Music of Changes

I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I once traveled to Sheffield  to hear it played, along with Cage’s more famous 4’33”.

Cage composed it using the coin-tossing procedure usually used for the consultation of the I Ching, or Book of Changes. In other words, what happens next is randomly selected by the composer.

The idea of randomly generated music is intriguing. I am intrigued by the fact that although Cage stepped aside and applied an impersonal procedure to the process of composition, Music of Changes still sounds like a piece of mid-20th century avant-garde music – one might even say it “sounds like John Cage”.

I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I’m thinking too much. I’m reminded that Mozart wrote a minuet which one has to assemble with the help of a dice. Mozart allows you to choose sounds from the musical style he was familiar with and however the dice lands, the result sounds like a minuet. Cage allowed himself to choose from the musical building-blocks of his own era : individual notes on a piano, considered as sounds existing independently of their relationship to other notes.*

In randomizing aspects of the process of composition Cage, to use an over-used cliché, was trying to “think outside the box”. However, the box is like a set of Russian dolls. You start in the smallest box. When you think you’re thinking outside of it all you’ve done is step into the next biggest box. Think outside of that, and you find yourself in the next biggest and so on. Cage knew this better than  most: a year after he composed Music of Changes, he composed the silent piece, 4’33”. There are no notes to play. One merely has to listen. It can be played on any instrument and last any length of time. Hang on though. Have we burned the boxes or has the box just got even bigger? Do we perform it “on” an instrument? In a concert hall? To an audience? Perhaps I should perform it to myself, wherever I am, on anything. However, the box has just got bigger again. If I take anything and decide to make a sound with it, I’ve made a musical decision. Music, though, is as much about not making sound as it is about making sound (musicians have to “count rests” as well as “play notes”) so if I take something and decide not to make a sound with it that, too, is a musical decision. 4’33” puts me in a musical relationship with whatever I contemplate, be it a conventional musical instrument or not. Even if I attempt to contemplate nothing I have, in so doing, decided not to use my voice to make sounds. I am a musical instrument and cannot escape the decision not to use myself. I am in a musical relationship with myself at all times.

I’m listening to Music of Changes by John Cage. I’m not paying much attention to it as I’m writing this, wondering what to type next. I’m sure this is what he would have wanted.




*I’ve deliberately kept this description brief and straightforward: there is a more detailed description of how Cage composed the piece on Wikipedia.






There are Other Worlds…

I’m currently reading Cain’s Book by the Scottish Beat writer, Alexander Trocchi. I bought it second-hand a while ago and it’s been transgressively staring down at me ever since from where I wedged it in an untidy bookcase, daring me to read it. I’ve not got very far but I’m already finding it hard to put down. I thought I’d stop long enough to share this quote, though. It seemed to resonate uncannily with the present:

‘I had often said to Fay and Tom that there was no way out but that the acceptance of this could itself be a beginning. I talked of plague, of earthquake, of being no longer contemporary, of the death of tragedy which made the diarist more than ever necessary. I exhorted them to accept, to endure, to record. As a last act of blasphemy I exhorted them to be ready to pee on the flames.’




I watched  a TV programme the other day about life in Britain a century ago. It was entirely made of old black and white footage. Young men and women were enjoying themselves at the seaside, the year before the young men went off to fight in the First World War. It struck me that if I could step into the screen and join those young people with cheerful faces who were looking me in the eye through the camera, I’d meet a group of people whose ideas about foreigners might strike me as quaint. They would probably have read or known some of Kipling’s poetry (though some may have read  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and much in between). That Europe was full of foreigners with proud, separate identities and divided into isolated nation states would seem to most of them to be the way things should be.

As we all know and as the young people in the film were about to discover, ways were being developed of killing on an industrial scale. I needn’t list the technological developments -good and bad- since. Suffice to say, one hundred years on, the internet has shrunk the world to the size of a hand-held device.

My grandfather fought at the Somme. He lived to see my father grow up. My father lived to see me grow up. My children are adults now, too. When you realise you’ve lived half a century, you realise what a short period of time it is, in human terms. In other words, not a lot of human lifetime separates me from those young people at the seaside.

We have barely had time, then, to think about the connected, high-tech world we’ve invented, never mind come to understand the different ways we might live in it. I voted to remain in the EU but, just over a week ago, people in the UK voted to leave it. Lots of them were wary of immigration but it is surely the case, in the long run, that people will  increasingly move freely in a world where information, investment, ideas and commodities can also be moved easily. It’s already happening. If you ask me, it’s good, it’s enriching, it’s something to celebrate. I hope there will come a time -okay, it’s still a long way off- when the word ‘foreigner’ will be meaningless. In the unlikely event of some extra-terrestrial being stepping out of a flying saucer some time in the future, our descendants will have to re-invent it.



