Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Music in Summer Air Festival: there are other worlds out there

One press release about a music festival on the other side of the world triggers all manner of questions about a little known subject

At (yet another) febrile moment in the UK’s politics when a remainer Prime Minister clings on to power in a desperate bid to get her questionable Brexit deal over the line and cast the country off into the brave new world of global trade, news from China has piqued my interest.

Earlier this week International Trade Secretary Liam Fox sought to demonstrate his efforts in selling the UK’s strengths to the world with an announcement about how British music was ..

And yesterday, an announcement that the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s 10th Music in the Summer Air Festival (2 – 15 July) featuring a selection of high profile UK classical music brands are venturing east to put their best foot forward.

I’m intrigued by the announcement. Not cynical. Obviously.

It’s more evidence of a strategy people were trumpeting at the ABO conference in Cardiff back in January 2018. Whilst most were picking over the various permuatations surrounding Brexit (they were, inevitably, doing a similar thing this year and will no doubt next year too), some management types were encouraging their peers to look further afield.

At the time this challenging outlook appeared pragmatic. Now I see it realised in another China-related announcement, its less of novelty and more of a thing that’s actually happening.

What raises my eyebrows is the way the existence of an familiar market on the other side of the world challenges my assumptions about classical music audiences across the world.

For all the understandable worry and lobbying around the catastrophic impact of Brexit, there are some in the industry who have done the only thing they think they can and seized the opportunity that greets them. What I’m interested in is who the audience is that the likes of the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony are pursuing out in China.

What is it about that market that is so appealing? Is it altruism? Is culture being used to deepen international relations? Or are there financial gains to be made, channels to be dug, and new audiences to be tempted? And what does the appetite for western classical music in the East say about the popularity of the music that originates from China? Where did that appeal originate? And what is Chinese symphonic music? Who are the people who are attending these concerts? What is the appeal to them? And how does the appeal they perceive for the music in China help compare to the classical music world here in the UK and the US, for example?

The NY Phil and the BBC Symphony aren’t the first of course. Far from it. The LSO went to China last year (albeit with a considerable array of developmental partners, suggesting that a tour of China is far from a cash cow). So too the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and the Halle. The London Philharmonic was the first to visit China in 1973.

These are the kind of questions that fly around when another press release arrives in your inbox referencing China at the same time the UK is vacillating over a European outlook versus the supposed tantalising opportunities presented by free trade deals across the world. It’s probably a podcast. Or at best a series of interviews. Who knows, even an article for someone.

Music in Summer Air marks the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra‘s 140th anniversary and features a series of concerts given by China’s oldest orchestra, many of which will be in the Shanghai Symphony Hall which, now I search for pictures of it on Google, appears to be utterly gorgeous.

Very pleased to see composer Raymond Yiu making an appearance on the programme with his work Xocolatl in what amounts to a Last Night of the Proms-esque type programme with the BBC Symphony and Andrew Davis. Also good for Colin Currie and his band of merry percussionists taking Steve Reich to Shanghai.

The programme as a whole isn’t going to scare the horses. Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Mozart and Britten.

My attention is particularly drawn to the Shanghai Youth Orchestra appearances, because its there that some of the answers to that stream of questions could be found.

Music in Summer Air runs from 2nd – 15th July 2019 in Shanghai, China

The curious case of composer Alexey Shor

How a former mathematician’s curiosity shines a new light on the process of composing

“Music was always around me. But, as far as playing music was concerned, it was never on the cards. As a kid I was a maths prodigy. It was always assumed I would grow up a scientist, or a mathematician, or at worst a physicist.

Composer Alexey Shor speaks matter of factly about his transition from ‘prodigy mathematician’ to composer when we meet during the Malta International Music Festival.

“I started writing music very late in life and mostly for my own entertainment. And then by pure accident it got noticed by David Aaron Carpenter and he started playing it in all of his concerts and it went from there.”

