Saturday, 1 December 2018

A superstar is born

About two years ago I attended a concert at Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall. The main attraction was a shy young man playing the cello, who had just won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. He delivered a polished performance, technically secure, at times allowing the audience a glimpse of things to come. He was helped at the conductor's pult by the firm leadership of Vasily Petrenko who is not one for musical extravangance but clear and sound delivery.

What a difference a year, or two, makes. The Royal Wedding, assorted media performances later and, yesterday, the same person filled the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool to the rafters with people who were dying to hear him (and take a picture on their iphone) at a solo performance, accompanied on the piano by his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason at The T.J. Martell Foundation in October 2018
As I wrote in 2016, there was never any doubt that Kanneh-Mason had the potential for cello stardom. His almost flawless technique prepared him for a steep musical career. The question was how he would navigate the stumbling blocs on the way, not least those moments of fame which were bound to come him as a rare example of a gifted black musician in a country that was (and still is) crying out for more diversity amongst its performers and audiences. As everyone knows who has been in a concert hall in the UK, auditoria here are filled with people from the same demographic: white, middle class and well into pension age, presumably a legacy of the brutal cull of secondary school music teaching in the 1980s. So it is no surprise that a country hungry for a fresh face embraced Kennuh-Mason (and his family) with open arms.

Yet with fame, especially of the Royal Wedding type, come problems and it was an open question whether Kanneh-Mason would be able to walk the fine line between cashing in on the popular classical music promise and the hard slog of the concert hall performances and studios.

As more recordings of him were released, the worries increased. Most of the pieces were pleasant yet musically inconsequential nods to popular taste. The real test would be whether he would develop his repertoire and further take on the modern classics, as he did with so enormous success with Shostakovich's cello concerto. The British say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating and last night, the pudding was being served and it was delicious indeed.

The evening started with an dynamic delivery of Boccherini's Cello Sonata No 6. Brother and sister displayed a special rapport which helped with the rapid tempi changes and Haydnesque flourishes.

The next piece was Puolenc's Cello Sonata. I must have heard it now perhaps a hundred times, most notably played by Daniel Mueller Schott and Robert Kulek. Whilst studio recordings hugely privilege the cello, as studio technicians can dim the piano sound and heighten the prominence of the cello, both cello and piano were perfectly synchronised last night and Isata Sheku-Mason took the foot of the pedal in the right moments to allow her brother to shine.

Poulenc's second movement is the Cavatine, a beautiful instrumental aria. This was where technical prowess was to be transformed into personality and, whilst I would have loved a less hurried, more longing interpretation from Kanneh-Mason, he clearly put his own stamp on the piece which means he has now joined the musical conversation about the piece's interpretation in his own right, and that at age 19. 

The fourth movement of Poulenc's Sonata was probably the trickiest for both to navigate and both may agree that there were moments that needed extra work still. But even in those moments of strain, if anything, Sheku Kanneh-Mason appears only to be the victim of his own success. His technique is so polished, his dexterity so extraordinary that he sometimes rushes some of the passages instead of slowing them down. Sometimes less is more, and since the first bars of the fourth movement are fiendishly difficult for the piano too, a slower pace may have worked wonders.

Debussy's Cello Sonata and Brahms' Cello Sonata No 2 followed after the interval. Both brother and sister offered a muscular interpretation of Brahms, and Sheku an energic and forceful pizzicato in Debussy's Sonata's second movement. There were perhaps moments of technical brilliance that lacked the emotional urgency in Debussy but to say that is to take nothing away from a superlative performance of a promising cellist superstar in the making.

Brahms' Sonata was perhaps the most difficult piece for the hall. Liverpool's Philharmonic has the acoustic characteristics of a barn hall and solo instruments are helped greatly by sparsely instrumented passages. In turn, where composers pull out all the stops, the sound easily gets mixed in with its own echo from the bare walls. So, whilst Poulenc and Debussy were perfect for the hall, Brahms' Sonata got slightly drowned in its own reverberations. Brahms' was clearly a piece ideal for the more intimate, originally scheduled location of the concert. (It didn't help that there is always somebody who finds it difficul to switch off their mobile phone.)

