I was doing some clutter-clearing today and found this passage I saved from when I read Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter some years back. The protagonist is listening to Beethoven’s 3rd symphony (the “Eroica”) at the time, but you don’t have to have heard it[1. If you’d like to get to know the Eroica, good ol’ Youtube will let you travel back in time to watch the great Herbert von Karajan at work: Part 1, Part 2.] to let this passage take you back to the last time you listened to music that made you feel this way.

She could not listen good enough to hear it all. The music boiled inside her. Which? To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would not forget – or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember? Golly! The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough. Then at last the opening music came again, with all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked at her heart. And the first part was over.

This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms held tight around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. It might have been five minutes she listened or half the night. The second part was black-coloured – a slow march. Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before. One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune. Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath. And finally the black march again.

But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best – glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.

The last time music made me feel like the whole world was a symphony and there wasn’t enough of me to listen was a few weeks ago, listening to Dinosaur Jr’s Farm and losing myself so happily in the guitar work[2. There’s No Here isn’t actually a standout track in this (consistently good) album but it’s a punchy example of one of my favourite things about Dinosaur Jr – how J Mascis’s guitar is basically like the fourth member of the band. If you’re feeling a little more emo, let Said The People build to the solo at 3.05.] that I almost forgot I was on my way to work on a Monday morning. When was yours?


Something dramatic was needed to break my obsessive aural dependency on the sound of Elliott Yamin’s voice, so I revisited Venetian Snares’ Rossz Csillag Allat Szuletett, which I’d been enjoying quite a lot before Elliott poured molten sex into my ears.

It isn’t easy to describe why this album’s fusion of (mostly) classical music with drill’n’bass works for me, because at first blush the concept sounds insufferable. The thing is, as drum’n’bass subgenres go, I like drill’n’bass because it has a certain drama and intensity that I find lacking in the jazzy stuff. On the other hand, classical music has lots of drama and intensity but lacks riddim.

Track 8’s sampling of Elgar’s cello concerto in E minor fascinates me. The sample of that famous bit of melody is cut off one note later than you expect it to be – one would have thought cutting the segment off on the D would make for the obvious easy loop but instead it’s left for one more note, which weirds up the time signature and the listener’s feel of the melody. Every time I listen to the track it always makes me feel a bit off-balance at the start, but then I descend into a geeky wanky happy place where I muse about whether I’d feel the same way if I didn’t already know the classical piece, and whether this use of the sample is deliberately intended to elicit this response in the listener, and then I look to the track title for any help but unfortunately it’s called “Szarmar Madar” so nothing gained there; meanwhile, there’s an opera singer throwin’ down high E’s and the chaotic beat’s just tearing shit up, and I start thinking tasteless thoughts about how even Jacqueline du Pre would dance to this except oh wait oops and I’m not even sure whether any of this is good or bad but I like the fact that the song is making me think it.

Beethoven At The Beeb

BBC Radio 3 is playing every single note of Ludwig van Beethoven during this week, and will also make all 9 of his symphonies available for download. I think this is pretty damn awesome, and the product of far greater vision (and okay, public funding) than that which motivates the Best Classical Hits In The World…Ever! vibe of Classic FM.

I’m hoping to use the site and whatever programmes I manage to listen to online to broaden my existing Beethoven knowledge beyond his symphonies, violin and piano works. Although I only revisit my classically-trained past occasionally, it always feels like time well spent once I do.

Gil Shaham: Tchaikovsky/Butterfly Lovers Violin Concertos (Esplanade Concert Hall)

My God. I don’t care what sort of music you like, I dare anyone to suggest a better place (in Singapore) to have been earlier tonight than the Esplanade concert hall listening to Gil Shaham’s Stradivarius sing.

I have a tendency to drift off during classical music performances (including my own, back in the day) but tonight I was transfixed. I have never heard such wonderful sound while sitting in such cheap seats. I have never heard the Singapore Symphony Orchestra sound so good. I have never seen anyone play two violin concertos (Butterfly Lovers, and the Tchaikovsky) in the same concert, or any performance as virtuosic as this was. I’ve never even been in the same concert hall as a Stradivarius, which is a fucking cool first all by itself.

I want to write more, but I honestly can’t describe how amazing it always feels to hear notes I have loved for years, mostly on old Naxos recordings, suddenly reborn in the expanse of this beautiful concert hall, in the capable hands of a master performer.

Over the past year, the Esplanade music venues have basically become my favourite places in Singapore, period. Every event I have attended has delivered top quality music for an affordable price, and more importantly if you know me, every event I have attended has been two or three hours where Singapore is beautiful and I love Singapore. Then, of course, I get horned unnecessarily by some twat while driving out of the Esplanade car park, and I hate this place again. But then I go home and my kitten comes running out mewing and overwhelming my ankles with fuzzy friction until I pick it up. And Alec will be here in a month. And everything is okay and will be okay.

Mahler’s 8th Symphony, Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, 28 May 2004

I spent Friday night at the most crazy-ass ambitious musical event I have ever witnessed. They’re opening the Singapore Arts Festival with 400 people performing Mahler’s 8th Symphony, and thanks to Debbie, I got to attend the media preview.

