapsarian Europe, performs feats of derring-do in wartime Crete, and then writes thrilling prose about it all. It made it more bearable, somehow, to know that someone had taken full advantage of their freedoms. It makes me want to travel more mindfully, and joyfully, in future.

I followed up with Winston Churchill, and am currently engrossed in Rory Stewart’s Fermor-esque pilgrimage across early-noughties Afghanistan. I’ve seen Stewart described, in the context of the Tory leadership election, as ‘the only person in the room with a greater sense of his own world-historical destiny than Boris Johnson’, but be that as it may, his account of the perilous journey is honest, readable, and gripping. He also punctuates it with his own sketches, which is such a cool thing to be able to do that I think it might become a 2021 resolution to learn how to do it.

Honourable mentions: The Beat Stops Here by Mark Gibson (which I summarised here), Churchill by Roy Jenkins, Mindset by Carol Dweck, The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich

Games

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition

In the long summer of lockdown, there wasn’t any work to do and there wasn’t anywhere to go. It was a chance for guilt-free indulgence in a pastime I generally have less time for these days.

I didn’t even know this remaster of the classic real-time strategy game existed until a friend with whom I used to play the old version mentioned it. I booted it up and it was like stepping into the past.

We had played the original 90s version of the game in old-school LAN parties in our houses. It was a surprise to discover that the game still has an active community, now joined by a growing e-sports division, with matches available on YouTube with professional commentary.

We certainly played a lot better than we did as kids, though I think an e-sports career is sadly out of reach. It certainly helped while away those lockdown hours in blissful nostalgia.

Honourable mentions: Monster Train, Into the Breach, Final Fantasy X HD Remaster

Misc

A category for other things that have added value to my life this year in various ways. This is all part of something I’m trying – an Annual Review – to reflect on the past and make better decisions about the future. (Sometimes you realise, much as you might disdain the label, that you might in fact be a ‘millennial’.)

  • Exercise. Turns out that once you hit 30, this starts to be a bit more of a requirement. I feel good when I force myself to do it, and not when I don’t. Go figure. The next challenge seems to be to actually work out what sort of exercise I need, and how much. (Lest the reader get the wrong idea, the goal here is not to get shredded, which would be hilarious, but simply not to devolve into mush in the face of all this inactivity)
  • AirPods. I always thought these were a bit silly, until I got sent them free with something else I had ordered. They make listening to music or podcasts around the house so easy, turning chores into a pleasure. They also make phone calls an infinitely more enjoyable experience – I hadn’t realised what a difference having your hands free makes. I am much more likely to call someone now than I used to be, which has to be a good thing.

I’m always after recommendations for good material, whether it’s reading, listening, watching, or playing, so do point me at them via Twitter or email. I hope everyone reading has a happy New Year and a successful 2021.

Categories
Music Technology

An A.I. attempts to rewrite Thomas Tallis

Jukebox is a type of neural net – an network of artificial nodes which is ‘trained’ on a series of data, and can then be taught to use this data to generate new strings. These artificial intelligence networks have been used to create unique images, poetry, scripts, and music. Essentially, they work from one data-point to the next and try to work out what letter, pixel, or note should come next, based on its training. I first encountered them on the wonderful AI Weirdness blog, which is a rabbit-hole of the hilarious and surreal things that can now be done with this technology.

What makes Jukebox different from many of the varieties of generative music that have come before is that it’s trained not on symbolic datasets – for example MIDI files which encode digital musical instructions into code – but actual audio. Not only that, but it has also been conditioned to recognise the shape of words, meaning it can – sort of – generate these sounds too.

This means that you can feed it an audio sample, give it a few parameters such as a genre or artist to emulate, specify the words, and then ask it to predict what should come next. It bases these choices on what it has learned about the 1.2 million real songs that formed its ‘training’ dataset.

The results, as one might expect, vary wildly in quality. On the aforementioned blog, Janelle Shane posts some creations which are exciting and not a little horrifying – for example, a pastiche Frank Sinatra Christmas song which should belong to an album entitled ‘Music from the Uncanny Valley’.

Most of the results that have so far been posted by researchers have the flavour of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’s ‘One Song to the Tune of Another’ (see here if you need a description of this very complicated game). Thus you can get the AI to do Queen in the style of Nirvana, for example.