I tend to close my eyes during performances since the various antics of performers (conductors and soloists alike) interest me little. Last night however I couldn't do this. Kanneh-Mason's technical skills were never in doubt but what he now offers audiences is starting to become a musical personality, a way of playing that is his very own. His famous pout notwithstanding (he has publically commented on it) his way of playing now clearly shows that he is one with his cello. More so, he dabbles in displays of full control over the instrument yet also developed a way to indicate critical distance to it. This creative tension between the player and instrument, a simultaneous unity and separation, is riveting to observe.

In Sheku Kanneh-Mason we are blessed with that rare thing, the career of a musical superstar unfolding in front of our eyes.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Why the Democrats may struggle to win the mid terms

As Democrats do not tire to remind us, Hilary Clinton garnered more votes than Donald Trump in the presidential election of 2016. Yet, many of those votes were cast in the wrong place. That's the summary analysis of Clinton's defeat widely shared amongst political observers and pollsters.

The Democratic Party may be heading for a repeat of 2016 in the mid-terms next week. You may ask why. Here is why.

Perceptions matter and Clinton's campaign was seen to be dominated by niche issues, such as rights for transgender people, LGBT and minorities. This may have been a misperception but Clinton did little to counter it by formulating policies for ordinary Americans. The 'glass ceiling' gimmick at the Democratic National Convention was symptomatic for a campaign that was skewed towards issues which meant little to ordinary Americans.

Shards for splinter groups. Hilary Clinton at the Democratic Party Convention 2016
Listening to her former running mate Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia yesterday the Party seems to be repeating its old mistakes. He praised how reinvigorated the campaign for the mid terms has been and got excited listing pretty much every minority in the book, throwing in a mention of women for good measure.

LGBT and trans campaigners certainly know how to make noise. They are civil rights campaigners on a mission. And they know how to dominate the airwaves. But beware thinking that their vocal media presence translates into votes at the ballot box. In fact, the most intriguing fact in recent months has been the steady high support of women for Trump and the Republican Party, even in the face of MeToo.

The reason is simple. The economy is creating the best employment figures for decades and Trump appears to be doing what he promised to do (you may of course disagree that these are worthy things to be done in the first place). The economic message of the Republican Party is clear. The economic policy of the Democratic Party is ... well, unclear, to say the least. It seems that most of the prominent Democratic candidates are more concerned about transgender rights focusing on identity politics than how to keep the economy moving.

It's a curiously topsy turvy picture for anyone who remembers the 1980s (like I do). It seems that the Democrats are waging the cultural wars that Republicans ran under Reagan and (to a lesser extent) under Bush Senior. The difference is however that Reagan's campaigns were targeted at ordinary Americans, coupled with a sound message about economic prosperity, whereas Democrats still appear to have little to say on the economy and focus their cultural electoral signals on minority groups that make up a tiny fraction of the American population. I would be surprised if transgender issues are a big vote mobiliser on November 7th.

At the moment, the Democrats are expected to win a majority in the House of Representatives, making legislative work difficult for the president. I am growing ever more skeptical of this expectation. Let's see next week. 


Monday, 24 September 2018

Why there should not be a people's vote

Of all people I should be the last one to side with Farage and the like in all matters of Brexit. As a German without a British passport I will lose most of my civil rights on 19th March 2019. However, recently I found myself increasingly frustrated and worried about the calls for a second referendum or people's vote on Brexit. There may be many things wrong with the first Brexit vote, not least our lack of understanding of how social media may or may not have been used (unduly) to influence the outcome of the vote. However, I do not find the various reasons for a second vote convincing. Here is why.

Argument 1: They did not know what they voted on

This is a bad argument to put forward. Not only does it reak of patronising voters it also cuts both ways. If people had really been ignorant of what the referendum question was about (or what a decision either way entailed) then re-running the referendum assumes that voters can only genuinely cast their vote under conditions of absolute knowledge. This strikes me as a ludicrous condition for voting in a democratic society. Whether we like it or not, frivolous voting is a right everyone has in a free country. And so is voting on grounds of self-declared ignorance.

