Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer…………..

San Giorgio dei Greci, Venezia

San Giorgio dei Greci, Venezia

In the year 2000, in Venice, sitting in San Giorgio dei Greci, for the Sunday morning mass, I felt so wretched that I thought “this has gone far enough”. Returning to Amsterdam, I located a therapist and started going to him, sticking with it for about two and a half years. At the end of that period however, I was no more the wiser as to why I had lost my peace of mind than I had been, sitting in the Greek Orthodox church in Venice. I mean I was utterly oppressed for no obvious reason, and in the city I love most…..

I don’t propose to make an attack on psychotherapy here. I’m not competent to do that. But I can speak about my experience at least.

The therapist wore very ugly shoes. Indeed they were the cheapest looking shoes I had ever seen. Different pairs, he had, all of them ugly. Always unpolished, sometimes with shoelaces untied and sometimes actually dusty. Sitting there in the corner, like a rather boyish Buddha, he cut an unimpressive figure. Well, I wasn’t going to condemn him for that, of course.

I have heard of people who have floods of tears during therapy. I find that odd. My sessions couldn’t have been less upsetting. It was always the same. I would sit there chatting away quite openly, telling some story in great detail and this guy would say “well time’s up”. What WAS impressive, was that he could remember and refer to all these stories. I assumed he had some method to facilitate memory.

I did once or twice feel some emotion during these sessions. But it was anger, not grief. Once arriving at his house I met him coming home – he was late. He got completely flustered and couldn’t even greet me properly. He handled it like an embarrassed schoolboy. Settling down a few minutes later in my accustomed chair, I tackled him quite angrily on the subject.
There were some other ludicrous moments. In the beginning he asked me to tell him about the dreams I was having. I did that happily because I like my dreams and they fascinate me. After several weeks of doing this he suddenly snapped “why are you trying to impress me?”

Then after two and half years of talk (95% me talking 5% him talking) he said that the health insurance money was coming to an end and that if I continued with him, I would have to pay more. I said I would think about it and I discussed it with my (new) partner, who said that I didn’t have the ability to make a judgement about a therapist as I had no idea what he might be trying to do. It might seem like nothing, but maybe it was actually something. Nevertheless he felt that two and half years should be enough time for this guy to have made an impact. So I went back to the therapist and told him what my partner advised. At that point he blew up and said “this is insulting”. He added that we could have found a way round the money problem and that he had not at all finished with me. I found this tantrum absurd coming from a man who was supposed to be my therapist. Why didn’t he say these things in the first place instead of simply telling me that the fee was going to go up?

Looking back on this after five years I am quite clear as to what I was trying to achieve with Mr X. I wanted to know why I had lost my peace of mind and how I might restore it. I got no answers to either of these questions. Not from him and not from myself. Indeed I still have the same questions.

By the way, the partner I found towards the end of this course of therapy was himself a kind of therapist and that is why I sought his advice on the subject. I was quite astonished when Mr X claimed some credit for my having found a partner……as if I were incapable of reaching out to someone, back in 2000. It was yet another ludicrous moment. Oh dear.

On the plus side, I found the man both kind and sensitive. And he seemed to respect me. He also appeared highly intelligent and it was nice to be with him. Very occasionally he would make a joke. Once, when I had been droning on about my family for the umpteenth time, I asked “do other people talk about their families?” And he replied “that’s all I ever hear about”.

I do believe what my then partner said to me……that in such a case, you cannot know what is being done and therefore mustn’t leap to judgement. And there were some insights. Once, when I had been lamenting the importance of money in the breakdown of relations with my family, Mr X came up with an unusually emphatic statement: “Geoffrey, money is love”. These moments were nice, and stay with me.

Open now the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through:
Strong deliverer, strong deliverer;
Be thou still my strength and shield;
Be thou still my strength and shield…………………………

The cliff face

Lusk Creek (cliffs)

Lusk Creek (cliffs)

Using this metaphor yesterday, regarding artistic issues that are difficult to tackle, was no random choice. It makes reference to something I did when I was very young.