Inevitably, a large majority of its training data is non-classical in nature, but I still thought it would be interesting to prompt it with some choral music, to see what it would come up with. The results are surprisingly impressive, though naturally very odd.


Jukebox was primed with about twelve seconds of a recording of the classic Thomas Tallis banger ‘If ye love me’, and given the full lyrics. Now, it has a limited dataset of genres and artists to use as a template, and the closest I could find were ‘Classical’ for the genre and, yes, ‘Mormon Tabernacle Choir’ for the artist. Already the mind boggles.

It had three goes at generating 40 more seconds of the piece, transforming the input through a process of ‘upsampling’ at three different levels. Let’s have a listen to what it came up with after some four hours of labour:

1. If ye love meh

The neural net takes over on the last syllable of ‘commandments’, and in each sample it has a different idea of what chord should follow. Here, it plays it safe and repeats the chord, which works. It’s cool that it makes the phrase lengths broadly ‘vocal’ in nature, and simulates breaths before them too, presumably learning to ape the opening of the prompt.

Some extraneous, non-vocal sounds start to appear in the middle, including at one point what sounds like a train passing, or perhaps a snare drum. I wonder if that’s due to it using the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, with their often quite elaborate arrangements, as a model. For all it knows, the piece starts acappella and then goes on to become instrumental. It could also be misinterpreting the acoustical reverb as ‘new sounds’ in their own right, and trying to work out what they could mean.

It also mostly stays in key, until the very end, which normally unremarkable thing I point out as it is not a given in the other samples…

2. If ye…love…meeee….

This one’s ‘-ment’ chord is actually a cool choice – A minor rather than original F major. Afterwards, however, it goes off the rails a little earlier than the previous one. I like the little cymbal ‘ting’ after the second phrase. The choir’s vocal production becomes very slurred, and the AI forgets the key, if it ever knew what that was in the first place. The end becomes rather worrying and distorted, and the harmony is bizarre.

Presumably, because it isn’t given any information about what harmony actually is, it doesn’t know the rules except by what it’s heard before. It must base its moment-to-moment choices about what audio to generate on what previous bits of audio it knows are usually followed by. However, I can’t imagine there are very many examples in the dataset of an audio progression of the sort that happens at the end of this excerpt. How did Jukebox come up with it?

3. If ye love me, keep in the same key..?

Uh. Pretty out-there choice of a continuation chord on ‘commandments’, but it recovers pretty successfully and sticks the landing. The words also feel a little more present in this one, and it stays in a key and sort of in tune longer than the others, at least until a demonic final entry before the file mercifully ends. There’s some intriguing parallelism in the middle, during the extension of a word that I think might be ‘you’. And it remembers to be acappella throughout, which the other two didn’t manage. Probably the most successful.


What’s impressive is that, in all three of its goes, the AI learns that the phrases are preceded by breaths, and apes the length of the first phrase for most of the following ones, varying them subtly but plausibly. But the overall effect of the continuations (if one can ignore the ghostly distorting of the voices) is of someone dreaming a conclusion to a piece to which they only remember the opening. Like dreams, they lose coherence and stop making sense at various points. Still, given that the vast majority of its training is on popular music and other styles, it does a pretty creditable if slightly meandering job.

For me, the results of this are roughly equal parts disturbing, exciting, and hilarious. Disturbing, because the distorted voices end up sounding like something from a horror film. Exciting, because the computer isn’t bound by our conception of harmony or structure – it dreams up new combinations that we might never have thought of. Insomuch as it has worked out the rules, it’s done so by simply listening to a lot of music, like an alien tuning in from another planet and trying to understand how our music works.

As a tool for inspiring creativity, it has limitless potential, because it can always surprise us with its choices. It won’t be long before it gets better at understanding different genres and is able to produce highly competent pastiches – the musical equivalent of these non-existent people.

In the meantime it’s more likely to make me giggle than reflect on the mysteries of human existence. But it won’t be long. I, for one, welcome our new robotic musical overlords.

Categories
Conducting Leadership Music

Book Notes: The Beat Stops Here

It is a truism that conducting can’t be learned from a book. I don’t actually think there are any books out there that purport to be able to teach conducting in complete isolation from actual experience in front of a group of musicians. But I’ve often found books on conducting helpful in clarifying ideas, or untangling tricky concepts both theoretical and practical.