He speaks softly, with a mildly percussive edge. There’s a simplicity to his tone. Dark eyes and a half smile give him a childlike look – someone curious about a new world.

He leans in to speak into the microphone. I do the same.

His ability to learn a new discipline quickly set him on a new career path six years ago.

“I always loved music. I’m a concert junkie. I probably go to two concerts a week when I’m in New York. At some point I was curious just to see how it is that music is written down.

“You go to a concert and its like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book. So, I wrote variations on a theme of Happy Birthday. It was so new and so entertaining to me that I could actually create music that I kept doing it without any ambition to be professional.”

Since then the American-Maltese composer has had his music recorded by various orchestras and now features on releases on Warner Classics with viola player David Carpenter.

Shor epitomises the on-demand information age we now live in: curiosity-driven learning that highlights the rarefied regard in which we hold the creation of art. There’s usually an answer to be found on the internet for any challenge we might be posing. A shortcut perhaps.

Using a book to crack the musical code seems in comparison like a retro-approach to feeding that curiosity. But there are plenty of other composers who have spent years studying and practising their craft, following conventional learning paths who, for one reason or another, give up on their craft. Has Alexey Shor found a different way of learning the creative process?

Possibly. What he also illustrates is a scientific perspective on the process of composing.

“What really surprised me is how coherent music theory is. It’s not created by scientists. It’s not created by people who since the age of five are being yelled at for every single logical mistake. There’s a body of good music written by some people, and then other people try to formalise it and turn it into a bunch of rules. That sort of endeavour by itself seems doomed to failure.

“You have a large body of work – take Shakespearean poetry. Then you tell someone who is nowhere near Shakespearean talent – take that poetry and work out how to write in that style. Probably nothing good is going to come out. But music theory is a good product. These people who were not Bach, they did formulate rules. You follow those rules and music comes out. It may be good music or bad music, but it is tonal music. I think it’s amazing that music theory exists.”

This different perspective challenges my own path to understanding and appreciating music and music history. Is there, it now dawns on me clawing for a well-worn British phrase in my head, more than one way to skin a cat.

“People who wrote the best music ever – like Bach – he was not aware of these rules. We don’t know what was in his head. Somehow people distilled his work down into a bunch of rules. Usually when that happens you end up with something like ‘Here is the rule but there are hundreds of exceptions, and even if you follow it nothing good will come out.’ But music theory does work. Chord progressions sound like they go somewhere. You can hear proper counterpoint versus wrong counterpoint. I was just amused and amazed that such a thing exists.”

“Do you consider yourself a rebel?” I ask Alexey.

“No.”

Challenging definitions

Unlike other living composers, describing Shor’s music is by comparison unusually demanding. Comparisons often used to help prepare newcomers to a musical genre – a way of preparing the ear for something unusual to come. Music is either judged by its popularity or artistic merit, with popularity held in less regard. In an increasingly fractured on-demand world, labels have become a necessity. That labelling is problematic because of the conventional history of music we assume: one of ‘progression’. Progression is the is the story humans understand. But when the music seemingly subverts that story of progression by what has gone before to create something that appeals to as wide an audience as possible now, describing it isn’t just difficult but risks judgment.

You go to a concert and it’s like an ocean of sound. I was just curious what those dots on the paper mean. So, I read a book about music theory. Then I thought, let me see whether I can remember what I read in that book.

Shor’s music is rooted in tonality. It’s melodic. It’s easy on the ear. It follows convention. And it also sounds familiar. When I first hear it I can’t quite determine whether I connect with it or not. And that makes writing about it challenging.

Shor is forty-eight years old. Before that he was a mathematician, the son of two scientists in a family of non-musicians. His mother was reportedly shocked when he turned his back on science.

“My Mum said that when I was a kid she could have named twenty things I could have potentially been good at but music wasn’t on that list. Everybody was so used to the idea that things technical came easily to me and I enjoyed them. So given those things why would I do anything else?”

What was her reaction to the variations?