One summer when I was, I guess, eleven years old, I went to Matlock in Derbyshire. There was a course organized by the Royal School of Church Music. It was an intensive one, lasting two weeks, with all sorts of practices and concerts. I had quickly to learn and sing an aria – “Art thou troubled” by Handel. Anyway, we were given one day off and had to fend for ourselves. I went for a long walk on my own – somewhere behind the college where we were staying. I climbed and climbed for a long time and saw no one. It was rocky and eventually became, more or less, a cliff face. Quite daunting. I returned to our base in the early evening and joined the others . Then I realised I had done something odd. Everyone else had hung together or gone out with their parents. I had chosen to be alone, and also to put myself into danger.
Nowadays I guess one wouldn’t allow a boy to roam like that (with all the nutty men there are around…………)

In truth, I wasn’t in much danger, but the point is, I was isolated and eventually became uncomfortable. So the other day, when I was meditating on the issue of artistic goals, the image came to me of that cliff face, plus a warning not to be so presumpteous. I think we (certainly I) have a tendency to presume that very difficult artistic problems can be solved. There’s an arrogance there. I see it in myself. And if you go with that, then there is a foolishness lying in wait for you.

I was puzzled by what I had done on that day alone. But it was a momentary puzzlement. I don’t believe childhood is a great time for philosophy. Feelings yes, but philosophy, not so much.
I must add something to this. It is in answer to an anticipated question – an adult puzzlement. Why am I so often enquiring into myself? Isn’t it narcissistic? Well, it possibly seems so, but the truth is that I am trying to create music and that entails a very big enquiry. It’s not just a matter of finding out how the bass clarinet works, it’s a matter of finding out how I work. I am also a sort of instrument – one that I am still learning to play…………

If it weren’t for that, life would be very different. Beer and sandwiches on the beach? Well, that’s somebody else’s fantasy, not mine. A somebody who has been here all along, like a ghost, and who will, perhaps, eventually appear. Or perhaps not.

The concept of a European soul that creates reflections of itself. Letter (part 4)

crownToday is the anniversary of my father’s birth.

Here is the fourth and final extract from my letter on “new Music”. The rest was specific to the people I was addressing last year.

The concept of a European soul that creates reflections of itself

About ten years ago, in Venice (with my teacher Ernesto Rubin de Cervin, to refer to him once more), I was in St. Mark’s for a concert given by a German orchestra and choir. They played Wolfgang Rihm, Alois Zimmerman and Schoenberg’s “Prelude to the Genesis Suite”. I said afterwards to Ernesto “Schoenberg is the Crown Jewels of Europe”. That was enough to create an understanding between us at that moment. If I have to dispense with the metaphor, I’d say that the work is at one with the spirit that created us as we are – small mirrors of a European soul. I could have said it of Machaut, or of the Grote Markt in Brussels but instead I said it of Schoenberg. It was more of an exclamation actually, as Schoenberg gets such a bad press you can start to forget what a precious jewel he is for you………

So with that conviction I have a right appreciation of Schoenberg and see what logically must follow from that. Perform him! Listen to him!

Dominant musical taste in the UK and other Germanic lands. Letter (part 2)



A beautiful day today. Went to the Erasmus Park, which is near my house. Sat there feeling very happy. Jolly joggers going around and around, though they go widdershins, which is curious, because it’s always the same there. Women – their tits bouncing up and down and plugged into music – and some men, one athletic, tall and slim. Yum-yum.

I remember that we went widdershins around San Giorgio (the Greek Orthodox church) in Venice, at Easter time in 1974, when I was a student. I walked home with a lighted candle all the way to San Samuele. Did it blow out? I don’t remember.

Today, there was a barbecue going on at one of the row of stone tables where you can play chess. Some men there were being tiresomely noisy, their women looking on, as if circumspect. Perhaps I was just viewing it through my irritation. Maybe they were looking on proudly………heh-heh.