It’s probably also the case that with the relative paucity of conducting time during the pandemic, I’ve been turning to the books occasionally to keep certain concepts fresh in my mind, or to challenge my thinking on various ideas.

So, I’ve decided to make brief notes on a few conducting manuals, drawing out some key quotes, with the aim of distilling some of the insights that I’ve found helpful or interesting, and putting them in one place for ease of referral. And they’re going on this blog in case they’re helpful to anyone else.

It’s been interesting to reflect on the various books about conducting I’ve read over the years. Sometimes I find myself vigorously nodding as page after page illuminates my own experience in ways I hadn’t considered; other times my brow furrows at a concept or illustration that doesn’t make sense to me. There are as many different opinions about what makes good conducting, and good conductors, as there are conductors, musicians, and concert-goers.

I’m starting off with a book that very largely falls into the ‘vigorous nodding’ camp for me, and that’s The Beat Stops Here by Mark Gibson.


The Beat Stops Here: Lessons on and off the Podium for Today’s Conductor

2017, Oxford University Press

Mark Gibson

Director of Orchestral Studies at CCM, University of Cincinnati

Buy it at Amazon Waterstones

Overview

An experienced teacher and performer, Gibson shares insights honed from years of teaching in the University of Cincinnati’s conducting programme. The book is divided into two, with the first half consisting of intensive studies of particular overtures or movements and workshopping the challenges they present to the conductor. The second half is a more disparate collection of writings on other aspects of conducting, from teaching, to working in particular genres, score study, and more.

(My observations/comments in blue)

Preface

  • Many books begin with physical technique, but for Gibson, score study is more important, and that’s why the book begins with it instead
  • Gibson describes himself as ‘anti-beating’:

Conducting is as much about waving one’s arms as golf is, which is to say, not as much as people think. Both are highly disciplined kinetic activities whose physical manifestations – a beat, a swing – conceal an abundance of subtle movement, both with the body and the mind. (xi)

  • Focus on the beat as the principle idea of conducting is reductive and counter-productive. Hence, the beat stops here!

Foreword

The right equipment for the conducting student is, every day, a score, any score, a pencil, preferably with a good eraser, and a mind that is willing, curious, and relentless. (xiv)

The study of conducting is circuitous; there is no straight line to mastery or success (xiv)

  • Gibson really doesn’t like beating or the idea that conducting should begin with it – it’s the ‘original sin’ of conducting
  • Hard not to agree. I was once told that beating time is what conductors had to learn to do in response to music like the Rite of Spring, but that merely beating time is not the same as showing music. Gibson says it can become ‘the death of music-making’ and that ‘beats beget beats’
  • Words are insufficient to convey what is in music – that’s partly why Gibson tries to avoid the standard words, and looks to invent new terminology related to everyday gestures or images
  • Score study is of primary importance: the aim is ‘to know in the richest sense of the word, any given work the composer has written’

Only armed with that knowledge and understanding will we then be able to communicate what we know of that work to an ensemble and to an audience, employing our bodies from head to toe to speak a nonverbal language of gesture with style and taste. (xv)


Part 1: Repertoire Lessons

The first part of the book consists of bar-by-bar analyses of movements from various genres of classical music: Overture, Opera, Concert, Larger Symphonic Works, etc.

  • Opens with Gustav Meier (Gibson’s teacher) quotation:

There are only three things you have to do to be a conductor: Study scores, study scores, and study scores.

Gibson begins with a glossary of his teaching terminology, much of it an amusing or inventive take on a particular gesture or mannerism. I love them all and there is a wealth of useful insight. Here are some selected examples:

  • Advertising: ‘Many young conductors exaggerate the size of the upbeat; this we call “advertising”‘
  • Buddha face: ‘Images of the Buddha reveal a calm, knowing visage, engaged but not emotional, open and receptive but not active’. Conductors should emulate this, there’s no need for exaggerated facial motion
  • Helium hand – ‘an easy, slow, vertical, non-inflected rising of the left arm and hand in preparation for a signal’
  • ‘S/he who lives by the beat, dies by the beat’
  • Small hand – ‘the bigger the beat, the smaller the listening’
  • ‘Toss the pasta’ – ’round gestures promote connected playing and generate flow’
  • ‘Two adjectives’ – the conducting should communicate the spirit of the work as well as the other necessary information (how loud, soft, fast, or slow). ‘Think of adjectives that accurately describe the spirit of any given passage’

The repertoire studies which follow are brilliantly and sometimes minutely detailed. One needs the score to hand (easy enough with IMSLP) to get the most out of it. It takes the music blow-by-blow, bar-by-bar, explaining the context, highlighting passages which are tricky for the players, drawing analogies to contemporary works or others by the same conductor, and explaining what this means for the conductor.

You very much have the feeling of being with him in his studio as he takes you through his approach. He deals thoroughly with thorny problems – awkward starts, like the upbeat of Mendelssohn’s Die schone Melusine overture – and mixes in general observations clearly drawn from practical performing experience – in the theatre pit, always go strong to the violas!

It’s not for beginners by any stretch – it’s not entry-level stuff. Gibson’s hope expressed in the preface that the book may be of interest to non-musicians wishing to learn more of the conductor’s craft needs to be taken in the light of detailed passages of craft such as: ‘Use your left hand to go from 1st violins straight up to Donna Elvira for her entrance. Don’t shy away from the sfp in bar 4; it should cause a shiver up the spine, both hers and the listener’s, but make sure there is ample bow to sustain the chord its full length.’

It wouldn’t be very helpful for me to summarise this part of the book for ‘notes’ purposes as it’s so minute in detail, and tied to the particular scores. But focussing on these analyses one at a time is a masterclass in the sensitive appraisal of a score and one of the book’s most helpful features.


Part 2: Professional Lessons

Part 2 consists of of a number of articles, some adapted from blog posts, on a variety of subjects from peripheral conducting skills such as building a inner metronome, to management techniques for orchestras and choruses. Here are some things that stuck with me:

Beating

  • ‘Not the Eternal Tao: Conducting is ‘the intersection of gesture and pulse’ (175). The focus on giving a ‘clear beat’ is reductive and unhelpful – the orchestra will not simply play more together if you beat more vigorously

You may think the orchestra wants or needs a clear “beat”. Members of the orchestra may even tell you they want one[…]but in my experience, that is not what they mean and not really what they want (176)

  • The problem with the ‘beat’ as in a singular point of arrival is that, with the exception of percussion, sound in an orchestra or choir doesn’t work that way. A beat can indicate tempo but little else, and doesn’t even need to do that after the upbeat has established the tempo
  • Musicians can keep tempo by themselves, usually
  • If you find yourself over-beating (‘beats generate beats’), stop and try and plug into the group’s tempo, to feel the pulse as something organic that arises out of the group’s activity

Hands

  • Left hand should be independent and useful, not contradicting the right or giving the orchestra multiple ‘targets’ – preferably at a different height to avoid the appearance or temptation of mirroring
  • Mirroring is not uniformly bad, but can leave the right hand with no space to go to across the body
  • In cathedral music, with the choir on either side of the conductor, it can sometimes be an important tool, if it used as such, ie with intent. If done all the time though, it decreases the variety of tone available to you
  • The left hand is a crutch, something to do, but it should have intent. If it’s not doing anything, put it away
  • Vigorous nodding once more (even, perhaps especially, in the knowledge that I use it without intent far too often. I was once taught that the left hand does one of three things: 1) nothing (in which case it is placed by the waist), 2) information, 3) mirrors the right )

Make Your Own Metronome

This is a fun way of learning to internalise tempo:

  • Learn a piece with a clearly defined metronome mark, such as a Beethoven scherzo, such that it can be recalled at will and its tempo marking applied. Do this for all the metronome markings
    • Here it is pleasing to observe Gibson joining me on the smallest hill on which I will die, which is non-existent metronome markings, such as those giving crotchet = 41, or 65, or 113. ‘those numbers don’t exist on a metronome’, says Gibson, adding with tongue in cheek, ‘no real composer uses them’
    • Note to self: a metronome goes up, from 60, in 3s, then from 72 in 4s, then from 120 in 6s, and from 144 in 8s)
  • It has the tempos you need, but the given tempo might not be the right one in a particular circumstance – they’re an important starting point but not a finishing point

Storytelling

  • Trouble shaping a melody? Why not invent some words in the right character? Uses example of giving a Dvorak melody folk-esque words. Generates a narrative and helps you find musical shapes

