From Emo to Indie

Such is art to be introspective, but how much is too much?

The Emo Diaries: The Digital Generation and How They Express Themselves

Zach Braff’s would-be mistress in The Last Kiss first seduces him with the bittersweet truth that: "The world is moving so fast now that we start freaking long before our parents did because we don't ever stop to breathe anymore."

Mid-life crises make for less trendy material, and so it’s the quarter-life crises of hipster working professionals that have the digital generation all a buzz. Proving to the world they have their fingers on the pulse, the creative team of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick – also behind My So-Called Life and the Leonardo DiCaprio film Blood Diamond – are set to release Quarterlife, an online internet series about twentysomethings "coming of age in the digital generation," on November 11th.

Quarterlife will be distributed through Myspace in eight-minute video clips. Shortly after, episodes will also be available for download off quarterlife.com – a new social networking site targeted at media-types and creative-wannabes with promises to help them "get discovered". The show itself follows a group of young writers and artists who are searching for their "big break".

Internet series have been made before, such as YouTube’s infamous http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/19376/”>lonelygirl15. In 2006 Imogen Heap used MySpace to choose supporting acts for a UK tour. And more recently Film4 and Vertigo Films used MySpace to audition actors for Faintheart, a romantic comedy set for summer 2008.

But Quarterlife has been hailed by some in the media industry as "the first ‘network quality’ show to be produced specifically for the Web."

Harry Potter and Crises of Identity: Who do you belong to?

Last week, Harry Potter as a left-wing intellectual hero who triumphs over the middle-class petit bourgeoisie. The cover story, "Why Harry Potter is of the Left" identified the non-magical Muggles as the Thatcherite middle-class, and the magical population at Hogwarts as the intellectual aristocracy of the Left.

But this isn’t the first time someone has claimed Potter as one of their own. And this isn’t the first time that reader subjectivity clashes with current debates on identity politics.

Previously, parallels had been drawn between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ, not to mention the suggestion that Rowling’s books are none other than Looking for God in Harry Pottermodern-day adaptations of biblical parable. Some had suggested using Harry Potter’s popularity as a way to spread Christianity, and the Church of England even published a guide to evangelism using Rowling’s books.

Meanwhile, Rowling set cyberspace ablaze last week with her revelation that Dumbledore is gay.

London Gets a Big Dose of Canadian Indie

Canada has proved to be an Canada’s rock’n’roll renaissance unlikely hotbed of musical talent in recent years with indie-rock bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Feist. Some of the country's best bands are hitting the UK this month.

The crash-course in Canadian indie began on 26 October when the Montreal-based Arcade Fire brought their emotionally-charged live show to Glasgow. The band - on tour until 19 November – are busy promoting their second album, Neon Bible, while issuing witty and incisive rebuttals to the New Yorker’s music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, who recently called today’s indie music too white and too polite. They responded last week by compiling an mp3 of clips that prove he’s wrong. Their 2004 debut album, Funeral, was called one of "the decade’s most remarkable rock albums".

And that's not all. November sees an invasion of jittery dance-punk and introspective vocals from the northern bit of North America. The energetic British Columbian group Hot Hot Heat will be in the country from the 10th – 21st. Soon after Hot Hot Heat get started, the Ontario-based Alexisonfire will hit London on November 13. Finishing it off are The Weakerthans, the smart and introspective indie folk band with punk rock roots from Winnipeg, Manitoba. They land in the UK on November 23 and are promoting their new album, Reunion Tour.

Food-Obsessed: If we are what we eat, how self-absorbed can we get?

In what should have been an ironic joke – though probably just a result of poor planning – this week was both British Sausage Week and National Vegan Week. But in general this year has seen a deluge of debate and discussion on the things people eat.

Over the months we’ve seen piece after piece of quasi-anthropological "why do we eat what we eat?" writing, from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Mineral – in which she documents a year lived as a locavore (one who only eats food grown locally) – to The Omnivore’s Dilemma – the book by Michael Pollan which looks at how our food is grown and asks (for reasons of both health and ethics) "what should we have for dinner?" For the more historically inclined, we have the natural and social History of Food coming in December.

Meanwhile, Milk-n-Honey, a play based on interviews with farmers, cooks, dumpster divers, and others involved in production and consumption of edibles is currently on in New York.

Also taking advantage of the fusion of food and ideas, the London Review Cake Shop opens 7 November, as the London Review of Books expands its property and mandate to include the sale and consumption of baked goods, hoping the move will not be seen as an emulation of the fusion of big-time coffee chains with equally big-time bookstores, but rather the "London coffeehouse of restoration times."

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser