Magazine article The Spectator

A Quantum Leap

Magazine article The Spectator

A Quantum Leap

Article excerpt

A couple of weeks ago a press release arrived in my electronic in-tray. It was from Naxos, the record company much admired for its bargain recordings of a repertoire ranging wide and free over the thousand years or so of what we on my side of the business like to call Western art music. Naxos makes them cheap and turns in a profit by taking a chance on artists who might not have reached glamour status. Thus the company feeds on a thirst for repertoire, not on the cult of celebrity.

Or at least that has been the case until now. The email I received angled for me to provide gushing coverage of a new, prestigious release, a recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, no less, of a newly composed orchestral suite. What could be wrong with that? The championing of contemporary music by such a label - and it has already done good work in this department, not least by commissioning a whole series of string quartets from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies - is surely something very noble and desirable. The problem was that the composer of this suite, which is called Seven on the basis that it consists of seven movements, is one Tony Banks. Not the affable Labour MP, but, the bumf tells me, 'keyboard player and composer for the progressive rock group Genesis'.

Alarm-bells rang, and I'm ashamed to say that I responded to the email with a thoroughly prejudiced and uncharacteristically rude 'Oh, God' even before I'd heard a note of the work. When the product arrived, however, all my prejudices proved justified. Seven is nothing more than musical doodling. While it has some sweet ideas, its language is severely restricted. It doesn't challenge, move, or inspire. It's rather like the work of someone who has taken early retirement from a boring office job and has taken instead to painting naff watercolours of idyllic lakeside scenes and pretty thatched cottages. Therapy for the creator, maybe, but dull for any reasonably intelligent beholder.

What's more, as is common in such enterprises, in order to realise the piece for orchestra, Banks was obliged to engage the services of an orchestrator, one Simon Hale. Hale has achieved what any orchestrator should achieve: a professional if unremarkable job. But these days orchestration is an integral part of the creative process, not something slapped on to the music afterwards. It's as if Banks had left the colouring-in of his naff watercolours to someone else.

Of course, anyone - even the odd critic - is perfectly entitled to compose music if he or she feels so moved. My objection is not that Banks has done so but that we are being sold the line that his reputation as a famous rock musician is enough to guarantee that he can be a classical composer of interest and ability. It's not true of Banks. It was not true, either, of McCartney with his Liverpool Oratorio (likewise orchestrated by another hand). It's not true even of the more sophisticated Elvis Costello, whose offerings with the Brodsky Quartet I have always found insipid and pretentious. I'm not sure what Banks's business arrangement with Naxos is, but he was able to use the LPO, even engaging them for a second set of sessions (who paid?) because, unused to the way orchestras work in the studio and on his own admission, he was inadequately prepared for the first.

Everything about this product suggests that Naxos is not as idealistic an enterprise as we first thought. …

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