“She was amused. She was like ‘OK, so he has read another book and he’s remembered another bunch of things.’” Does that reaction bother him? “No, nobody expected it to go any further.” And when it did go further? “Then they were surprised.”

The turning point for Alexey was the discovery of his music by viola player David Aaron Carpenter who sought out the composer and asked him to arrange a piece for viola and orchestra.

“I couldn’t do it, but me and a friend did it together. David kept writing from the tour that he played the music on that it was going well, and that it was being asked for two or three times over, and that there were standing ovations.

“I thought, like, ‘OK, musicians. They’re prone to exaggeration.’ So, me and my parents went to one of David’s concerts at the Metropolitan Museum. Once he played that one piece of mine – he calls it his ‘replacement Cazardas’. It was a little shocking to me and my parents. That was the moment when it dawned on me, ‘maybe this isn’t a joke, maybe I should take it more seriously. It’s an amazing thrill to this day that my music is played.”

“I love writing for the orchestra. You’re not limited by anything. The orchestra can create all sorts of sounds. Whereas even if you’re writing for a piano, you’re still limited by what a human can do. I love the variety you can get out of the orchestra. I don’t know I would call it a machine like you say or a spectacle. It’s more the infinite variety I like.”

“Melancholy is very common for my music. Some kind of sadness is present in my music and life in general. This is all wonderful but this is all going to an end – that’s always in the background.”

Shifting perspective

Miran Vaupotic conducted the final gala concert in the Malta International Music Festival. We met shortly before the concert.

“Alexey’s music lacks pretension,” he explains. “It’s music people enjoy listening to. And the musicians who play it recognise that the audience are enjoying it.”

Our brief exchange about Shor’s work marked an important shift in my thinking. Classical music lovers and performers strive for a listening experience where a connection is established in the moment. Implicit in that hope is the expectation that establishing the connection will require active engagement in the art. Once the connection is established the pay-off is rewarding for both parties.

What if an audience member isn’t striving for a hard-fought emotional connection? Material that creates a connection between performer and listener that takes the latter where they want to go as quickly as possible seems like a perfectly reasonable proposition. It’s good business sense too. Live performance doesn’t necessarily mean being transported to another astral plane every time, does it? I know plenty of live performers whose repertoire pays tribute to particular genres or bands. They play to sell-out audiences, rocking, tapping, or fist-slamming. Why should classical music be any different?

Shor draws on the music he responds to and composes in such a way that evokes all of those styles. The first music I heard by him mid-way through the festival had a curious quality to it: melodic material that conjured up multiple eras all in one cell – the musical equivalent of a video jump cut. It worked, even if instinct suggested otherwise.

Compositional process

Later in the interview, I ask Alexey about his compositional process. I feel uncomfortable being quite so nosey. If anyone asked me how I wrote a blog post in an interview I’d feel slightly put out.

“Sometimes I have a lot of clarity about what it is. Sometimes I’ll have a musical idea and I don’t know what it is. Maybe a day or so later I look at it again, and most of the time I just delete the file. Sometimes I’ll look at it and think maybe this should have a life. In some way I write for an audience of one which is me. I imagine myself in a concert hall and think, ‘if I heard this would I enjoy it? Would I ever want to hear it again?’ If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then maybe this piece has a future.”

I can’t argue with this logic. I adopt the same stance myself in my creative endeavours. If the output doesn’t satisfy you as an audience member, then who will it satisfy?

But Alexey’s compositional process exposes another outdated assumption I hold about creativity: creative ideas are seemingly only valid if they exist initially on paper. Despite knowing that composers use Sibelius and other music-writing software, I’m aware that I’m making an unconscious judgment about those who do. Why can’t writing music be approached in the same way as a recipe, or writing computer code?

Members of the Trio Wanderer – three Parisians on their first visit to Malta performing a programme of Schubert and Saint-Saens – help me contextualise Shor’s writing with reference to the seven-piece Trio they were playing in the concert.

