Random Play by Graham Reid


Sing like you’re winning

It was a little over a week ago that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa made her ungracious, arrogant and not entirely unexpected comments about Hayley Westenra and others she considered “fake singers”.

Rather than leap into blogworld with a quick comment I thought I’d wait to see how it played out -- and I wasn’t disappointed.

In our adversarial culture -- nurtured by the media where nuance is ironed out and everything is reduced to the simplistic codes and language of sporting encounter (Helen v John) -- it was little surprise that this potentially interesting discussion should become reduced to Kiri v Hayley.

Letters to the editor were very much “leave off our Hayley” although the odd dissenting voice -- in haughty tones beamed down from on high -- supported the Dame.

The great lady herself then resorted to the most wearying line of all, she said she her words had been taken out of context. That is usually the default setting resorted to by those unwilling to defend their comments because they are in a hole and know they should stop digging.

What no one discussed -- not that I read or heard anyway -- was just how much the Dame’s comments were grounded in that notion of some hierarchy of the arts: you know, popular music is at the bottom, jazz (because it’s more complex) a bit above that, classical music atop that and then somewhere in the rarefied air, almost too distant to see, is the wonderful world of opera.

From the lofty heights of the opera world -- where doors are opened for you and diva behaviour (rudeness, self-obsession, demanding self-entitlement) is not only tolerated and accepted but actually admired -- it must be easy to look down on everyone else. And one gets the impression Dame Kiri does.

Jobbing journalists who have had the misfortune of an encounter with her -- and I am pleased I never have, tetchy Neil Young was enough -- return to tell of being kept waiting for 90 minutes or more without explanation or apology, of dismissive answers and a generally superior air. That feedback is too common for it to be just rumour and innuendo.

I mention this because if you subscribe to that hierarchy of the musical arts and place opera in the realms of gold somewhere near the hand of God then you almost invariably consider it more morally superior or uplifting also.

I don’t. (See below)

Because if that were true then the world of opera would be populated by saints . . . And it clearly isn’t. You need only look at Dame Kiri’s comments -- and those opera-loving souls who attacked Hayley -- to confirm this.

Opera -- and classical music in general -- isn’t morally improving or empowering. A lifetime of listening to Wagner or Delius doesn’t of itself make you a better person. The education that comes with it might help, but music of itself confers no moral improvement. (The converse however, that a lifetime of listening to Scandinavian death metal, might not hold.)

But still people are persuaded that opera is somehow “better” than popera. I don’t know how people make a qualitative assessment of this: it is more complex, more demanding to perform and listen to, requires more attention and so on. But “better”?

More fool me but I thought such value judgements on art -- comparisons between genres and styles -- were rather outdated. You don’t start with pop, graduate to jazz then make your way to classical and beyond as my schoolteachers seemed to hope for when I was carrying a Rolling Stones album to school in the mid 60s.

I don’t mean to come over all post-modern about this, but isn’t it possible to enjoy and appreciate all kinds of art without making spurious and unnecessary comparisons?
Last week before the Kiri v Hayley bout (TKO Hayley actually) we were in Wellington to see Ornette Coleman, a musician whose work and philosophy I have admired for many decades.

Among the many things I enjoy about Coleman’s career is that it has never been exclusively rooted in genre: he has played in a jazz context, worked with string quartets, wrote a symphony, recorded with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Morocco, had Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on an album, improvised with Yoko Ono in a New York loft, has recorded with poets . . .
Coleman doesn’t see any musical hierarchy, and I like that.

After his show -- stunning incidentally -- we went to Happy for a drink and there was a blues duo playing, Storehouse. We thoroughly enjoyed their take on old John Lee Hooker and Howling Wolf material.