Heads, shoulders, knees and toes

  • Deals with the physicality of conducting – this is much more than just arms and gesture
  • Disassociate the bobbing of the head with an accent in the music – young conductors do this a lot
  • (I certainly did and continue to if unpoliced)
  • The face: be like the calm bus-driver ‘who knows where s/he is going, and gets you there without fuss or drama.’ Try not to exaggerate facial expressions (to which I would add Zoom is a painful reminder that we do this a lot in an attempt to please)
  • Gibson advocates ‘Buddha face’: ‘the serene visage of a generous, knowing presence’. Open, aware, listening, but not dominating or being needy (angle of chin also has a bearing on this latter)
  • Sniffing as an upbeat is a ‘disagreeable habit’ and distracting to audience and orchestra alike – for one thing, the wind and brass players, not to mention singers, for whom you are a model, mostly breathe through the mouth. Don’t open the mouth too far though as it looks silly
  • For Gibson, the arm is the breath (this is good – I often feel like I breathe too much and find myself hyperventilating)
  • Mouthing along to chorus (particular pertinent to choir directors of course and a much discussed issue). Like mirroring, it is not as simple as saying ‘never’ or ‘always’. It can help reinforce a particular onset or bring ‘bite’ to a certain word or phrase, but done to excess it inhibits the listening of the conductor to what they are actually doing, much like an exaggerated beat does
  • It also annoys the choir, who might feel consciously or otherwise that they are not being trusted to read words
  • Generally ‘the more we do physically, the less we listen’ (197)
  • Keep lips relaxed
  • Stand up straight and try not to bend over – must be balanced with a proper centre of gravity
  • Knee bends! A difficult habit to break
  • I find they’re especially bad in propulsive baroque music where the knees just really want to get involved
  • The entire act, from backstage from the dressing room to the podium should be practised and rehearsed – this avoids nervous habits, extraneous movement, or a loss of control. The behaviour and demeanour of the conductor is being assessed before they even take the podium
  • If you have to look at the score to turn the page, you don’t know it well enough. Consider also when to turn the page – it might not be where the publisher has put a page turn
  • Don’t turn the music stand around – if the music’s at a 90-degree angle to the floor you’re going to have to lean over to see it – orchestras distrust this
  • Interesting. I’ve seen lots of people do this in masterclasses and always wondered why they did as I would always panic that the score was going to fall off

Discipline your body, your posture, and your head, and your conducting will grow in confidence, simplicity, and effect (199)

👏👏👏

Score reading

Annuziata Tomaro contributes a guest article with some tough truths about score-reading

  • You should read clefs as what they are, rather than transposing them in your mind to a clef with which you are more familiar
  • Alto clef a classic example, the middle line is C, not ‘a B in treble clef and therefore transpose up one to get C’

Quantifiable

  • Bill Buford: ‘one does and does and does until one eventually knows more than others and learns the craft’ (214)
  • If you want a conducting career: helps if you don’t want worldly possessions. Pack light. Be thick-skinned
  • Nothing sexy about the mastery of the craft, and no guarantees of success. ‘People win competitions and positions; I know neither how or why’
  • So much is hard to measure – you can test specific things but there are many that elude measurement
  • ‘When all else is in place, art shows up’

Three-Part Conducting Rules for All Occasions

1. if the orchestra doesn’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.

2. if you don’t know the score, it doesn’t matter where you put your hands.

3. if you really know the score, it still doesn’t matter where you put your hands. (233)

He knows when to pose questions rather than offer simple solutions: for example on the vexed question of whether, how, and why an orchestra should ‘watch’ the conductor.

Choruses

Of course I’m also interested in what he has to say about working with singers and choruses, and there are a couple of articles on that here too. Gibson learned his chorus chops in the opera house. It’s always worth hearing the orchestral conductor’s perspective on choirs

…amateur and student choruses are working with you out of love; they love the music and/or they love the social dynamic of singing in a chorus. Very different from the orchestral situation[…]if you ignore them from the podium, you let them down (241)

  • Whereas he permits the orchestra to look at their music and spare you the odd glance if you’re very lucky, he notes that choruses need to be out of their copies in order to communicate emotion, and for their voices to speak out into the building, and so that they have a feeling of communication.
  • He goes into the chorus rehearsal with the music memorised, and makes the bargain: I won’t look down if you won’t.
  • I like this, even if it feels like a tough challenge when the musical workload goes up
  • Lauds Romano Gandolfi, with whom he worked, who conducted with very small gestures and insisted on the chorus’s maximum attention
  • Returns to the issue of ‘don’t mouth the words’ with the further observation – why do we do it? Do we think we are helping, and if so, why? ‘Never once have I had a chorus member ask me to mouth the words’ (242)
  • When working with chorus, know when to ‘press the button’. Late in the rehearsal process, something isn’t working and the ensemble has lost focus – it can sometimes be permitted to ‘press the button’, stop proceedings and gently but firmly remind the chorus of what we had rehearsed and thank them for their attention. Stresses this should only be used with amateur choruses and then at most once
  • Be encouraging and have high energy at all times. Choral rehearsals are ‘exhausting and exhilarating’

‘know before whom you are standing’ (Hebrew proverb)

There are also some useful comments on careers and people skills towards the end:

Only after a while, and often too late, do you, as the recently engaged music director, realise that no only were you putting on a show for the orchestra during the audition process, the orchestra and its various entities were putting on a show for you. Both parties were selling, and now both must deal with the reality of living together. (250)

This rings true and brings to mind the observation that in an audition, both parties should evaluate each other for fit, not just one way around!


Key insights

Who lives by the beat, dies by the beat. Try to avoid making it the focus of your craft, instead think about the interaction of gesture and pulse.

Generate a vocabulary of gesture with imagery and metaphor to provide the widest range of physical responses to music.

Score study is vital and neglected at your peril.

Who’s the book for?

Conducting students and those looking for fresh perspectives on their craft. Anyone interested in the analysis of music from a performer’s perspective.


I hope you’ve found this summary helpful. If you’d like to buy the book, you can use the links at the top of the post. I intend to give one or two other books the same treatment, so watch this space if you’re interested. Thanks for reading!

Categories
Choirs Music

I’m dreaming of a white…carol-book

Going from being the centre of attention on the podium, everyone’s breath waiting on your slightest movement, to once more being just another small box in the corner of someone’s screen, is bruising for the usually well-nourished conducting ego. After a precious couple of months back in action this Autumn, November’s supplementary lockdown heralded a return to the awkward arranged marriage of choral rehearsal and video-conferencing software. In leading online sessions for the non-professional choirs I work with, I have been forced into a much deeper relationship with my trusty white volume of carols than I had hitherto considered possible.

In normal circumstances, I try to avoid working on carols more than a couple of weeks before Advent. I know only too well, from my time as a singer, the loss of Christmassy magic that can accompany one’s thirtieth rendition of ‘O come all ye faithful’ during the season (perhaps especially as an alto droning away somewhere in the vicinity of middle C). However, with the short lead time involved, and with music hire companies in much more limited operation, we have been forced to turn to music which everyone would have to hand, and this has meant returning once again to the august OUP collection 100 Carols for Choirs.

We’ve now spent a few weeks mining deep in the rich seams of its (mostly) accessible and festive carol arrangements, taking two or three at a time and merrily bashing our way through them on Zoom. It’s caused me to take a closer look at a volume of which I had thought I had intimate knowledge. One happy by-product has been the discovery of some interesting things I had previously passed over – but it’s also true that its very popularity has led to a certain homogenising of the choral music of Christmas.


In a dim corner of my mind, I remember an undergraduate lecture on Javanese gamelan, where we learned that the once-multifarious regional styles of gamelan music rapidly homogenised in response to the availability of recordings of prestigious ensembles. The dissemination of the recordings led to imitation of the most admired ensembles, so that the peculiar regional differences were gradually ironed out.

It’s not a huge leap to say that a volume with the reach of Carols for Choirs has done the same. Take those Willcocks descants, for example. They are pretty uniformly excellent, tastefully yet dramatically reharmonising the tunes and providing a satisfying conclusion to the congregational carols. However, most are now so universally well-known and well-beloved that their inclusion has become de rigeur. The choirmaster who attempts to introduce different descants is greeted with a chorus of moans from choristers for whom a chord of B half-diminished is the authentic sound of their childhood Christmas. (This is despite the best efforts of OUP, who included a number of new descants in 2011’s Carols for Choirs 5.)