In the last movement – Schubertango – Shor takes familiar Schubertian melodies and gives them both a Latin American feel. Every now and again, melodies I recall from my student days seem to bound and flash around like a television being tuned from the 1960s.

“It’s an odd thing,” I say to pianist Vincent Coq after the Trio’s rehearsal, “I hear the melodies and it’s almost like as soon as I’ve heard them they’re snatched away from me again. It makes me want to reach out for the original. I can’t put my finger on what it is.”

“We hear it as a musical joke,” replies violinst Jean-Phillipe. “The composer is taking fragments of melodies he likes and playing with us. It‘s very effective. I think it’s an homage to Schubert. An homage to all the composers Shor likes.”

The word ‘homage’ resonates with me. A sort of musical fanboy creation. The kind of creation that perhaps we don’t get to hear in the UK classical music scene. Suffocated before its given air to breathe.

There is an evident resourcefulness to Shor’s methodical and process-driven approach. Throughout the Malta International Music International Festival, we’ve heard not only musical references to composers of the past, but repurposed material by Shor himself.

The first movement of the ‘Seven Pieces for Piano Trio’, for example, entitled Addio – a tender melody exchanged between violin and piano – becomes a heartfelt pang for soprano and orchestra. Whilst the Trio Wanderer’s expressiveness created character in the melodic lines, the orchestral setting in the gala concert gave a fuller, more satisfying feel to the end product.

Indeed, in most regards the larger the forces, the easier it is to discern the intent, material, and the form. Another song in the gala concert – Natalie’s Waltz – part Viennese, part Italian Verdi-esque cast an unexpectedly captivating spell over the audience at the Mediterranean Conference Centre. Sweet and touching, if you’d have looked at the list of programme listed in the programme and seen Shor you’d be forgiven for thinking he was alive at the same time as Verdi.

And that surely is the rather astute thing.

In an ever fractured on-demand world audience requests are demanding ever more specific requirements and more quickly. If the existing ‘standard’ repertoire comes with a perceived knowledge requirement, maybe it’s perfectly pragmatic and eminently business-like to write music in a language that appeals to audiences quicker. Perhaps the answer isn’t that marketers need to find the answer to the impossible question of how best to sell high-art music to the newcomer, but instead commission and perform music that the newcomer is most likely to enjoy and pay tickets to listen to.

And that’s one aspect of Alexey Shor’s ability that I admire and am possibly a little jealous of too. Just like the peer at school who was able to listen to a piece of music and play it from ear, Shor possesses the ability to capture the characteristics of a genre, mechanics of a framework, or the style of a melody, and recreate it in a format that audiences will respond to.

If there are people who want to enjoy an orchestral experience but want the music they hear in it to get to the point quickly, then there’s a need for composers to write in a style that’s accessible for just the right amount of time. The skill is delivering the right product under those particular constraints. That’s just what composers of British Light Music achieved in the 1940s and 50s. Why not now?

Dreams and aspirations

“Where would you like to go next?” I ask Alexey.

“It would be nice to write an opera, but even if I had an offer, I’m not sure I would take it. If you mean dreams then opera is an amazing dream to have. It may never happen.”

I ask him about what the motivation is behind that dream. Is it about scale or legacy?

“I love opera. I love the sound of human voice. At the same time, it is much easier to sit down and write an orchestral piece, than write a collaborative work. That’s why it’s more of a distant dream.”

He continues.

“There are a lot of things that need to happen before an opera can happen. If I was in this world for 50 years as opposed to 6 then chances are I would have all sorts of friends amongst whom there would be a librettist with whom we see eye to eye. Then there is a question of language. Italian is an amazing language for opera, but I don’t speak Italian.”

Recalibrated

On my journey home I’m reminded of something else conductor Miran Vauptic mentioned in my interview with him. We raised the point about how if Alexey Shor was writing film music then I wouldn’t feel the need to ask how others should be categorising his output. “What he needs next,” said Vauptic, “is a commission for a TV soundtrack.”

When the plane touches down at Gatwick Airport, a message pops up on my phone. A tweet from Scala Radio, advertises their chart show rundown on-air later in the morning, featuring “classical and classical-inspired music”. Is this the label I’ve been looking for all week?

Quotes from this article are taken from a podcast recorded with Alexey Shor on Wednesday 7 May 2019. The full podcast interview will be released as a Thoroughly Good Good Classical Music Podcast in the coming weeks.

More buzz please

LSO’s performance of Gruppen at the Turbine Hall demonstrates a rare thing in the classical music world we need more of: buzz

I couldn’t get to Gruppen at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. I should have jumped quicker to buy a ticket. I should have said yes to the person who invited me to join them (but didn’t because of a school reunion).

At the very least I should have asked the right person at the right time if I could get a ticket somehow. In the end, I left it all too late. Massive fail on my part.

None of this is me moaning, by the way. 

There’s been a buzz about the Southbank over the past week thanks to the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. First, the Philharmonia’s Gurrelieder in Paris documented on social media as a tantalising preview for the orchestra’s season closer on Thursday. Then yesterday, a much-anticipated performance of Gruppen by the LSO.

It’s not just that these season highlights were epic performances. They were both of them much-talked about beforehand. These were true events

People I spoke to in the run-up to both, were all excitedly asking the same question. “Are you going?”

That simple question has a devastating effect – it motivates you to get yourself a ticket so that you can share in an experience others are getting excited about. And when you can’t get a ticket, it prompts a bout of irritation about not having moved fast enough early enough.

And it’s not that I didn’t get to go to Gruppen that is important here. What’s utterly delightful is that two orchestral teams (players and support staff) are able to generate such passionate enthusiasm amongst their audiences. A wonderfully reassuring and invigorating thing.

Listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen – in a concert that also features a performance Messiaen’s Et exspecto in a radio broadcast from last night. The music starts around 8 minutes in. 

Remembering the Somme

I’ve always had what I thought was a weird fascination with acts of remembrance.

Early on I assumed I was drawn to the theatre of death. That may well have had something to do with school chapel choir: all the swishing gowns, the heads hung low, everyone striving for stoicism.

It’s only recently I’ve come to see those acts of school-time acts of remembrance for what they were: educational. From an early age, the Sunday morning church services, the gathering around the memorial, and the wreaths were in fact fulfilling a need I hadn’t acknowledged as a teenager.

It’s obvious to me now. Remembrance and, in particular, those occasions when two minutes silence are observed, offer a collective moment to gain private perspective.

These special moments that have, as far as I can make out, arisen because of the carnage of the First World War, and the trauma it inflicted on the families waiting for their loved ones to return.

But as the years pass so it becomes more and more difficult to find the triggers that help those reflective moments mean something. As a teenager, it was the music of remembrance. John Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man still transports me. Good or bad, John Rutter’s Requiem is, as a result of numerous school events, inextricably linked with Remembrance Sunday. All bronzed autumn leaves, a stiff wind, and the threat of rain.

Today marks the centenary since the start of the Battle of the Somme. Two minutes silence at 7.28am and a day of commemorative events in France and the UK. I’m embarrassed to say that work got in the way. Proceedings played out on screens all around me at work, but I didn’t once look at what was going on. Present-day self-inflicted dramas seem to be dominating my thinking. Forgivable, I think.

I suspect I’d prefer to commit to remembering the terrifying loss of life when we commemorate its end. Marking the moment it started brushes up a little too close to a celebration. No one was triumphant. The Somme was folly. Arrogance masquerading  as strategy. Some things haven’t changed.

Britten’s War Requiem – a commission for the opening of Coventry Cathedral  in the 1962 – combines poetry by WW1 poet Wilfred Owen with the Latin Requiem Mass. It is a stunning creation: an unequivocal statement of Britten’s pacifism that still conveys the futility of war in our information-saturated present day world as being reminded of the total number of lives lost – 310,486.

Britten’s seminal work has been lacking from today’s events. Maybe that’s not surprising. The timing may not be right. Might we see it at the end of the 1914-1918 centenary. I hope so.

In the meantime, this performance, of the Britten’s Lacrimosa recorded at the Royal Albert Hall ad broadcast on BBC Two in 1993, featuring soprano Makvala Kasrashvili and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, helps.

Walking along Aldeburgh Music history

A strong along a memorial boardwalk at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk

I visited Snape Maltings Concert Hall recently. Whilst I was there, I took a few moments to wander around the marshes. Buried amongst the reeds was a long duckboard stretching the length of the concert hall on which names of notable individuals have been engraved. A lovely walk through history on what was an unexpectedly hot day.

Kieran Cooper. Marketing and Box Office chap at the Aldeburgh Foundation. Spoken of in hushed whispers when I started there in 1995. Now immortalised on the walkway in the marshes, but in case anyone is wondering, Kieran is still very much alive.

David Heckels. Chairman of the Aldeburgh Foundation in 1995. Handsome. Charming. Fine hair combed within an inch of its life. Stalwart supporter of the Festival. Part of the landscape.

Rita Thomson. Britten’s carer. Key player in Red House history.

Alan Britten. Nephew of the composer. Smiley.

Sheila Colvin. General Director at the Aldeburgh Foundation when I was there between 1995 and 1997. Fantastic hair. Defiant walk. Imposing desk in an office with the best view over Aldeburgh HIgh Street. Enviable signature. Called me ‘Poppet’. Until today, I had no idea of her TV background.

An ostrich looking really fucked off

Gripes

Following a rant today on Facebook about workplace everyday-isms which really get my goat, I figured it might be useful to document those things which rub me up the wrong way.

Ta Da.

This blog post will be updated from time to time as more gripes come to mind, and linked to when the need arises.

So, if you want to ensure your communication assistance illicits a ‘yes’, best avoid the following.

Of course, publishing this list may well invite people to use them anyway. If you do, then I’ll know what kind of person you are.

In some cases, I’ve felt the need to offer an explanation.

1. Deffo

Just say definitely. It’s better that way.

2. Happy Days

3. Oh My Days

Just swear. It has far more weight if you actually swear.

4. Exciting or Excited

If you’re using either word you’re almost certainly not feeling either.

5. Exclamation marks

Only use exclamation marks for serious warnings. Using them is trying to force a sense of excitement on the reader and invariably draws attention to the fact that you can’t think of another word to better express yourself. Combining exclamation marks with the word ‘exciting’ or ‘excited’ and the intended effect is diminished.

6. Hope you’re well

No you don’t. You don’t really care whether I’m well or not. If you did care, you’d actually ask whether I was well or not, and you’d use a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Best not ask, because I will tell you in my response and it will invariably leave you wishing you hadn’t asked at all. Real life isn’t peachy and the depressing inevitability of it all cannot be overcome by the phrase “Hope you’re well”.

Just get on and ask me what it is you want me to do. Far more efficient. “Hope you’re well” is widely regarded as an ice-breaker, a tone-setter or a softly-softly way to start an email, based on the falsely held assumption that not using it is somehow abrupt or rude. It is a redundant phrase, however. Getting to what you want to ask is not rude. It’s efficient.

If you must ask how I am, be specific. Don’t be open-ended.

7. Literally

8. Metaphorically

9. Figuratively

10. Telly

It’s television. Or it’s TV. Not telly.

11. Align or Re-align

Eww.

12. Optimise or Maximise

13. Going forward

14. Cut-through or pick-up

15. To be perfectly/completely honest

I expect that anyone I’m interacting with is honest with me. If you’re not, then we shouldn’t be interacting with one another.

16. My Bad

Oh, fuck off. Really.

