I went to a late-night Prom. It was to be two pieces by Frank Zappa, an orchestral arrangement of G Spot Tornado and The Adventures of Greggery Peccary, an orchestral transcription of a player piano piece by Conlon Nancarrow and Philip Glass’s tenth symphony. It was to start by at 10.15, after the main Prom, which was to be a feast of English light music, and finish by 11.30. I like brief concerts, possibly because I’m shallow but maybe because it’s nice to reflect on what you’ve heard before the great orchestral crescendos have beaten out of you any wish to reflect on anything. I particularly like late-night Proms, which are usually half-full at best and promenaders wander around the arena, apparently half asleep but many of them visibly on the pull.
I got there very early as I had to collect my ticket from the ticket office, which closes at nine, so I went to a bar and nursed a pino grigio (small) and a roll and inspected the crowd. At first blush this was distressingly full of old hippies. Many of them sported Frank Zappa t-shirts necessarily of some antiquity, though none that I could see celebrating Frog Hollow Day Camp; many were making the most of not enough grey hair. But then there was half time for the main Prom and we were swamped (as Mrs Thatcher once put it in a different context) by enthusiasts for English light music in search of alcohol. They wore twin sets and decent tweeds and although they stared at us with incomprehension I couldn’t help noticing that they shared a taste for the pino grigio (small). Then there was an announcement – ‘Take your seats for the Dam Busters March’ – and off they trotted.
One of the things with the Proms is that you feel that you can rely on their playing to time, because they have to conform to the schedules for Radio 3. This concert however was rather ramshackle. It started late and involved massive changes on stage between each piece. To avoid our getting bored when this happened a man came on stage and talked to the conductor. Each of them had been provided in advance with a microphone but regrettably not a tie. The man who wasn’t the conductor got quite excited about the title of G Spot Tornado. No doubt he had prepared, dispassionately in his study, a selection of knowing remarks specially for the purpose (‘Zappa hits the spot!’) but they were delivered so lasciviously that I was concerned that he might have a heart attack on live radio. When he crashed to the stage and had to be carted away, I imagined, the promenaders, even though a second-string crew as it was only a late night programme, might chant in unison, ‘Heave!’.
As it went on the concert got more and more behind schedule.
Zappa presided at the end of his life over the orchestration of G Spot Tornado, written for and originally realised on synclavier, and it was wonderful: worth alone the cost of admission as they say. I’m less sure in principle about the Nancarrow orchestration. The piece was written, pre-synclavier just as the synclavier has itself vanished in favour of ever more sophisticated synthesisers, for player piano. Part of the point was that it was precise, inhuman in spirit and impossible for human beings to play. Maybe it was exactly the same with G Spot Tornado. I suppose that the difference was that Nancarrow never approved any such adaptation. He probably never thought that it might be possible. Just as Jessica Ennis can do things undreamt of in the thirties, when Nancarrow, if not the littlest certainly the most tonally adept hobo, was hopping on and off his boxcars, so can today’s orchestral musicians. Anyway, it was marvellous to hear.
Musicians filed on and off stage and more chatter ensued. One doesn’t want to dwell on what might have happened out of our sight but your man not the conductor now seemed to regard G Spot Tornado with a certain ex post facto melancholy.
They addressed the next piece, Philip Glass’s tenth symphony. They instructed us to regard it as if by Schubert. This was a bad sign, I thought, and I was right. What a parade of self-satisfied inanity. Half an hour of it too. What a waste of a perfectly good orchestra. Philip Glass wrote some quite good chamber music in the seventies and he should have left it at that. Some senior apparatchik at the BBC should have made the throat-cutting gesture and said, ‘Cut the Glass’, because what with all the chatter we were fast approaching last-Tube time and there was still The Adventures of Greggery Peccary to come.
And very good it was too, except that everyone was looking at their watches and when it was over we all leapt as one music-lover to our feet and hurtled head down for the Underground.
On the District Line a young man came up to me.
Are you wearing nail polish? he said.
Not at all.
I’m very drunk, you see.
Could you possibly just nod your head? Just minimally?
And I did. He beamed. His friends roared with laughter. We all shook hands.
But back to the concert – where my thoughts went as we ventured greenly past the City and into the old East End. What had been the point? What justified the long delays, the dash to the Tube, the hippies with their t-shirts and the man with the microphone but no tie? What justified having to listen to vacuous old Glass? The point of Greggery Peccary is largely the words, which were inaudible in spite of being intoned by a man, we were told, from Radio 4. What I really wanted it know was if they still, thirty-five years later, worked, or whether like so much from that era they had crossed the line into blether. I still don’t know.
The man with the microphone but no tie told us that the piece came from the album Studio Tan. Only up to a point of course: it came from the meisterwerk Läther, and only when the record company turned that down was it released on Studio Tan as a makeshift second best.
But isn’t the name a clue? Studio Tan: not live: not the Albert Hall: best that way: get the CD.