I’ve always loved Mahler because he’s such a drama queen, and this symphony didn’t disappoint. By the end of it the audience has been buffetted from side to side like leaves in the wind by superpower choir, mad trombones and walls of orchestra noise. In a good way! I could write more about why I think the performance was musically damn good, but it would almost certainly sound like pretentious bollocks, so all I will say is that everyone involved in this should be bloody proud, and everyone who was lucky enough to get tickets to this before it sold out should be bloody thankful.

Vladimir Ashkenazy/Min Lee Concert (25 September, 2003)

Not since I played the organ at a memorial service in pajamas and slippers have I been so inappropriately dressed for an occasion.

The phone call came at 4.30 this afternoon. My sister’s colleague had two tickets to the Vladimir Ashkenazy/Min Lee concert tonight, and something had come up at the last minute preventing her from attending. I’d really wanted to go to this concert, but all the affordable tickets were sold out.

So far, so fantastic, but here’s the rub: they were complimentary tickets, designated “VVIP”. What’s wrong with that, you ask, sounds even better! The problem was that I was in university, had no time to go home and change before the concert, and was wearing trainers, jeans, and a raglan tee featuring a fluorescent green alien. Completely acceptable for the pleb seats, but not when you arrive and realize you are sitting in the same row as the Deputy Prime Minister.

We fished my leather jacket out of a bag of designated dry-cleaning in my mother’s car boot, and that mostly concealed the fluorescent alien, but next to people in silk shawls and cocktail dresses, I still kinda stood out. I tried to hold my head high and remind myself that I’d probably spent more hours actually playing in orchestras than most other people in those VVIP rows (including you, Mr Lee!), but then decided discretion was the better part of valour and spent most of the interval skulking behind a large staircase.

BUT! Whatever embarrassment I might have felt at other parts of the evening was more than compensated for by the rapture of the performances. I mean, Vladimir Ashkenazy. I saw Joshua Bell playing the Sibelius in London, but Ashkenazy is in a whole other league of classical music stardom. He played a Mozart piano concerto, conducting the orchestra at the same time from his seat at the grand piano, and from our VVIP seats we could see every flash of his fingers. The real joy for me was yet to come though. I’m not at all fond of Mozart, and therefore didn’t enjoy Ashkenazy’s performance as much as I could have (amazing though he was), but Min Lee was going to be playing the Bruch violin concerto, which I adore intensely.

[One of my small claims to violin fame is that once, I was, technically, “competition” for Min Lee. To be rather more accurate, we took part in the same round of the National Music Competition. I must have been about 10 or 11, she must have been about 8. Obviously, she kicked everyone’s asses roundly and won the competition, but for one small moment in time I was technically in the same league. I emphasize “technically” here. ]

There’s a certain feeling that overwhelms me when I’m watching a performance of a particular classical music piece I love; the almost violent beating of the heart in the opening notes, the surge of what can only be described as euphoria when the music builds to a climax, the teetering on the brink of tears at the sheer wonder of the beauty human civilization can create when it wants to. That feeling enveloped me tonight, both during the pure unadulterated jubilance of the final movement of the Bruch, and later, when the orchestra played Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Every time I renew my long-lapsed relationship with classical music I am reminded that its power is at its most elemental and intense when it is unadulterated by our modern attempts at “updating” its sound. (William Orbit, I suppose I can’t fault you for trying, but, er, please don’t try any more.) Vanessa Mae can do her violin version of the Toccatta and Fugue to dance beats and yes, it sounds energetic and is perhaps more likely to succeed with the MTV generation, but all I want is to sit in an empty church and listen to its cascading fury unleashed by an organist who doesn’t know I’m there. Rob D can sample the Enigma Variations for the beginning of Clubbed To Death, and everyone will love it because it was in The Matrix and all, but sit in a concert hall listening as the Nimrod variation rolls out its exquisite expanse of sound, and you don’t need flashy bullet-time cinematography to understand that all you really want is to live in this moment forever.

Surround Sounds

I listened to these in surround sound today, and it was divine. I really must start carrying my Discman around again.

  • The first few tracks of the new Outkast in Tower Records, and holy shit batman, Ghettomusick is fabulous. As Stylus puts it, it “makes B.O.B. sound sane.” Unfortunately they give the album(s) as a whole a rather unforgiving review, but of course I’m going to fork out anyway.
  • The duet in Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers, in my sister’s car. I usually hate opera, but this is an old favourite. My sister said Russell Watson sings this song by himself – as in, he records himself singing the second male part in the duet as well as the first. How bizarre. Surely he could have got Jay-Z to step in?
  • Mozart horn quintets, also in the car. French horns are fantastic. Where violins mince, the French horn walks with quiet dignity. The French horn sits subdued at noisy brass gatherings, only speaking when it thinks it has a chance of being listened to, but just shut the trombones up long enough to give it a chance, and your reward will be great indeed. Which is why a horn quintet featuring horn, violin, two violas and a cello is a rather special pleasure.

