Monday, June 30, 2008

to make an end is to make a beginning

There's a tricky point I reach in the process of writing a new piece, which is the point at which I draw a double bar line and have for the first time a complete contiguous score in front of me. it's difficult because it feels like I've completed something, whereas I've actually only reached a staging post, and from now on I've got o keep this fact in and and not succumb to the temptation to be lazy and skip all the refining.

Fortunately my composing habits help me here, as although I produce the final score on computer, I still do all the working out on paper, so what I have is actually a rather untidy hand-written manuscript that I'm now transcribing onto my PC, and as I do this I can look again at everything and make adjustments as seems necessary.

Notation programs are in many ways brilliant, in a way you can only appreciate if you've ever had to write out parts for a half-hour orchestral piece by hand, then photocopy them to make up the numbers needed for a full string section, and then tape the damn pages together, which is how I had to do it when I persuaded my schools' symphony orchestra to perform a symphony I'd written some 20 years ago. That level of drudgery is almost physically, painfully dull, and I'm very glad I now live in a world where I can just type up the score and press a button to produce a set of parts (and these days even get them copied as nicely saddle stitched booklets).

It's not quite that simple, of course, and here's one of the dangers of the technology; a lot of young composers assume that Sibelius (or whatever program they're using) will magically do everything to produce a decent set of parts. It doesn't, of course; it does do an awful lot towards it, but I've seen a lot of badly produce parts whose inadequacies stem pretty much entirely from the fact that the composer didn't bother to go through the parts and check them and tweak them. Some of this is down to inexperience (I'm always amazed how little awareness composers seem to have of what's needed in performance materials, it seems obvious to me that it's a fundamental thing to learn, preferably at first hand, which is why I don't think you can be a composer without being at s0me level a performer), but a lot of it comes down to the laziness that having beautiful-looking typesetting at the click of a mouse can engender.

At the other end, the miracle of cutting and pasting makes instant changes so easy that it's very easy to fiddle endlessly without much thought, so that huge swathes of music end up being repeated verbatim without ever really being imagined.

This is why I don't work on computer until fairly late on in the process; While the speed and ease of computers cuts a lot of work out of the preparation of a score, it can also take effort out of the composition of it, which is the one place where you shouldn't take short cuts. I need to write each note down, because somehow it doesn't feel like it's really there if I haven't. Morton Feldman said something once about having a need, a desire to copy his music out, and I think you need that if you're going to take writing music seriously; if you're not prepared to write it out how can you expect others to play or listen to it?

The manuscript is a page from the sketches for the finale of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, which raises all sorts of questions about when a piece of music is or isn't finished. More tomorrow...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Composing is a political act

I thought Morton Feldman was long gone, but you can't keep a good man down, it seems - I see he's now running Ireland, although I suspect he may be ruing the day he took the job at the moment. I'm sure he's taking the long view of it all, though.

taoiseach composer

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

KSO Programme Notes: 24 June 2008

Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)

Czech nationalism was a sentiment borne more on hope than experience in the 19th century. The country then known as Bohemia was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it would not emerge with any autonomy until the creation of Czechoslovakia in the wake of the First World War: true independence had to wait until the Czech republic disconnected itself from Slovakia in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the last century.

So music was one of the few areas that offered any palpable outlet for patriotic expression, and Smetana, as the leading Czech composer of his day, found himself at the head of a movement, and his music emulated as the basis for a Czech school of composition. The cycle of six tone poems called Má Vlast [My Homeland] that he composed between 1872 and 1879 represent a self-conscious attempt to encapsulate the essence of Bohemia in music.

The original title of the cycle was the more demonstrative Vlast; the later addition of the pronoun perhaps suggests an unease with the idea of being a spokesman for the nationalist cause at a time when he was the subject of increasing hostility from critics. The project must also have taken on a great personal significance as the composition of the first part, Vyšehrad, coincided with the sudden loss of Smetana's hearing. For a composer this was serious enough, but the deafness itself was a symptom of undiagnosed syphilis, which would eventually kill him. Má Vlast therefore represents a remarkable fusion of the political and the personal.

