In the Critics this week

Richard Mabey on summer, Leo Hollis on London’s tech transformation, Will Hutton on a new kind of capitalism and Toby Litt on Elizabeth Fraser.

The New Statesman’s special London issue this week celebrates the vibrancy and complexity of our capital. In the Critics section, our critic at large Leo Hollis explores London’s attempts to transform itself from Victorian capital to futuristic metropolis. Hollis considers Songdo, a new city being built outside Incheon, Korea, and the way it represents a new kind of metropolis: “the smart city, built according to the new rules of the information age”. Can London, “with its Roman street plan, Victorian infrastructure and endless sprawling suburbs”, become “a connected city in which monitors and sensors relay real-time data to regulate the urban fabric”? Reality, Hollis observes, seems to be getting in the way. Furthermore, smart technology comes with a warning. Hollis notes that the big players “such as IBM, Cisco, Siemens, Accenture and Mckinsey are all entering the debate on the intelligent city, the smart grid and next-generation buildings”. With this kind of packaged retrofitting of London for the 21st century, “one can’t help imagining a dystopian future (think Blade Runner) in which software companies have taken over the city”. What if London’s information were in the hands of its people rather than software companies? “London can never be like Songdo but the capital should define its own criteria for being a digital city and use its indigenous expertise to make the city a better place.”
 
The third essay in Richard Mabey’s series of seasonal diaries turns its reflections on landscape and nature towards summer. Mabey considers John Ruskin’s fear of utilitarian explanations for plant behaviour: “No one looked at plants with such loving attention, and no one disrespected more their integrity as living things”. With the extreme weather this summer generating a floral phantasmagoria, “we’ve all become a bit Ruskinian, eyes widened and imaginations frozen by prodigious growths and precocious appearances”. Mabey laments the fact that, as a species, we have never been good at delving into the lives of plants: “We like their looks and enjoy the masterfulness of cultivating them, and yet, like Ruskin, we don’t want to believe that they might have intelligent agendas of their own”. “Green things fed and sheltered Paleolithic people,” Mabey observes, but “among all the acutely observed and brilliantly comprehended animals that prowl the cave paintings of southern Europe, there is not a single plant to be seen.”
 
In Books, Will Hutton urges economists to give us a convincing vision of a new kind of capitalism. How do you break the intellectual consensus that Britain is a front-line developed economy, and must lower its public and private debts simultaneously and dramatically as a precondition for a return to growth? “To deleverage simultaneously is to invite protracted depression,” Hutton writes. “The challenge instead is to develop our economy as much as make it grow”. Hutton considers Going South: Why Britain Will Have a Third World Economy by 2014 by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, with its thesis that “such epic economic mistakes have been made over the last generation, compounding those of the past 100 years, that the productive sinews of Britain’s economy – and its ability to renew that productive capacity – have shrunk to such a degree that Britain can no longer be considered a developed economy”. Meanwhile Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now! demolishes the intellectual framework behind the coalition’s “self-defeating attempt to eliminate the structural public-sector deficit in four years, with roughly four-fifths of the task assumed by indiscriminate spending cuts”. The non-strategy has been a disaster, and yet one predicted by only a minority, “although anybody with a sense of economic history, an understanding of how markets can get locked in upward and downward spirals and a willingness to recognise that both private and public sectors cannot unwind their debts at once could have arrived at the same answer”. A reckoning is imminent, Hutton warns: “Inability to pay one’s way in the world means that the country’s buying muscle for scarcer food, energy and raw materials is under continual pressure”. And yet Krugman, Elliott and Atkinson find themselves in the same predicament. They “describe what has gone wrong brilliantly but their economics is descriptive rather than purposefully analytical,” Hutton writes. “They lack a solid political economy with an accompanying vision of what a good British economy and society would look like”. How Much Is Enough? by Robert and Edward Skidelsky argues that Western societies have lost their moral bearings. And until Krugman, Elliott and Atkinson can better answer the Skidelskys' question – what is this wealth for? – “they will do no better than draw with their opponents”.
 
Elsewhere, novelist Toby Litt pays homage to Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins. Litt looks back to the summer of 2006, when he was asked to help Fraser out with some lyrics: “Writing lyrics for Elizabeth Fraser was the dream job and couldn’t be anything other than a gift from God”.  “A lot of writers have attempted to describe Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and have ended up writing what ex-NME editor Steve Sutherland once called 'mind’s-eye gibberish',” Litt writes. “And a lot of listeners have tried to work out what words Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is singing and have concluded that it’s 'mind’s eye gibberish'”. Since posting Fraser his lyrics six years ago, Litt is still waiting to hear back. “Since the Cocteau Twins split up in 1997, Elizabeth Fraser’s fans have become extremely used to nothing happening,” Litt laments, “there’s been a deliberate avoidance of public exposure”. With Fraser now taking part in Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown line-up at the Southbank, at last Litt is days away from being in the same room as that otherworldly voice.
 
Also in the Critics: Kate Mossman lists her top ten London songs, from the Clash to the Kinks; Ryan Gilbey names his top ten London films including Oliver! and An American Werewolf in London; we list our top ten London novels, from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent to Martin Amis’s London Fields;
Sarah Churchwell on the “real” Hollywood; Talitha Stevenson on Amy Winehouse; Douglas Alexander on Labour in Scotland; Ryan Gilbey reviews Searching for Sugar Man; Rachel Cooke reviews the BFI’s season “The Aristocracy on TV”; and Will Self on the lingo needed to order fish and chips in Wigan.
Can London become a smart city? (Photo: Getty)
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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