Flute Recital

The flautist Katherine Birtles and the pianist Emily Smith gave a recital yesterday in a church not far from here. They were playing, among other things, the Sonatine by the French composer Henri Dutilleux. They were also playing works by Bach, Debussy and Prokofiev. I went along, as  I liked the sound of the programme and a chance to hear some real, live Henri Dutilleux  so close  to home was too good to miss. Full marks to the Swaledale Festival who organised the concert for seeking out performers keen to play his music. There’s no need for me to review the concert here as Katherine Birtles can be seen playing the piece on Youtube. Her performance speaks for itself.


Le Boeuf…

Seen from the front window this morning. I’ve been posting music by Darius Milhaud recently. I’ve avoided his ballet, Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit, as it’s the most famous thing he wrote and there’s a lot more less well-known music by Milhaud that deserves to be heard to choose from. However, when I got up and looked out of that window…


…I was left with no choice. Once heard, never forgotten…


I was standing in the kitchen this morning, washing plates in the sink, when it started to hail. It came as a complete surprise to me as, from where I stood, by the kitchen window, the sun was shining and the sky looked blue. The small, white beads bounced all over the slabs outside, each finally coming to rest. Less than a minute later, the shower came to an end, as suddenly as it had started. By then, the first hailstones to land had already melted.

It struck me, why travel the world when the world will come to me? Molecules of water in these hailstones will have traveled the world themselves, flowing down the Amazon, spending centuries locked in glaciers and ice floes, plumbing the deepest parts of the ocean, towering in the sky as cumulus clouds. They may have been lapped up by dinosaurs. They may even have orbited the sun as part of a comet. And when you look at it like that, astronomy becomes the only science.


Of Wellingtons and Hot Water Bottles

Just spent  a week and a half in Wales, the first three days in a caravan on a farm at the top of a hill. The view was as magnificent as the weather was cold. You could take photos from the doorstep – with a hot water bottle stuffed up your jumper.

I must have been about seven when I stayed with my parents at the Tyn y Coed Hotel, at the foot of Moel Siabod. From the hotel, its profile appears Matterhorn-like. The sun catches impressive-looking craggy outcrops around its pointed summit. It is impossible not to want to climb it. I pester my parents until they take me on an expedition to conquer it. To their relief, I think, a quarter of a mile from the hotel I step into a stream that is too deep for my wellington boots. The water flows over the rims. Cold water rises inexorably up my legs. We have to empty my boots and turn back.The second, successful attempt on the summit has to wait over forty years. From the caravan where we are staying, the mountain’s profile is less imposing but it still exerts a magical attraction on me, nonetheless.

moel siabod

From the doorway you can see not only Siabod, but all the tops of the Carneddau mountains. If you stand in the right place, you can see the Snowdon group and the Glyders, too. In the photo, Moel Siabod is just to the right of the farmhouse.

ffridd ucha panoramaBandW

In a bookshop in Porthmadog I come across At The Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. I glance at it and get the feeling that if I buy it, I’ll not be able to put it down. I buy it and, no, I can’t put it down. In the first chapter she says how in the past two or three decades, the world has changed:

Some of those fashionable movements that knocked existentialism out of the way have aged badly themselves…

Quite*. Given the problems of the 21st century, she says,

there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting the existentialists, with their boldness and energy. They did not sit around playing with their signifiers. They asked big questions about what it means to live an authentic, fully-human life… They tackled questions about nuclear war, about… the environment, about violence, and about the difficulty of managing international relations in dangerous times….

Above all, they asked about freedom, which several of them considered the topic underlying all others…

The book is a compelling mixture of anecdote, history and philosophy. She has the knack of explaining potentially difficult ideas in a way which is easy to read. She riffs on the newsreel that survives of Jean-Paul Sartre’s funeral. Watch out for Simone de Beauvoir and for the bearer who takes off his hat – only to hurriedly replace it when he realises that the other bearers have left theirs on, in deference to a man who defied convention.


As I think I’ve said in previous posts, all through the eye problems I’ve been having this year I’ve been listening to a lot of music. This increasingly meant the music of Les Six, and of those six French composers, the music of Germaine Tailleferre and Darius Milhaud. Milhaud was prolific, writing over 400 pieces. There’s a case for saying he’s one of the best kept secrets of twentieth century music. In Cob Records, a record shop in Porthmadog, I find a NAXOS CD of Milhaud’s piano music. It includes his Saudades Do Brasil:


It also includes Milhaud’s own selection and piano arrangement of  his film music for the 1934 film of Mme Bovary. This is quite special, as it includes the actress Madeleine Milhaud, the composer’s widow, reading extracts from the book between the  short movements. Listening to it, I can’t help but wonder why his music’s not played more often. There is  sometimes a deceptive lightness to it which perhaps leads people to take it less seriously than they should. With another prolific composer, Haydn, he shares a humane sense of humour. Also, being prolific is not always good for popularity: if you write hundreds of pieces (the same probably goes for  creating books and paintings) people can find it hard to seek out your best work and “get a handle” on what you do. Added to that, Milhaud wrote a kind of music that fewer and fewer people seem to think they have a use for. Perhaps, like the existentialists, “there is a certain refreshment of perspective to be had from revisiting” his music. I certainly think so.