The outcome of the negotiations need to be endorsed by the voters

Well, it does indeed. That's what parliament is for. Referenda are a poor mechanism to discriminate between policy options. And if I remember correctly that was also an argument against the first referendum. I still agree with this and hence a second referendum would solve little that cannot be decided by elected MPs.

We should stop Brexit 

That's probably the most annoying argument and one that is most likely to backfire. There is no guarantee that a second referendum would yield a substantial majority for remaining in the EU. Just think about the difficulty of drafting the referendum question. Would it be a three way choice between 'the deal', 'no deal' and remaining in EU? That would split the 'remain camp' and likely deliver a supporting vote for 'the deal', whatever that may be. So, remainers would not get from such a referendum what they wanted (to preserve EU membership). And why would people 'know' more about 'the deal' or 'no deal' options if they, allegedly, were in a state of fateful ignorance about the benefits of EU membership? Are the ramifications of 'the deal' any simpler to grasp? 

So, why are we talking about a second referendum or people's vote? It may be worthwhile to have a look at who is advocating it. John Harris's podcasts are little windows into our divided soul. And it seems to me that the dividing line between us runs somewhere between London/South of England and the rest of England and Wales. I think it's no surprise that this is also roughly the line that divides the well off from the deprived areas in England, those that have benefitted from, and have accommodated themselves with immigration and a global economy and those that have not.

I accept that Brexit will not rectify the injustices and imbalances between London and the rest of the country. But, living in the North West of England, I also understand those who feel left behind and may now look on with some schadenfreude as London house prices fall and multinational companies start to relocate to other European cities. The movement for the people's vote is born out of a recognition that with Brexit, London and the South of England would suffer (though the rest of England would disproportionately suffer even more). Yet for Londoners who have treated the rest of the country with imperial disdain and contempt for decades, many Northerners thought this was pay back time. And I can't blame them.

In this context, campaigning for a people's vote appears to be counterproductive. It ties up energies that are really needed to argue for a sensible, smooth exit from the EU. It would make more sense to work out how we can get to an EFTA or Norway solution and how to get this through parliament rather than wasting political capital on preventing something that has democratic legitimacy: leaving the European Union.




Thursday, 23 August 2018

Why Trump is winning

I am reading a lot of poetry these days. Call it escapism. Listening to the news makes me depressed and no one wants to feel low. So, I turned to poetry. A modest investment of about £8 gets you 'The Poetry Review' in your well ordered local bookstore and in a recent issue I found a poem by Mel Pryor called 'Cliff'. It's neat and has some nice turns of phrases such as when she talks about 'these daily unminuted miracles' (The Poetry Review, p.17).

I guess it's the poem's sense of ending that appeals to me. Recently, things in the political world have felt increasingly like we are standing at a precipice. But, and this is my point, this is a mistake and it can become a serious political error if progressives believe that everyone feels like that. Dread is not a political motivator. So let's look at the facts.

Trump's popularity with his base feeds on public outburst (and plenty of unacceptable ill-tempered language) about minorities, people he does not like (anymore), and railings against the establishment. The reaction of progressives is instructive. They dislike his foul verbiage, the damage to established institutions he does with his tweets and his exploitation of the presidency for his own gain. They dislike that he offers the American people some populist grub and that many of them take it.

But here is the crux. Progressives are indignated by Trump's actions and tweets, and as they become more and more outraged they start to believe that, if only Trump was gone (impeached or otherwise) they would win again and everything would go back to normal. They take the messenger for the message. There are already signs that Democrats tailor their mid-term campaign to the tune of Trump. In a sense, they take populism's bait and swallow it hook line and sinker.

Indignation is always a bad compass in politics. Whilst indignation is the way in which we police our norms of public behaviour, it is in essence a blunt tool. It only reaches as far as our gut feelings last and that's not very far indeed. Remember the little dead boy that was carried on to a Turkish beach by a police officer at the height at the Syrian refugee crisis? I bet you do! And what came of it? Exactly.

The reason Trump won (and this is what progressives don't want to hear) is that neither the Clinton campaign nor the Democratic Party actually made a positive offer to the American people in 2016. I vividly remember a moment in the primaries during Clinton's first bid for the candidacy of the Democratic Party (in 2006) when she started to tear up and declared that she had 'so many opportunities for this country'. What these were she showed us ten years later in 2016: a long list of things to do for ... transgender people, women, minorities, gays, and any other poor marginalised soul in America. But what she could never say is why any middle of the road, no nonsense American who didn't define himself by his or her sexual or racial identity should vote for her. She never told middle America why she should be in office.