17. Mad Early

A derivation of ‘stupidly early’ and so technically acceptable. Often used to denote coolness.

Don’t be a dick. Don’t use it.

18. Emoticons or Emojis

Don’t use emoticons in your messages to me. They’re childish, lazy, weak-willed non-communication. If you can’t send me a message without an emoticon then you need to spend a little more time planning what it is you to want to say to me first.

19. “I’ve got to jump on a call at 1230”

The time is irrelevant where this particular gripe is concerned. It’s the verb that infuriates me. You’re not ‘jumping on a call at 1230’. You’re either taking a call, participating in one or joining one.

20. “I’ll ping/shoot you an email.”

Stop using unneccessary langauge to increase the importance of your message and/or yourself. You don’t ‘ping’ emails to people, you send them.

21. “All things … [INSERT WORD]”

A phrase used to denote importance when elevating the status of an event, message, or function. For example, “I’m responsible for all things digital at [INSERT ORGANISATION]”.

Just give us your job title.

22. The ‘super’ pre-pend

Don’t use ‘super’ as a comparator. Far from actually underlining how wonderful something is, you’re actually distancing yourself from the very thing you’re trying to emote about.

Also, you sound like a twat when everything is prepended with ‘super’.

If you’re about to use the word ‘super’ to describe something, then having a long detailed executive board meeting with yourself and come up with some new ideas.

A stolen moment on the South Bank

The sun is hot. Very hot. There’s the smallest of breezes, but the excitement from the crowd here on the South Bank more than makes up for it.

The Festival Hall is the new must-go-to location in Central London. I’m sitting on concrete benches. Beside me is a lady drawing up her to-do list in her notepad. On my right, two well-spoken thirty-somethings friends sit and chat, meeting for the first time in many months. They share surgery stories. One of them says that a patient at the hospital nearly died today. That was his high point today. Both seem quite happy.

In front of me people lean against the wall, looking out over the river as they knock back the cans of beer they’ve bought at the nearby supermarket. Nobody minds they haven’t gone to the bar. It’s all quite bohemian really what with their long hair, canvas shoes and shades.

It’s lovely to be here. There’s a relaxed vibe about the place. And it’s much needed. The architecture – the concrete – has a surprisingly reassuring effect on me. It’s as though my mother has put her arm around me. “There, there chump. It will all work out.”

Do Mums really know that? Or is that the best they can say? Do they believe in themselves when they say it or are they just offsetting their own insecurities? We believed them when they said it back then. Why does it all seem so unbelievable now?

The South Bank resonates. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used that word ‘resonates’ this week. I’ve worked on the basis that the bigger the word the more successful I’ll be in securing my place in the big scheme of things. I can’t say I think it’s worked especially. I suspect I’ve ended up feeling more and more out of step with everyone else around me and those I come into contact with. I haven’t changed. So what’s happened to them?

Shit. I’ve digressed again. I’m sorry. I’m shit for doing that.

The South Bank. It’s a key place for me. I love it here. It feels like home. London’s version of style. My own personal version of 1960s Carnaby Street. An opportunity to watch people. To tap into conversations. To feel alive.

I came here for the first time in my early twenties, desperate to establish contacts with players in the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra to bolster my own little black book. Later I used to wander around here on weekend walks with The Chap. It was here I wrote about for my first writing assessment for the correspondence course I began nearly ten years ago. And it was here I was planning meeting up with my cousin I haven’t seen for nearly 20 years over the weekend.

It’s a special place. A moment of exquisite serenity. Something to savour.

Commuter Diary #19

The first completed questionnaire completed and submitted to the GP in pursuit of a referral for CBT

I dropped the form the doctor asked me to complete for a referral back to the surgery on my way in. The moment needs recording. It’s a little odd seeing everything in black and white as you hand it over to the receptionist. Almost like I was handing over my own death warrant. A testament to failure as an individual.

Here’s what was on the questionnaire. I had to mark each statement 0-3 with 0 meaning never and 3 representing nearly every day.