*Noam Chomsky has written about this.

Quite a Christmas

I’ve just had quite an unusual couple of weeks.  I was supposed to be playing double bass in Handel’s Messiah the weekend before Christmas. Looking through the music a day or two before, I started to get eye problems and, to cut a long story short, I found myself back in the James Cook eye clinic. They’ve treated me before and I knew I was in good hands. This time they diagnosed a detached retina.

Eye operations are something everyone hopes they’ll get through life without needing. It helped that as I sat waiting, the patient who had been in before me came out. He looked fine. The staff gave him a cup of coffee and a biscuit – something to look forward to, I decided. The surgeon came out to see me. I felt a moment of worry: there was obviously not long to go. He gave off an aura of cheerful confidence. He examined my eye and explained how he wanted to remove the gel from it, freeze my retina back into place and replace the gel with a gas bubble. He told me the success rate was 80%. “But don’t worry,” he added. “If necessary, we’ll just do it again.” He smiled reassuringly, as if it was all in a days work which, for him, of course, it was. It was impossible not to trust him. His hypnotic bedside manner was such that I almost looked forward to the procedure, which was to be carried out under local anaesthetic, like, er, now.

The only mildly uncomfortable, scary bit was the administration of the anaesthetic – and even then the thought was worse than the reality (and far less unpleasant than dental injections). They wheeled me into the theatre and laid a blue sheet with an eye-sized hole in it over my face. From then on all I could see through my right eye was a pale glow. Someone held my hand. I could feel movement, but no pain. Could I move my eye, I asked? “Yes,” said the surgeon, “we’ve got tricks for that. Do what you like.” I felt as if I was blinking and looking round but, in fact, all the time my eyelid was pulled back and the eye held still. Now and again I saw ghostly silhouettes of unfamiliar instruments: I had no idea what they were actually being used for. The surgeon asked an assistant to pass him the “flute needle” – whatever that is. Once or twice, I experienced slight soreness – but nothing more than an itch you’d want to scratch. When I mentioned it, they upped the anaesthetic. The sound effects were intriguing: hums, pings, clicks and a machine that sounded like a service-station air pump. At one point I experienced a kaleidoscopic display of squiggly shapes.

I think it took about an hour. Looking back, I don’t think of it as dangerous, potentially painful experience but as an hour of my life when I felt supremely cared for. At the end, I was helped into a wheel-chair, taken out to the ward, to be sat in the armchair recently vacated by my predecessor and given the regulation cup of coffee. I called George, my five-star next door neighbour, who was waiting to drive me home.

And it was all “free at the point of delivery” as they say. The NHS is a great thing, its existence one of this country’s most convincing claims to be civilised. Any politician who seeks to undermine it or  underfund it will get short shrift from me.

For the following week, I had to lie on my left side for fifty minutes in every hour to allow the gas-bubble to rest against the repair to my retina. This was the most onerous part of the whole business: not only for me but also for my partner, who was left with a great deal to do. I ate a reduced Christmas dinner in ten minutes and had a wonderful Christmas, I have to say, despite the limitations. Friends visited and, a few days later, my children dropped in for an evening and a morning- having efficiently booked themselves into nearby accommodation. Other days were less fun. Night (headphones, Radio 3) blended into day. Two days after the operation I had pools of intense white light fading in and out of my vision. Was all that work falling to pieces? I didn’t look forward to going through it all again. The lights faded and everything went well after that. After a week, I discovered a few weird things about restricting your posture. Sometimes when I had my eyes closed I thought I was sitting upright. In fact I was lying down. Also, when I tried walking around, I found my balance was affected and my body started to “list” when I stood up.

The gas bubble dissolves over a few weeks.  A few days ago, looking out was like looking through a jam jar half full of water, the surface wobbling as my head moved. As I type, the bubble has reduced to a blob not unlike the bubble in a spirit level. At least I know if I’m standing up straight – useful, after all those days of lying down.

And what can I see? My eye is already useful and I’m cautiously, cautiously optimistic. Even more so after being seen by the surgeon earlier this week, who pronounced me well on the mend, although I have to take it easy for another week and avoid strenuous exercise for a while.

Handel, the composer whose music I’d been looking at at the start of this story, was less lucky. A professional musician faced with deteriorating sight, he underwent a primitive operation performed, without anaesthetic, with a thorn. It didn’t work. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

On a lighter note, one discovery I made laid down listening to the radio was the Danish String Quartet: