Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Edinburgh Festivals Monday 15 August: Melvyn Tan; Simon Sebag Montefiore

Melvyn Tan was at the Queen's Hall in the morning playing John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, which he interspersed with some Scarlatti sonatas. Looking at the stage I had imagined that the full-size concert grand would have been prepared for the Cage and that it would be the baby grand that was used for the Scarlatti, but it was the other way round. I was surprised how many setas were still empty: I'd had to get a restricted view seat when I booked, so there must have been several no-shows (good news for me as I could slide along to get a better view).

The way the Scarlatti was introduced into the cage was oddly asymmetrical, and shouldn't have worked, but did: it pointed up the parallels between the two sets. It's not simply that they share a binary structure, but as the excellent programme notes by W Dean Sutcliffe for the Scarlatti made clear, the earlier pieces are quite mould-breaking in their way. Scarlatti, like Cage, was fascinated by games of chance, and his way of reflecting this in his music was to write amazing leaps into some of the sonatas which even after much practice remain literally hit-and-miss. One such is the Sonata in B flat major K529 which Melvyn Tan played: as if to demonstrate the point, he did miss one of the jumps.

While I already knew and loved the Cage, the Scarlattis were all new to me. I had slight misgivings about hearing them on a piano, as I prefer my baroque music on harpsichords or other less-anachronistic keyboards. Not that I'm a total purist: my introduction to Scarlatti's sonatas came via Walter (later Wendy) Carlos (of Switched-On Bach fame) on an album entitled The Well-Tempered Synthesiser. But the piano really suited these pieces, at least when Melvyn Tan was wielding it. A couple of the sonatas were described as harking back to an already-dated style of keyboard writing, but funnily enough it was these most archaic ones (K69 and K87) which sounded most pianistic, Romantic even, to my ears.

One one of his trips between pianos Melvyn said "Back to the nuts and bolts", which I thought was a nice (if literal) expression. He gave an excellent performance of Cage's magnum opus for the instrument he invented. The prepared piano is a piano with bolts, screws, pieces of rubber, strips of aluminium etc inserted between the strings in a precisely-specified manner. This alters the sound of some of the notes in a determinate manner, so that the piano becomes a percussion ensemble in a box. (It was invented as a way of fitting a percussion ensemble into a small theatre orchestra pit space.) Here is an example from the Sonatas and Interludes, played by Boris Berman.

A great concert, very well received. His encore was a piece of Debussy (I think - maybe Ravel) which I didn't recognise.

In the late afternoon I returned to the Book Festival for Simon Sebag Montefiore who has written a "biography" of Jerusalem, by which odd phrase he means that his book attempts to write a history of Jerusalem and its inhabitants rather than focusing on specific historical or political themes. He was born in Jerusalem, and his family have roots there: his ancestor Moses Montefiore built the very first suburb outside the city walls, whose mock-Dutch windmill can still be seen. Simon pointed out that it's hard to imagine, viewing sprawling modern Jerusalem, that nothing outside the walls existed 150 years ago. He took us through a number of turning points in Jerusalem's history, of which the most important were the expulsion of the Jews by the Romans, the recapture of Jerusalem during the war of 1948, and the 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem. The (literally) shattering violence of the Romans left the Jews bereft of their spiritual centre (and much of its population: the Romans were crucifying Jews at a peak rate of 200 per day). The retaking of Jerusalem in 1948 was a moment whose significance, he told us extended beyond Israel, beyond Zionism, but was felt by Jews all over the world. He reminded us that strictly speaking neither Israel's claim to West Jerusalem nor Jordan's to its Eastern part were valid under the original partition agreement, which stipulated international (UN) control of Jerusalem: but even if the international community had not subsequently recognised Israel's claim it would have been politically and culturally inconceivable that Israel would ever have relinquished control totally. East Jerusalem was the most contentious part of the territory occupied by Israel in 1967, and almost the only part of the OT which it has formally (and illegally in the eyes of all other countries) annexed into Israel. I got the impression that while not a big fan of Israel's treatment of the Arabs in occupied Palestine, SSM would not be campaigning for Jerusalem to be repartitioned. In answer to a question about the increased pace of settlement-building around East Jerusalem, he said that while he had no problem with the building of settlements he was unhappy with how it was being done: settlements are gradually hemming in East Jerusalem so as to cut it off completely from its Arab hinterland.

SSM was full of such juxtapositions, which I imagine make him unpopular with Zionists and anti-Zionists alike. He defended the First Intifada for example, as it brought Israel back to the negotiating table. "Terrorism works, sometimes", he said, citing the Zionists own use of terrorist tactics to force the British to leave as another example. The Second Intifada, though, had been "a disaster which destroyed the Left in Israel". In yet another complication, I read an interview with SSM just before seeing his talk, in which he pointed out that Ariel Sharon's famous walkabout on the Temple Mount which was the immediate trigger for the Second Intifada was not merely insensitive but actually illegal under Israeli law as the Temple Mount was a closed area requiring special IDF clearance before any entry was allowed.

I think his book sounds fascinating. Apart from anything else, his family sound amazing. But it is very rare to find a commentator of any kind on Israel whose position is impossible to characterise as either "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine": one who accepts that on both sides there are considerations other than legality or illegality, and that these considerations are valid in themselves. I'm sure when I read his book there will be times when I want to scream: but there will be times when I simply marvel at the almost-unbelievable story (made believable) of an almost-unbelievable city (made real).


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