Following on from yesterday’s dollop, here is the second part of my long letter on “new music”:- The dominant musical taste in the UK and other Germanic lands

“Those who ask themselves why the spirit of American-derived popular music is so colossally attractive to some European peoples account for it in various ways. It is fatuous in my view to point to the American music industry as merely another business success and something to do with celebrity. Music is spiritual and the triumph of American popular song and dance is a great spiritual movement I believe. Even Anglican church congregations feel the trend towards popular American styles, raising their arms (incongruously it has to be said), as if they were gospel singers.

I call the advent of modern music (in the sense that most people mean the term) ‘colonisation in reverse’ – a sign that the African diaspora has a lasting and unexpected impact……..all those hymn singing protestant colonists would be very surprised indeed at the turn of events.

And I personally see a connection between the metamorphosis of the Christian religion and the ascendancy of modern popular music. The two things are connected in my view, though they are unconnected in the view of most commentators. Europeans didn’t want to go on forever with their stiffly marching chorales and their pious Gregorian chants, they wanted to sing and dance as Africans feel free to do, without shame. When you see the painful shyness in the case of these ‘Germanic tribes’ here in the north, it is no wonder that they turn in this direction. Yet that they still do not sit in their bodies as happily as Africans do is clear. Africans appear to remain spiritually whole in spite of everything we throw at them. And we are seeking their wholeness, without any concept of what is happening, because our concept of Africa is all to do with poverty and disease. In our feelings however, we recognise its richness and its health. What generations ago would have been described as at best shameful and at worst satanic is now perceived to be authentically human, and that is the treasure that we grasp, perhaps more precious even than all the gold and diamonds we stole from our ‘inferiors’.

It is only time before we have an Archbishop of Canterbury who is ready to start jigging away…..we already have a Prime Minister who thinks that new British music means Oasis……so why not?

The process of what I called ‘colonisation in reverse’ began already at least a hundred years ago. (I can’t go into that in any detail here, but it is obviously clear in the early blues/jazz movement. It spills over also into European art. There is the case of Picasso/Braque cubism for example.) But of course it was never the case that classical music reached the grass roots of British society. A Mozart symphony was always remote from the general public. The so-called Celtic culture is very strong, the English folk one, comparatively weaker. Now however the old English folk music has become as remote as Mozart, whereas some new bit of African music will seem quite familiar in language. The situation in Africa itself, where some former colonies have a very visible Christian presence, is relevant here. A colleague told me recently that more than half the modern music being produced in Ghana is gospel.

Of course this all impacts on us. It is very important. Our activities, as classical musicians, are absolutely dwarfed by this spiritual movement. Europe shows mass disinterest in its traditional musical culture – those individuals at the top of the pyramid just as much as those at the lowest level. It reminds me of an anecdote from my teacher Rubin de Cervin. He told me that when Napoleon entered Venice, the Doge fled from his council chamber tearing off his robes as he ran. So it is now, with Europe in general, it can’t throw off its old music fast enough. I am not arguing for some quasi fascist response to this. Of course not. On the contrary, I think the change has to happen. It is a necessary transformation. It is also democratic.

But it does impinge greatly on us as upholders and extenders of a classical tradition. Indeed, in the face of all this, even some colleagues argue that we ourselves abandon our tradition. No way do we do that!

So I have ascribed a deep meaning beyond dollars and fame to this ‘colossus’ – popular song and dance”.

A dream and some mischievous elves – maybe.

"Poor little birdie teased", by Victorian illustrator Richard Doyle

“Poor little birdie teased”, by Victorian illustrator Richard Doyle

Last night I dreamt that I was giving the Chinese jeweller in Albert Cuypstraat (Tai Chong) instructions on how to make two gold rings, one of which was like a wedding band and intended for my mother. She is dead of course, but I go on dreaming about her, and also about my father, as if they both were still alive. In recent years, ever more so, in fact.

