Mad cows

There’s been a bemusing EU diktat on the permissible uses of certain parts of animals that could end up banning the production of gut strings for early musicians for fear of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, or mad cow disease. I don’t use gut strings myself, but as an enthusiastic fan of historically informed performance practitioners, I can see that such a ban would be disastrous. I don’t know if anyone in America produces gut strings, but this could be their big chance to increase profits, I suppose.

I wonder what on earth the presumably faceless bureaucrats behind this think we string players do with our equipment. I may be wrong, but I have never heard of anyone getting peckish in the practice room and having a surreptitious gnaw on their string. Strings are expensive, even if you buy them online. I thought the Larsens and Spirocores I habitually buy (Larsen Soloist on the top two, Spirocore tungsten and Spirocore silver on the G and C) were horrendously overpriced until I heard what some of my HIPP friends were spending on their gut strings, and that shut me up. You’d really have to be hungry to chew your way through the several metres of wildly expensive strings that experts claim would have to be ingested before you could be at risk for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Musicians are notoriously poor and hungry types, but they’re not that desperate. (If they wanted to eat animal guts, there are cheaper and easier ways, such as going to a restaurant of which I was very fond when I lived in Texas. It was so authentically Mexican that the waitresses didn’t speak English, so I’d randomly jab my finger against something in Spanish on the menu that I hadn’t had before. Once it was tripe. Urrgghh.)

Update: Italian health ministry grants exemption for suppliers of beef gut. Hooray!

Crossover artists, again

I’ve noticed a recent upsurge in articles and blog posts by classical musicians irritated at the so-called crossover artists, usually singers, who populate the classical charts. Last week there was a minor scuffle in the New Zealand press after Hayley Westenra got a bad review from the Christchurch critic David Sell. What Sell said wasn’t particularly vicious; he mostly complained about the expense, blandness and over-amplification of the performance. I usually make a point of not reading comments on online newspaper articles, but I couldn’t help noticing a few outraged fans lamenting the “tall poppy syndrome,” a curse that’s supposed to afflict New Zealanders of talent and distinction when their less talented compatriots decide they need taking down a peg or two.

I’ve read some far more scathing reviews of the Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins (I had to Google her, since she’s more or less unknown here in America) such as this one by the blogger Steve Silverman. Jenkins gets a lot of disparagement from the classical world, and understandably. I admit to some irritation myself when the popular press refers to these kinds of singers as “classical artists” or “opera singers,” because they aren’t. Jenkins appears to have had some classical voice training but has never been in an opera, and Westenra sings like a choirgirl. Both use a lot of amplification, which classical singers don’t. Neither has the technique to project her voice over the top of an orchestra through several hours of unamplified performance in an actual opera.

And yet, it seems to me that the “opera” designation is less their fault than that of sloppy journalists who don’t seem to know what an opera is. For the uninitiated, “opera” quite possibly equates to “person singing with vibrato.” It might, at first hearing, be hard to differentiate between a trained opera singer and the determinedly girlish Westenra piping treacly arrangements of pseudo-folk songs.

Does this matter? If I’m to be charitable, I’m forced to admit that these kinds of singers make a lot of people happy. They’re manufactured to be pretty and undemanding. They earn their millions making music that they appear to like. Good for them. I don’t grudge their success.

BUT. It’s still annoying to those of us who make classical music our profession that if we take issue with the “classical” label for crossover singers, we’re immediately accused of elitism (I loathe that snotty, disingenuous word), or of being envious. The envy accusation isn’t 100% unfounded, because we’re certainly envious of the money. Most classical musicians earn extremely modest fees after years of education and hard slog, even the ones with respectable careers and reputations. But envious of the musicianship? Hardly. It grates on the nerves of the non-superstars of the profession, who take their craft extremely seriously, to see decidedly average talents praised as the top classical musicians. And I’m sorry, but Jenkins and Westenra are only averagely talented. I don’t think Jenkins is as utterly awful as some of her critics say, but I’ve met plenty of undergraduates in vocal performance who are objectively better singers than she is.

I don’t buy the “tall poppy syndrome” accusation either, since I’m a classical musician from New Zealand and have never experienced anything but encouragement and support from musical establishments and critics there. (Perhaps I’m not a tall enough poppy.)

All this said, would I trade my modest but hard-won career as a professional cellist and university professor for the chance to jet-set around the world, earning megabucks singing saccharine renditions of “Scarborough Fair” in a frilly pink gown and a bad perm? You bet I would! If only, I might add, because it would more or less alleviate the need ever again to travel on a plane with a cello.

Music and memory

I was intrigued to read this Guardian article about an unnamed German cellist who, in spite of contracting a virus which destroyed the parts of his brain associated with memory, is able to remember and learn new music. Although he has forgotten the history of his own life and cannot identify anyone apart from his brother and a care worker, he can still identify scales, rhythms and intervals. He even amazed doctors with his ability to learn new music.

Maybe this goes to show that a lifetime’s repetitions of musical concepts–the 10,000+ hours of “deliberate practice” that K. Anders Ericsson has shown are necessary for attaining professional standards in any capacity–affect the brain’s synapses in ways that scientists haven’t even begun to understand fully. It makes me want to go home and re-read Oliver SacksMusicophilia, a fascinating book on related subjects.

I don’t know what it says about me that my immediate thought on finishing this article was “Well then, there’s no excuse for any lazybones undergraduates who claim to have trouble differentiating between major and minor sixths!”