This past week we went to hear the APO play Rhapsody in Blue, three excellent pieces by Jonathan Besser, some Dvorak and so on. It was a wonderful evening (I thought Diedre Irons was terrific in the Gershwin although didn’t swing as much as I might have liked, but that’s being picky). Afterwards we went to the Dogs Bollix to see Infinite Flying Kick, a rock band of young Taiwanese-Kiwis whose brand of noise owes a bit to grunge, punk and Lynyrd Skynyrd guitars solos. Messy but thoroughly enjoyable.

I didn’t see too many others from the APO traipse up the pub to hear IFK -- or vice versa -- and that’s fine. I didn’t expect to.

But an enjoyment of Gershwin and IFK aren’t mutually exclusive. Are they?
I don’t listen to Hayley or Kiri that much, although I treasure a Kiri 45rpm of her singing Greensleeves and other English folk songs which I take to be from the late 60s (In her popera phase perhaps?)

But I wouldn’t deny anyone taking musical pleasure where they will.

Actually I suspect Kiri was misrepresented slightly: she wasn’t saying Hayley was rubbish when she said Hayley wasn’t in her world, she probably meant to say in her “class“.

I think it’s time to, if I might paraphrase Ornette Coleman, remove the class system from sound.

I STAND CORRECTED AND APOLOGISE. As you may see (below) I wrote that the Herald obit columns seemed to have disappeared. They haven't, they have been moved and are now on the inside pages at the back of the Sport section, beside the death notices. I had looked for them in the high-profile place they were previously but foolishly didn't consult the index -- and when I was out of Auckland looked on-line for the Barry Barclay obit and could find only the cursory PA story.
BUT, that doesn't change the fact that I was wrong and so I apologize. They do have obits still and they did run a small piece on Barclay. You might look at it and say "too small" which was also my point.

Curiously enough, when the Entertainment section was down-sized and sidelined many many years ago it went on the back of Sport -- and we called it "the dead zone". Now it is.
I stand corrected -- but leave my folly below to my shame and to remind me to check my facts, as any half-decent journalist should. I am clearly something less than half-decent!

And is it just me, or does anyone else miss the obituary columns which have disappeared from the Herald? It seems to me emblematic of something worrying that a column acknowledging the lives and careers of interesting and often important people has been replaced by photos of champagne-holding celebs and posing civilians at some heavily sponsored function.

Obituaries allow us the opportunity to reflect on those who have gone before and the contribution they made. As anyone will tell you, one of the delights of major newspapers around the world is reading the extensive, well written and scrupulously researched obits pages. They are biographies in miniature and many papers have staff dedicated to writing them.

It might be too much to think in this exciting modern age that a big newspaper like the Herald would have anyone specifically writing obits, but that the passing of film-maker Barry Barclay could go almost unacknowledged -- a few sentences and no reflective piece -- is not only sad but a dereliction of responsibility for a journal of record.

Barclay was an important figure in New Zealand film (the first Maori to direct a feature, the award-winning Ngati) but also in the vanguard of the discussion of intellectual property rights for Maori.

I only met him once for a lengthy profile piece in the Herald -- it was in the files should anyone care to have retrieved it, as would have been many thoughtful pieces on Barclay’s films by Peter Calder -- and he was witty, fiercely intelligent, thought-provoking and kind. We drank tea out of chipped mugs at his home on the Kaipara Harbour as he discussed and defined “Maori film” in a way that challenged me.

I don’t think he thought there was a hierarchy in the arts either.

Finally, for those who like me enjoy music from all points of the compass, try
here under Music From Elsewhere. You’ll also find interviews, essays, reviews and more under
Absolute Elsewhere
and at Essential Elsewhere you’ll find essays about albums which make for an interesting music collection: American alt.country, Indian classical, British pub rock, power pop, deep roots reggae, quirky and alternative Kiwi music . . .

Hmmm. What genre is missing from that list? Yep, must get onto that opera stuff. Wouldn’t want anyone saying I was being exclusive.

(PS. Sick of the blanket coverage of Trinny and Suzannah yet? That one needs some close self-scrutiny within media organisations, surely.)

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