The ring for my mother was to be inscribed with a text. The same text that is engraved on the granite stone of the Homomonument that I talked about yesterday.

“Naar vriendschap zulk een mateloos verlangen” (“Such an immense longing for friendship”).

The text is an extract from the poem “To a young fisherman” by Jacob Israel de Haan (1881-1924).

In my dream I was giving instructions to the jeweller for making two rings, as I said, but I forget the design of the other one, and for whom it was intended.

This week has been an “enchanted” one, but not in a nice sense of the word. I did a lot of reading about Scandinavian and also U.K. folklore. I came across what I thought was a beautiful chant (collected in the 19th century) to drive away witches and bad fairies and to call on good ones, to come and aid whoever has the job of churning the butter that day. I said it aloud……….

Come, butter, come,
Come, butter, come,
Peter stands at the gate,
Waiting for a buttered cake,
Come, butter, come!

Later, after this study, I was disconcerted to come home at 12.30 in the night and find dumped on the street by my door, a huge pile of clothing, neatly folded and resting on a large light blue rubbish bag, as if intended for me. It was damp from the rain. I piled the clothes into the bag and brought them upstairs, with a sick feeling. When I examined the contents again I found that the clothing was not mine, but a child’s. So I put the bag outside on the landing in order that it did not “cross over my boundary”. In the morning I took the bag downstairs and knocked on my neighbours’ doors to see whose it was. Hardly anyone was in, but I spoke to three people who knew nothing and who were not interested in any case. So I put the rubbish bag back where I had found it the previous night and by the next day it was gone. Whilst doing this, I noticed that all the street lighting was on, though it was late in the morning.

This story would not have any significance but for one detail. When I examined the clothing on the street at 12.30 on Tuesday night, in that dim light, I saw that it was mine.

Taste, behaviour, tolerance

Thalys 2

Thalys 2

A note today from someone complaining that I was talking “explicitly” about porn yesterday on the blog…..that it was “inappropriate and rather cheap”. “Everybody watches porn movies, but nobody talks about it explicitly”. “And also, you should not insult the actresses ….. some of them did it because they really need the money….”

Well, it got me thinking about taste, behaviour and toleration of others.

I took Michael to Central Station. In the old days, before the very good influence of my last partner, I would have stuck him on the bus and let him get on with it. Or worse still, just said goodbye at the door and expected him to do the whole thing on his own. Instead, I went all the way to the station and waited for the train to arrive and depart, then waved goodbye as it disappeared out of the station. Why? Because he’s a good friend and deserving of respect and consideration.

On the tram we were sat next to a “unit”. That is a roughly spherical shaped woman (Hamish calls them “gronks”). Before anyone complains that no woman should be ridiculed for being fat, let me add that this “unit” had her shoe propped up on the seat in front of her, where other people have to sit. She was also sending out an audible ts ts ts ts from her “personal” stereo/iPod. We shifted our seats, at my insistence.

At the station we came up against the no smoking ban (M is a chain smoker). So that meant hanging around outside for a first fag. And then a second fag on the platform (breaking the law) . On the train it would be no smoking all the way to Brussels.

Some things are banned and others are tolerated. It is a matter of taste, and people are so concerned about cancer that it’s easy to understand the ban in this case. As to a woman on the tram putting her feet on seats where other people have to sit, and also polluting the environment with tinny music, that’s okay………….ish.

I went to the library and picked up what I needed. As I left, I saw a library assistant leaning by the exit, smoking a fag – I asked him about it, and he said he wasn’t allowed to smoke inside. But inside, people carry on loud and lengthy conversations. That’s a greater irritant to me than someone having a puff on a cigarette, though I’m not particularly keen on that either, as it makes me cough.

I walked home down the Prinsengracht and this time got a really good look at the Westerkerk tower. There is no question in my mind that the new bright paint there, picking out several details, is very apt. I like it a lot, though I was thrown by it in the first instance [4/12/07]. But I was only thrown by it because I thought “am I allowed to like this?”