Joshua Bell Playing Sibelius (Barbican, 2002)

Much shrieking was done on Wednesday night when, while browsing through a Barbican programme I’d picked up on a whim, I suddenly discovered that Joshua Bell was playing the Sibelius violin concerto tonight (BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis).

The first thing I’ll mention, with my usual “I’m not an expert BUT” disclaimer, is that the acoustics of the Barbican concert hall seemed as dreadful as legend has made them out to be (as the Telegraph puts it, “the last great exemplar of how not to build a concert hall“), despite the much-vaunted revamp. I shudder to think what it must have been like before. Sound seemed brittle and strangled, struggling to reach us like a tethered dog on a cruelly short leash. This rendered the Stravinsky programme opener more damp squibs than Fireworks, and Joshua Bell’s highest notes in the Sibelius sometimes got drowned by the orchestra.

I came home and listened to my recordings of the Stravinsky and Sibelius. The Stravinsky recording has all of the caprice and pizzazz that sputtered and died in the concert hall. The Sibelius is the classic Jascha Heifetz recording, and I was quite worried before tonight that because I’ve grown to love this particular one so much, that I’d be unable to appreciate Joshua Bell’s rendition for what it was. My concerns proved unfounded simply because he was brilliant enough to make comparison unnecessary, perhaps a little less note-perfect than Heifetz, but he brought out all the delicacy and poignance that the divine, divine first movement begs for, and delivered enough fiery virtuosic touches to keep the thrill-seeker in me happy as well, so no complaints at all.

And then we come to the second half of the evening. I am far from conservative and close-minded where it comes to taste in music, but Colin Matthews’ vile Renewal really did seem to tick all the stereotypical failure boxes of modern composition. I have no problems with dissonance and repetition, but I felt as if I was descending into a neverending quicksand of disharmony without ever touching ground. Writing in weird-tone scales is all very well for stoking intellectual libido, but it leaves the average listener with little or no awareness of when resolution or evolution takes place, much less any melodic pattern of notes that’s capable of staying in the mind. And I’m not even arguing this from the viewpoint of the aggrieved pleb. Having played for five years in an orchestra which regularly included modern compositions in its repertoire, I’d venture that while I’m far from being an expert, I do have a little more understanding of modern music than the average listener – not that it helped tonight.

After sitting stupefied for the first three minutes, Avril and I unfortunately started on one of our giggling episodes. These usually involve muffled hysteria, sometimes snorts, in all the most inappropriate situations. We managed to calm down after ten minutes of acute stomach pain, and thankfully only experienced sporadic outbursts of mirth over the next forty bloody minutes of the piece before its merciful end.

Wedding Violinist

My cousin decided to inextricably meld her future to the future of Singapore by getting married today, our National Day. I’d been roped in to start the mass off by inexpertly and rustily playing Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desire on the violin, with another cousin on the organ and the groom himself on the flute.

I couldn’t hear how we sounded over the mikes. To my ears the squeaks as my bow crossed strings, and the occasional difficulty of keeping the flow of notes smooth while doing only three notes to a bow (to maximise volume) were fairly obvious, but my mother, who is admittedly not the most objective of critics but would probably have been listening more closely than anyone else, assured me that it sounded great, and even noticed my attempts at injecting subtle dynamics into what can otherwise be a rather monotonous piece. So I hopefully pulled off the proverbial achievement of fooling most of the people most of the time.

Other notable musical aspects of the mass were communion hymns by ever-reliable David Haas and Michael Joncas, who have individually managed to account for a fair number of musical highlights of my year in liturgical music. As I instructed my sister, perhaps a bit disturbingly, after the mass, if I die unexpectedly some time soon I want You Are Mine (David Haas) at my funeral, although I suppose they’d probably not want to sing the verse which ends with “Stand up, now walk, and live!” (Other hymns on that list: Be Not Afraid, and I Am The Bread Of Life. Those of you reading this who know me, tell my family if I die and they forget.)

From my seat in the choir I got a better view of proceedings than most in the congregation. I could see when the couple looked at each other, and when they were intent in prayer – it occurred to me that these aren’t necessarily separate in their focus and meaning. I can’t really pinpoint many of my goals in life but perhaps one of them is that unity of purpose.

Orchestra Nostalgia

On Sunday my uncle organized a big family lunch in honour of my graduation. This was sweet. One does wonder why he chose Geylang (brothel capital of Singapore) for this joyous occasion, but gift horse, mouth, blah.

The Singapore Youth Orchestra concert I attended later with mum was an evening of many flashbacks. Before I joined the orchestra at the age of 13 my mother used to take me to its concerts. I was so small I’d have to perch on the edge of my seat in the circle and peer over the balcony railing to see the players. On Sunday there were alumni violinists in the orchestra I hadn’t seen since I watched them as a child – I couldn’t recognize their faces, but I knew them by their playing styles.

Then I joined the orchestra, and was lazy and never practised and sight-read everything and was, accordingly, a crap first violinist. Neither this nor the fact that I found it socially deadening apart from the very few people I found interesting (and who hopefully know who they are) should be obscured by surges of nostalgia. But when I think back, I remember how it felt to be part of a swell of sound, and that really does outweigh the nitty gritty.