James M. Potter

writings on music, games, and culture

Watching: Whiplash – How do you make a musician?

“Not quite my tempo”

I recently had a chance to catch up with Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014), a film about an aspiring jazz drummer who labours under the unforgiving tutelage of J. K. Simmons’ bandleader. In addition to being a great film, it throws up all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of talent and creativity, and, in particular, just how far you can or should push someone to realise their talent.

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Opera: Bizet’s Carmen, English National Opera, 28/05/15

Justina Gringyte leads a dramatic and lively staging of Bizet’s tune-fest

Playing Carmen in a modern production has to be one of opera’s harder gigs. You must not only be an agile mezzo, equal to Bizet’s seductive and twisty writing, but also convincingly irresistible to pretty much everyone, from Don José, as well as his fellow soldiers and commanding officer, to passing bullfighters. In addition, expect to be doing this whilst being groped lecherously by all and sundry. Read the rest of this entry »

Opera: Donizetti’s Poliuto, Glyndebourne Festival 21/05/15

Subtle it ain’t, but Donizetti’s martyrdom opera packs a punch

Initially banned for its depiction of the martyrdom of a saint, Poliuto has had to wait until the opening of Glyndebourne’s 2015 season for its UK première. Depicting the persecution of Christians in Armenia, it’s perhaps not entirely accidental that this new production falls on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide – but director Mariame Clément wisely avoids too specific a setting. It’s probably not the bel canto master’s most subtle score – each act starts slowly and builds to a forceful finale – but there are plenty of highlights, especially the concerted Act II finale. It helped that Enrique Mazzola in the pit consistently kept things interesting, leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a highly finessed and dynamic account. Read the rest of this entry »

Performing: Bad Music by Good Composers


It’s the height of the Lieder Festival here in Oxford. A host of stellar performers have graced various venues with nuanced and insightful performances of songs by the principal architect of German artsong, Franz Schubert. The goal is to perform all 600-odd songs set by him, as well as a sampling of his other, less well-known music.

It’s in this latter category that I’ve found myself this week. Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s contribution to this Oxford-wide celebration of Schubert is a liturgical performance of his Mass in C. Presumably some other choir had already nabbed the Mass in G, the only one regularly performed by English choirs, or perhaps we decided to boldly venture into the unknown for the sake of unearthing an under-performed treasure. It’s safe to say we’ve not done that – it’s an awful piece. Read the rest of this entry »

Britney, Autotune, and new instruments

I went to Istanbul last year. A friend and I took a room in a hotel in the Sultanahmet, just south of the Hagia Sophia. It was a beautiful hotel, and our room, though small, was more than equal to our requirements. True to the reviews we had read online prior to our arrival, right outside the window of this room was a loudspeaker, which added the call to prayer to the dawn chorus. Every morning as the sun rose, and then periodically throughout the day, the speaker would erupt into life with a burst of singing, wonderful and strange to us, accustomed as we were to the Western call to prayer of church bells. Read the rest of this entry »