Perhaps even more important than questions of taste and behaviour, are matters of tolerance. If you are too intolerant, then you can’t have the relationships or friendships you would like. Unless you can find someone who shares your exact tastes and standards of behaviour. But what is the likelihood of that? No. Tolerance is a building block in these relationships and also crucial to the political dimension as well.

Just before I reached home, a beggar came up to me – a young handsome man, Asian, thin looking. He asked if I could give him some money to buy something to eat. I said no and moved on quickly. It all happened so fast that it was only as I moved away that I saw how desperate he was. And then I regretted not helping him. I said “I don’t have much money either” but as I walked on further I thought: “yes, not much money, but I can go home, I can eat, I can pull the plug on the phone if I like and do nothing except write music until Friday evening, so, by any reasonable standard, I am rich”. When I looked back, I saw the man heading towards someone else and I felt sorry for him. Oh dear.

Michael caught the Thalys 2, headed for Paris-Nord. It looked beautiful. And suddenly I missed Paris.

Family matters

It is my sister’s birthday today. She will be 66. But it was a stupid day. On my way to a lunchtime concert (harpsichord and traverso) I got off the tram so that I could get some money. Then I found my card had expired, so I had to turn back and go home. On the No.12 tram a very cute man opposite me yawned several times. Then I yawned. And then I remembered reading somewhere that yawns are catching like that.

And I remembered how as a small child I used to cry if my mother cried. My father used to yell and scream at her and bang doors when he was drunk. She didn’t often cry, but when she did it broke my heart. My sister would cry too. Though she was older and tougher than I was. Once she picked up a dustbin lid and held it there, like a shield, to defend us. We were cowering in the hallway of that bare house, with almost no furniture or even floor covering, or even light bulbs! And with not enough to eat. And the shame of him being unemployed. There was so much shame in that house. As a child one has almost no words, but one understands many things even so.

I carried some of that shame throughout my life and added my own to it. I speak here of something that many people can understand. And I say to myself and to everyone – this is one prison from which we, like Florestan in Fidelio, can escape………SHAME

Shame even menaced my creative work.

It took me really my whole life to forgive my father for his conduct. This year I shall for the first time remember him on his birthday – May 21st. Next year will be the centenary of his birth and I will discuss with my family how we can best celebrate him. If they don’t want to do anything, I shall myself go to his burial place. I have not visited it since his death in 1976. And I shall thank him, because he always loved me and never hit me or tried to hurt me in any other way. Okay, he didn’t do what men are supposed to do – work, pay for a family, give leadership. But he got one big thing right – he loved me.

There was an odd thing in the middle of these violent rages of my father – he would look at me in a disconcerted way as if to say “no, no, I don’t mean you”. But he didn’t say it. And he never did apologize in any way for what he did in those years.

Once in Venice on the Giudecca over lunch, I was explaining to my friend Marie how it was at home and she began to cry, so I had to stop. But a better reason to stop telling this story is that so many children throughout the world suffer far, far worse. And in telling one’s story, one mustn’t lose a sense of proportion.

Trees and woods

A wood like my woods

A wood like my woods

Saturday was my last meeting with my class this semester. I liked the students very much and some of them worked quite hard. Now there is a big gap until September, when I begin again with a new group.

The trees on the way down were wonderful. An explosion of leaves and blossom – and that’s almost not a metaphor. A slow motion explosion, but not slow enough. Next time I look the leaves will be fully out. And then they will start to age.

I increasingly miss the woods near my childhood home. Much of that area will be changed now, but not all of it. Addington Palace has become a hotel. It was the headquarters of the Royal School of Church Music when I was a child. When I think of everything that happened to me there! Joyous things, painful things….

The place was always in my imagination as a solid rock, but nothing is solid. Everything is in transformation. I still remember exactly how the massive front door felt as I opened it. As a boy chorister I wasn’t supposed to enter by that main entrance, but sometimes I couldn’t resist it.