1. Little interest or pleasure doing things 3
2. Feeling down, depressed or hopeless 3
3. Trouble falling or staying asleep 3
4. Feeling tired or having little energy 3
5. Poor appetite or overeating 3
6. Feeling bad about yourself 3
7. Trouble concentrating on things 3
8. Moving slowly/being fidgety 2
9. Thoughts you would be better off dead 0
10. Feeling nervous or anxious 3
11. Not able to control worries 3
12. Worrying too much 3
13. Trouble relaxing 3
14. Becoming easily annoyed 3
15. Feeling afraid as if something awful might happen 3

It was quite a relief to answer statement 9 with a zero. Things aren’t irretrievable at least. But still, I’m caught between looking at the list wondering whether most people think like this anyway and feeling quite sad reading the reality of the situation.

How on earth did it get to this? And of course – in true journalistic style – who exactly is to blame?

What I had forgotten about all of this – compared to my previous experience when I was in my late teens – was to what extent this ‘thing’ a lot of people find themselves suffering from from time to time is a pernicious kind of thing.

A deceiving kind of illness. Bandy the word depression around and people start assuming they have to tread on eggshells around you. That you are somehow completely and utterly disabled. Unable to perform basic tasks. No good to anyone. And that you need to be completely roped off.

And yet it’s not always like that. Sometimes it can exist just underneath the surface, like a pigment in the skin, or a locked colour correction casting a bias across every shot. Difficult to remove because the operator can’t remember how it got there in the first place.

There’d will be pockets of the day when suddenly the ‘layer’ goes away. When it’s forgotten about. Clouds parting to reveal the deep blue sky. It’s not always on the surface. Sometimes it dissipates. Damn it for being so inconsistent.

And then there’s the shame. Should I be so open about all of this? Is there a danger? A massive risk? Most people will be understanding. Some might engage reading about it. But you know there’ll be someone out of touch with reality who judges and scorns. Maybe that’s why it’s good to document the process.

Audio: BBC Proms Diary 2009

The arrival of my Proms Season Ticket soothes the stresses and strains of a demanding day

I didn’t get anywhere near the end of my to-do list at work today. Come to think of it I barely moved off the first thing on the list.

There were too many distractions. Too many people asking me how to make this, that or the other work. I lost count of the number of times I had to remind myself exactly what it was I was working on before I was interrupted.

No matter, I thought. I’ll go to the gym. I’ll break the back of my motivation and commitment issues by making the second trip to the gym this evening.

It never happened. I left work too late, the tube train there took too long to arrive, I lost patience and so I went home instead.

And when I got home? What did I discover there?

Something very, very special indeed.

It’s getting nearer

Looking ahead to the beginning of the BBC Proms 2008

Like the rumble of a distant timpani roll, the BBC Proms season nears its start.

I ended up trotting up to Prince Consort Road this evening to drop off the passport pictures for my season ticket, using the opportunity to time exactly how long it takes to go from High Street Kensington tube station to the Royal Albert Hall.

It felt like it was a considerably shorter route, although the journey home via South Kensington confirmed that there’s really nothing in it at all.

It’s ridiculous. The more I look at it in the cold light of day – to be a part of the media industry it seems one has to look at things at objectively as one possibly can – all I am really getting excited by is a great long series of concerts which stretch out over the summer. They’re mostly from the same venue too. There must be countless concerts in the capital and up and down the country throughout the rest of the year too, and yet this particular concert series always sets my heart racing. It’s like Christmas all over again and a completely different Christmas from the Eurovision-related hysteria I always succeed in getting myself succombing to.

This year sees me purchasing a season ticket for the first time. I’d always sworn blind I was a radio and tv consumer, preferring to imagine the interior of the Royal Albert Hall over actually being there. Now I feel as though I want to be a part of it and, it seems, a season ticket is the best way to subscribe.

Roll on Friday and the First Night.