It’s also true that the CFC series has heaped another mound of earth on the idea of carols as belong to any season other than Christmas, despite the token inclusion in 100 CFC of one or two Easter carols. The once-popular Easter Carol Service is now more likely a service of Easter readings and anthems, depriving the Easter season of the fertile interplay between secular and sacred that manifests in carol services during Advent and Christmas.

Contemporary carol composition has also had a hand in taking the genre further from its dance-music roots. We’re rather more likely to hear a delicately-harmonised andante such as Rutter’s Cradle Song than something rambunctious in the model of Willcocks’ Angelus ad virginem or Sussex Carol. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s nice to have both presented side-by-side, giving us options for balance – especially as we’re just as likely these days to use the volume as the anchor of a festive concert programme as the backbone of a church carol service.


Internet choral celebrity Patrick Allies recently took to Twitter to lampoon the way 100 Carols is generally used. It’s a book of two halves; half the ones that everyone does every year, and the half of pieces that still languish in obscurity. Part of this is probably the gamelan effect of choirs such as that of King’s College, Cambridge, broadcasting the ‘authoritative’ carol interpretations and arrangements annually on Christmas Eve.

Knowing that I might otherwise drive myself mad spending two months on carols, I’ve been using the opportunity to take a couple of choirs on excursions around the corners of the volume I knew less well. Willcocks and Rutter took full advantage of editor’s privilege, with the result that just under half of the pieces in 100 CFC are composed or arranged by Willcocks, and a further quarter by Rutter, the unquestioned King of Christmas. There are some real gems: Willcocks tends to arrange traditional carols from various countries, while Rutter prefers to employ the Christmassy Word Randomiser(TM), generating heart-warming texts by assembling ‘stable’, ‘babe’, ‘light’ etc in various combinations. The editors’ achievement is in compiling a very complete and useful volume by casting a wide net, and, where they’ve needed to fill a gap, writing it themselves, in the great Kantor tradition.

There are a few I haven’t yet dared to tackle, even over the sound-proof medium of Zoom (on Zoom, noone can hear you scream). Among them is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Ave plena gracia, placed alphabetically very near the start of the volume and a somewhat daunting sight even for the hardened chorister. I’ve never once heard of it being performed or recorded, and it appears neither on Spotify or YouTube. Go on – I dare you to include it Nine Lessons next year. And while you’re at it, write your own descant – a little bit of regional diversity isn’t such a bad thing, and we wouldn’t want to all sound the same, would we?

Categories
Music

Why I don’t like listening to music (sometimes)

I sometimes beat myself up a little for not listening to as much music as I should. After all, it’s my livelihood, and my vocation – surely I should be spending a considerable portion of my time listening to it. And yet, I will often just…choose not to. I think at least part of the reason is due to a damaging cycle: I have convinced myself that I ought to listen to music in a certain way, a way which causes me not to enjoy it all that much, which in turn means I seek it out less often.

To test this hypothesis, I’m thinking about the situations in which I encounter music. Let’s take a typical scenario. I’m at home, and it occurs to me that I might enjoy listening to some music. I’ll open Spotify on my laptop, and search for anything that springs to mind, or try and find something new. What happens next is generally one of two things: a) I will sit down and try and concentrate on the music; or b) I will try and do something else, with the music in the background.

In situation a), I’m likely to get a bit fidgety, or feel like I ought to be doing something with my unoccupied hands, or with the bit of my brain which is disengaged. In b), there’s a danger I’ll get absorbed in the other activity, and tune out of the music entirely, forgetting to actually listen. It becomes like trying to read a book in bed before going to sleep; the mind wanders, and before long, the eyes have travelled down half the page of their own accord without taking anything in.

Both of these situations are a little unsatisfying, and because of this, I’m often more likely to put on a spoken-word podcast, and get on with another task. This works better, because I’m getting something done, and at the same time I’m generally able to process the audio content. It makes me feel productive, and like I’m learning something, so it feels like an efficient use of my time.

But I don’t necessarily want the experience of music to feel like this – after all, efficiency really isn’t the point.

Accordingly, I’m trying to think of the times when I really enjoy listening to music, to see if I can extrapolate something out of those experiences which will help me work out where I’m going wrong.


The weather had just turned. A greying summer had finally given in to autumn, a triumph the latter celebrated with lashings of rain and evening gloom. It was dark both inside and out, and as I sat working on the sofa, the rain was falling hard at the window, illuminated by the nearby yellow glow of the street-lamp.

These conditions on their own were auspicious enough: who doesn’t like the feeling of being warm inside, while behind a pane of glass the elements rage? But I realised I could enhance this experience, and I knew exactly how. I opened Spotify and cued up the most recent album by the band Bohren & der Club of Gore.

digression A brief digression may be necessary here, to cover the artistry of Bohren. The German musicians have become, over the course of several decades, perhaps the world’s leading exponents of a genre variously known as doom jazz, detective jazz, slow-core, or cinematic noir. The band’s members started off in various death-metal outfits, including the charmingly-named Chronical Diarrhoea, before finding their chosen mode of expression insufficiently depressing. This prompted a progression to what can best be described as very slow minor-key jazz, which they determined to be the proper means to express alienation and despair.

It’s fair to say they’ve mellowed a little over the years, with 2014’s Piano Nights permitting at least some major chords, and this year’s Patchouli Blue poking its nose slightly further out of the abyss. Its palette combines the standard Bohren ingredients – brushed snare, rasping saxophone, a leaden double bass hauling itself effortfully into the next bar – with something approaching sunlight, albeit synthetic, but bordering on hopeful. digression ends

As the rain formed a sort of white-noise background static, the murky soundworld of the music fused with it, and the whole experience, together with the darkness, caused a physical shiver of delight down my spine that must have lasted ten seconds.

This, I think, is what is now known as ASMR, although that sciencey-sounding name belies a sensation that is still not well understood. It’s the sort of thing you might experience stepping into a warm shower after coming in from a muddy walk, or from someone gently playing with your hair.

I continued listening, fairly actively though entranced, for about half an hour or so, until it was time to get dinner ready. It was certainly one of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve had in recent weeks. But why?


The music had soundtracked, in an almost cinematic way, my surroundings: the weather, the dark, probably even my emotions – which, although I haven’t mentioned them yet, were doubtless another important contributing factor, coming at the end of day when I had been more than usually weighed-down by the frustrated ambitions of the year to date.

The key was that the music complemented everything else. I think one of the reasons I don’t always enjoy listening to music is that I expect it to stand on its own, in a vacuum, and for that to be sufficient to move me or even simply hold my interest. But music, as we all know, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it interacts with everything else that’s going on in the world, and the state of our minds.

I generally know enough to know that I have to be in the right mood to listen to a certain piece – but I tend to forget about everything else, the atmospheric conditions, the quality of the environment through which those sound-waves are going to end up vibrating.

As I write, I’ve tested this hypothesis a little. The environmental conditions are different: it’s the afternoon; it’s grey, but not dark, and my mood likewise. I’m playing the same album, but I’ve tried to recreate the circumstances a little by cuing up some artificial rain, via the website rainymood.com. The resulting attempt is less powerful, but it’s still raising a little shiver.

(Interestingly, I seem not to be the only one who has discovered this combination. Does it go back to some culturally-ingrained knowledge of film noir, or perhaps a half-remembered detective novel? Or is tapping into some kind of shared urban alienation? Note to self: more research needed.)


Perhaps, then, it’s not the music that I’ve been getting wrong, but everything else, the environmental factors. Bohren needs a rainy, urban cityscape, darkness, a glass of whisky, perhaps a revolver in the top drawer, so that you can listen to it while you stare warily out into the street under the sodden brim of your hat.

What about the rest – what do other genres need to engage me to the same extent? Maybe renaissance polyphony needs the gentle clink of a thurible, the smell of incense, that cool, airy feeling from being inside a massive stone building. Maybe desert rock like The Killers needs the sensation of being behind the wheel of a car, speeding anonymously through the moonlit Nevada sandscape. Maybe.

Could there be a set of circumstances specific to every piece of music in the world, that allows it to speak its truest? It’s like being on holiday and enjoying an aniseedy liquor, and bringing one back from the airport, and then finding on returning home that it doesn’t taste the same. It needed that chemical reaction with the humid air, and that state of holiday excitement and relaxation, to properly register.

All of which is a way of saying, perhaps I can let myself off the hook a little when I don’t enjoy music. Sometimes, the context is wrong. I’m not always good at remembering that, and I’m not always good at realising what those other factors are that will allow music to do what it does best. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The thing to practice is finding the right music for the right environment – or the other way around.