I would like time to slow up I always think, but perhaps it is me who has the tempo problem. As a child I would sometimes spend hours in the woods. I was exploring slowly and thoroughly. No, I wasn’t learning the names of the plants and the animals – that didn’t interest me – but I was keenly observing things even so. Nowadays I would never take that amount of time just “doing nothing”.

Some of the things I saw then must have been very old indeed – paths, cottages, dating back to the eighteenth century. But there was a medieval church in Addington Village. So some of the sights must have been even older. But which? What had changed and what had remained the same? How old were the springs in what I called the Spring Woods? And are they still there just the same, or have they dried up? I would like to travel back into the past to see how that area was long ago, and then I should like to travel into the future to see what of it will remain.

The first time I went to Addington Palace it was a Saturday morning in September and the gardeners were burning leaves. I was with another child and we were taken into a room where boys were singing divisi. It was the Beati Quorum Via of Stanford. I had never heard anything so beautiful. It was radiant like light.

You gotta do what you gotta do

Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II

H.M. The Queen is 81 today.

Alasdair left at nine in the morning for Schipol. We ate breakfast together and I took him down to the tramhalte. But I didn’t accompany him further because it’s an easy journey.

He arrived late last night and so we talked into the small hours, rather than over dinner. Very nice. I’m going to see him from time to time perhaps, as he has to make visits to the Koninklijk Conservatorium over the coming months. He gave me two of his scores and some recordings. He has a page at the RSAMD website.

After he had gone, I continued work on my string quartet.

Finally I have tracked down a recording of the John Rutter Requiem. It was the Requiem Aeternam movement broadcast on the radio a few weeks ago that struck Ananda and myself with such force. It is an inspired and well crafted movement . What I mainly wish to note here however is that this sort of specialist church music composer is regarded with contempt by my contemporary music composer colleagues. A strange snobbery, as one would certainly think twice before attending a vocal piece composed by some of those guys! He-he.

It’s partly about snobbery, but it’s also partly about acting and lying. But that’s an unnecessarily negative way of describing it. Let’s just refer to it as “career mentality”. Everybody remembers the case of the conservative government minister who gave an embarrassingly jingoistic, rabble rousing speech at a party conference. He lost his seat at the subsequent general election and then began to change his tune radically and to reveal himself as quite a reasonable man. He seemed to many to be papabile but then it emerged that he had a “gay past”. Oh dear. So he flopped in the ensuing leadership election. Only half interested in this depressing comedy, I realised rather late that the famous awful speech and subsequent change of direction had as their basis an ambition to rise to the top in politics, and maybe little else.

We make a pretence (and how often have I shuddered at hearing MYSELF deliver some carefully crafted compliment about Elliot Carter’s music?) because we hope to belong to the group that is going to ascend smoothly to the top. And we hope also that no one will notice that we don’t actually give a rat’sfuck about the group credo. I don’t happen to think it’s culpable to lie about one’s beliefs in order to survive and prosper. I just think it’s a pity that a very accomplished composer like John Rutter gets trodden underfoot in the process.

The Queen’s birthday today reminds me of what a disaffected bunch the composers’ group is. They are “republican” and “socialist” and “atheist”. I can’t imagine one of them turning up to cathedral evensong or taking communion at a Church of England mass unless they were paid to do so. And they would certainly laugh to scorn the very idea of a Royal Family. Fair enough. But watch when you withdraw the government subsidy from these same folk how they start chanting about the collapsing state of the nation. And by the way, not a few of these “socialist” composers don’t give a ratshit about what music “the people” actually enjoy. That makes sense to them I guess.

Well, I don’t mean entirely to condemn the hypocrisy and, as I indicated, I take part in it myself. You gotta do what you gotta do.

But let me resolve henceforth always to think well of my colleagues, no matter how rich and talentless they may be. I cannot promise always to SPEAK well of them, but in my heart they shall be honoured. Dear, dear colleagues, may you live long and prosper.