Government jobs for everyone - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Source: Mark Lennihan/AP

I know some of these words hurt (it's indignation again, see). We all want to do our best for minorities and people on the margins of society. But what progressives often forget is that campaigning on issues that matter to only a handful of people is unlikely to succeed. And so we go again, come the mid-term elections. The latest candidate to make the headlines is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - somebody who says that the border force should be abolished and that everyone should be guaranteed a job by the government. Familiar stuff? Yes, we heard this before. If you are old enough, that is, and your memory reaches back to the 1970 and 1980s.

So, what's going wrong? The answer is simple. Whilst Trump dishes out populist messages, progressives are sidetracked by their indignation and veer to the extreme left, strengthening those parts of their electoral offer that made them lose the last election: identity politics. The people who may feel less and less represented are those in the centre, the moderates who do not think that transgender toilets are the most urgent thing to instal when there is an opiod crisis affecting communities up and down the country.

What may break it for Trump is not his ill-tempered language or his tweeting but the economy. At the moment, the American economy is overheating. He is urging the Fed to lower interest rates, which would be catastrophic for inflationary pressures. He may just turn out to steer the American economy into a serious crisis and middle America won't tolerate that.

The maths show that Democrats are likely to win back the House of Representatives in November, yet are unlikely to win the Senate. But if they think that this paves the way for a win in the presidential elections in 2020 (or indeed for impeachment) they are mistaken. Up till now, they have nothing to offer to those in the centre ground of politics. All they offer is their indignation and their desire to boot out Trump. That's not an electoral programme.

If they don't change course, then I guess there is more poetry for me.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

The subliminal world of political campaigning

In 1973, a new episode of Columbo hit the NBC screens. Robert Culp made another appearance, this time as a devious advertising specialist who used his ability to influence the viewers of his advertising videos to commit a murder. The particular method was to place subliminal stimuli into the videos which prompted one person in a selected audience to feel thirsty and leave the auditorium to seek some relief at a public fountain in the foyer. That's where the murderer struck.

The use of subliminal messages for manipulation is well known since the 1970s. However has obtained new resonance in our times of fake news and political campaigns using targeted messages.

Subliminal cues work by inducing brain processes below a threshold of objective awareness. In other words, they are stimuli which we are subjected to without being conscious of. There is some debate as to their effectiveness. Some research indicates that they are less effective than stimuli above the awareness threshold (those we can perceive as such). But all agree that they are basically a form of manipulation.

Never quite what it seems - Robert Culp in 'Double Exposure' NBC

There is also a clear consensus about what is wrong manipulating people. Manipulating people is not based on the selection of preferences based on human volition and deliberation. Manipulation is in essence a mechanism to avoid what we do when we need to chose, that is to think which options are preferable to us and why. As Hannah Arendt noted, giving reasons for our actions is part of the human condition. Whilst it is a fundamentally flawed process, it is also one that allows others to challenge us and enter into a discussion about the merits and disadvantages of our choices. It is the process by which we relate to each other in mutual respect and recognition of our ability to decide freely in matters concerning the body politic.

Arendt was clear about the fact that our public and private deliberations were often flawed, conditioned by a lack of knowledge, poor information, and the like. Yet, she contended, there was little else. Beyond the free and fair exchange of ideas in the public arena was only the realm of manipulation and distrust inevitably undermining the political institutions of democracy and civic liberties.

This is where targeted campaigning and subliminal messaging in advertising meet. As the Leave.EU donor Aaron Banks admitted to the Select Committee of the House of Commons, their campaign 'led people up the garden path' (one of those pretty English euphemisms for something loathsome, namely lying).

Combined with targeted political advertising, political choices may have become based less on what we know but what others want us to (not) know, a perversion of the notion of choice which is based on voluntary selection of preferences underpinned by an awareness of options and their consequences. As Arendt sees it, it is public civility and respect versus manipulation of behaviour.

