Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 5 January 2016

The Wonders of Music

The husband and I don’t watch a lot of television, at least not in the regular way. We watch tv like most people do these days, which is to say that we watch it on demand. We very seldom simply sit down, put on the tv and run through the channels to find something to watch. If we want to watch something we generally choose from what’s available on Amazon or Netflix or from what’s archived on i-player or demand-4 or other streaming sites.

Bear with me, this blog is about music.

We watch some pretty decent television, and, in my opinion the best tv is getting better. Quite a lot of people once involved in film, where we used to go for the good stuff, are now making the move to tv, including some of our star actors and even the most celebrated directors. This pleases me. It does lead to series of hour long episodes of often quite demanding material, but that’s not a bad thing, either. 

Of course, once in a while, we simply want half an hour of something bright, clever and funny. Most of the time, this means resorting to programs that are very deliberately funny, or to sitcoms. We love Community, Breaking Kimmy Schmidt, Parks and Recreation and even Brooklyn 99. 

Mozart in the Jungle available on Amazon
In 2014 Amazon ran the first series of its own Mozart in the Jungle. Jason Schwartzman, regular collaborator with Wes Anderson and responsible for Rushmore and the Grand Budapest Hotel co-created this series with Roman Coppola who won an Oscar nomination in 2012 for co-writing the screenplay of Moonrise Kingdom. Co-creator credits also go to writer-producer Paul Weitz who wrote the screenplay for Antz, and Broadway director and writer Alex Timbers, who has won several awards, including Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards, two OBIE and Lucile Lortel Awards and Emmy and Tony nominations. 

The guys who put this show together come with some impressive credentials.

It’s a half hour show about a New York orchestra, following the politics of keeping the whole thing afloat when money is always an issue as well as the fate of a new, young conductor and several charismatic members of the orchestra from the most senior to a new recruit. We see them together and separately. The program is often funny, but it’s also warm and has adult themes. We like it a lot.

The second season of Mozart in the Jungle just aired, and the husband and I binge-watched it.

The show is good. We like the writing, and the cast, headed up by Gael Garcia Bernal, Saffron Burrows, Lola Kirke and Bernadette Peters, with the brilliant Malcolm McDowell featuring, all do a great job. One of the really lovely things about this show, though, is the music.

The music becomes another character.

Music, whether it’s a theme tune or the incidental stuff, is important to any viewing experience. Sometimes we hardly notice it, but we’d certainly miss it if it were absent. There are a great many themes and signature tunes that come very easily to mind whenever we think of a particular movie or tv show. Yesterday, Samira Ahmed mentioned Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation kid’s show Joe 90 on Twitter. I immediately began humming the signature tune. It’s part of my childhood, hardwired into my brain. I can’t tell you the nostalgia I felt in that moment.

We all have long and very personal histories with music. We’re all surrounded by it. My own history is, perhaps a little odd, but it’s very special in many ways, and I consider myself lucky. 

My maternal grandparents were musicians, so my mother grew up surrounded by music. Her father was a violinist and her mother a pianist. Her mother taught piano and played the organ in church. My grandmother composed too. Music was a constant in their home. Neither my mother nor any of my uncles or my aunt were taught music as children, although an uncle of mine did learn to play the piano as an adult. I have never had a close relationship with my mother’s family. I remember meeting my grandparents only a handful of times.

As a child, I went to a very ordinary state primary school. There were sixteen classes in the school, so about four hundred kids aged between seven and eleven. Schools have changed, but forty-five years ago my little school had a choir and an orchestra. The choir was run by Miss Hemsley-Flint with Mr Clay on piano. Miss H-F had her own class, but Mr Clay lived in a little room and came out to teach French and orchestra. He was the loveliest man. We also had peripatetic teachers who came into school to teach various instruments. I decided that I wanted to learn to play the violin, and shortly after I began lessons, my grandmother visited and gave me an instrument.

Freya Ritts-Kirby (2nd right) with the Hartley Ensemble 2015
In the end, I didn’t get much of a music education. I can read music and I learned to play a little. I lived in a big, busy family and I didn’t practise enough to progress very well, but I was in the school choir and I was in the school orchestra for a little while. The child I sat behind in the string section was called Freya Kirby and she went on to become a professional musician. She still plays her violin under her professional name Freya Ritts-Kirby.

Except that I did get a music education… In a way, I got rather more of an education than I realised, and it happened by osmosis, and it happened without my noticing and over time and because of circumstances.

I loved watching Mozart in the Jungle and I shall watch it again, and one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much was because of the music. I recognised the music… I could whistle it. I knew all of the tunes, and I knew some of them very well. I wasn't surprised that I knew a lot of the tunes, because, of course, they’d been well-chosen. It would be foolish to make a mainstream television show, something to appeal to a lot of people, and then fill it with music that was unfamiliar. Remember, though, that I was watching the show with the husband. He didn’t recognise all of the music. He recognised a significant amount of it, but it became clear that I was more familiar with classical music than he was.

There was a reason for that.

I couldn’t identify the music. I knew what some it was, who had composed it or what it had come from, but most of it was simply familiar tunes. I have no education in classical music, and this stuff takes some learning, but I knew the tunes, and they came back to me easily.

I spent four years in my primary school, and for those four years, Mr Clay was in charge of music. He took his job seriously. We were kids aged between seven and eleven, but we all did some music with Mr Clay and Miss Hemsley-Flint. We all learned to sing hymns for assembly, and those of us who wanted to could join the school choir. We all played percussion instruments. We all blew recorders. Those of us who wanted to were given the opportunity to take lessons in various instruments and join the school orchestra. There was even a lunchtime guitar club. Music was available to those who wanted it. 

What I had forgotten until I watched Mozart in the Jungle was that music was also part of our daily lives. The whole school congregated every morning for assembly. We walked into the hall in silence and sat down in long rows in our class groups on the floor. Except, we weren’t in silence. We weren’t allowed to talk, but as we filed in, Mr Clay would play a piece of classical music on the record player in the school hall, and it would continue to play while we sat in silence, listening to it.

Every so often, we would have a live performance from one of the students who was learning an instrument or from the school choir. 

I don’t know how much music I heard in those four years. I don’t know how often Mr Clay repeated a piece of music, and I don’t know what he chose or how esoteric some of it must have been. Of course, I don’t know who the composers were or what the pieces were, although Mr Clay may have given us that information at the time and I’ve simply forgotten. I do know that Mr Clay gave me the gift of music. I know that I respond when I hear a piece of classical music, and that’s largely due to him. The music he played as we filed into the hall for assembly was simply part of my childhood routine, and, while I’m not sure it meant a great deal to me at the time, I know that it means something to me now.

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