Manipulating voters in political campaigns is similar to placing subliminal cues in product advertising. Voters do not quite know what they are being told. Where campaigners feel no commitment to be truthful, a basic consensus about our democratic decision making falls apart: that within the boundaries of the competition of ideas, falsehoods should not be part of the arsenal of weapons to defeat your opponent. All electoral laws in the Western world accept this basic principle; there are strict sanctions for those who disseminate lies deliberately in the public domain during a political domain.

Targeted political ads however are not illegal and we may want to ask whether our current electoral legal framework is sufficiently robust for the times of facebook, insta and rogue 'news' outlets.

In case you wondered, subliminal messaging is illegal in the UK. The BCAP Code defines it as 'misleading advertising'.And yes, Columbo did get his guy in the end.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Charles Ives at Bridgewater Hall

A few years ago, I came across a piece by the American composer Charles Ives and I fell in love with it. It is titled The Unanswered Question and starts off with a faint melodious section played by the strings. Whilst the piece initially flirts with romanticism, within a few bars a dissonant call from the brass overlays the strings. As the strings continue, a signal trumpet call gains strength and is undercut by a wood wind theme, subversive to both strings and its brass brothers in arms. (there is a NYPhil version on youtube here)

Charles Ives (1878-1954)
The piece is only less than 5 mins long but it is impressive and leaves one with a fully painted mental picture. Ives' music, it seemed to me back then, was like a painting by Edward Hopper, only that Ives was painting outside urban scences where Hopper wanted to look into the inside of people's places from outside.

That Ives composed radically metropolitan scences shows even more clearly in his piece Central Park in the Dark. If you did not know the title, the ever increasing noise of urban sounds swelling to a mighty explosion in the piece would leave you in no doubt that you are in the middle of a city.

What Ives manages however is to portray the fragile contrast between a city's harmonic background bordering on silence and the discordant hubbub that surrounds us on a daily basis. The piece starts off in near silence with the strings once again setting the scene, this time less melodious, giving off a whiff of a metalic sound. As the wood winds intermittently intersect with the strings, the scene still remains distant in sound and impact on the listener.

Next, the flute takes up a theme and hovers above strings and wood winds. None of them even attempt to merge or meld into one coherent whole. Finally a singular violin and a piano furnish additional moments of urban sounds, until all climaxes in pandemonium as we know it from the streets of New York.

Ives added a beautiful note of contrast as the musical tumult cuts out suddenly and the strings are heard to continue to the very end of the piece. It creates a moment of surprise as you realise they have been there all along, no matter how loud the city was.

The piece's crescendo is difficult to play (there is a Bernstein/NYPhil version here). In particular, what appears like an unwanted disturbances of the strings by random noise actually requires careful calibration of the sound levels. The BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgards gave their all but at times it was not quite enough. In particular, as the flute and piano starts to overlay the string theme, the string section needs to be low enough, almost whispering, so that flute and piano are recognised as distinct voices. The Bridgewater Hall has a decent acoustic but the orchestra did not quite pull it off. From where I sat in the centre of the stalls the flute was not quite audible and the single violin, played sensitively by the concertmaster, did not quite emerge as different from the main body of sound.

It was more a confluence of music rather than a caleidoscope of discrete notes from different players. Still, it was amazing to hear this piece live for the first time.

The evening also contained a muscular rendition of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, delivered with gusto by Peter Donohoe. I prefer the version for Jazz orchestra over the full orchestral arrangement (by Ferde Grofe) but both Donohoe and the BBC Orchestra gave a spirited performance which made me tap along with my foot.

The evening ended with George Antheil's Symphony No. 6, a pleasing piece of work sitting comfortably somewhere between Stravinsky and Shostakovich and a composition by George Walker called Lilacs. Walker set his music to Walt Whitman's 'When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd'. Joshua Ellicott gave it a rounded sound, perhaps at times struggling against an overwhelming orchestra, and it made me wish to hear more from this song cycle.

The evening concert was recorded for broadcast on Wednesday 14th Feb as part of the BBC Radio 3 in Concert Series. So you can tune into BBC Radio 3 next Wednesday at 7.30pm to hear it or catch up with it on BBC iPlayer.