Vltava is the second part of the cycle. It depicts the flow of the eponymous river from its source in the Šumava Mountains to Prague and beyond. On the way it passes a hunting party and a village wedding, and sprites dance on its moonlit waters before the current builds as the river reaches the St. John rapids, then flows broadly through Prague, past Vyšehrad Castle and disappears into the distance where it will flow into the Elba.

Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950)
Symphony No.21 in F sharp minor, op.51

Posterity is a harsh mistress, as is seen in the case of Myaskovksy, a classmate of Prokofiev and pupil in Rimsky-Korsakov's composition class, who built himself a reputation as the finest symphonist in the Soviet Union before a young upstart called Shostakovich came along and stole his thunder. His 27 symphonies constitute one of the most extensive sequences since the classical era of Haydn and Mozart, and together form the backbone of his career.

After a time in the armed forces, he took a post at the Moscow Conservatory and became a leading light in the promotion of contemporary music in the 1920s, and later became a member of the Organising Committee of the Composers' Union. An introvert by nature, he showed little interest in politica and an overwhelming absorbtion in his work, but this was not enough to keep him from criticism, and he was periodically attacked for what the authorities saw as the excessive individualism and pessimism of his music, and in 1948, along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, found himself one of the main targets of the infamous Zhdanov decree attacking "formalist" music. His style is, however, less abrasive than either of those two composers, and is more obviously in the Russian romantic tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

His 21st symphony was composed in 1940 concurrently with his 20th, and dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their principal conductor Frederick Stock, who had asked Myaskovsky to compose something for them in 1938. Their performance of it on December 26 1940 was billed as a world première, but in fact the first performance had been given on 16 November by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Aleksandr Gauk.

The symphony is cast in a single movement, and although there are passages of livelier temprament, the predominant mood is withdrawn, epitomised by the clarinet solo which opens it, and the quiet string chords which bring it to a close. It is a testament to the inconsistencies of Soviet Arts policy that this introverted and melancholic symphony by a composer who had been condemned for these qualities was awarded a Stalin Prize in 1941.

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No.6 in D major, op.60

1. Allegro non tanto
2. Adagio
3. Scherzo: Furiant: Presto
4. Finale: Allegro con spirito

If Smetana effectively created the Czech musical character, it was Dvořák who took it to the world. By the end of the 1870s he was, thanks to the patronage of Brahms, establishing himself internationally as a composer, and in 1879 he achieved the distinction of having his third Slavonic Rhapsody performed by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Hans Richter. The performance was a great success, and as a result Dvořák found himself in the position of promising his next symphony to the orchestra. So in 1880 he set to work, completing the new work by October for a projected performance in December.

The orchestra, however, had other ideas: rumbles of discontent were heard at the prospect of playing new Czech music two years in a row; to present overtly Czech music in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of which Bohemia was a subject, was potentially an unwise political act. In the end the first performance of the symphony was given in March 1881 by the Prague Philharmonic under Adolf Čech. Richter himself finally conducted the symphony of which he was the dedicatee in London the following year.

Ironically, the work that the Viennese musicians had objected to on the grounds of its ethnicity has a distinctly Germanic tang to it; Dvořák went out of his way to write something that related to the traditions of musical Vienna. Not least of these is a clear indebtedness to his mentor Brahms, and in particular his second symphony (also in D major), which was then still a recent work. Dvořák also peppers the score with reference to Beethoven's symphonies, which were highly regarded in Vienna (not necessarily the case when that composer was alive), in what seems a ploy to present himself as an heir to those traditions.

That notwithstanding, this symphony, the first of his to be published (which is why for many years it was known as his first), sees Dvořák's style fully formed, the thick scoring of his earlier symphonies now replaced by the colourful, translucent sound that characterises his mature output. The first movement's allusions to the musical world of Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert only serve to highlight the confidence Dvořák has in his own voice, which is never swamped by his illustrious forbears.

The second movement takes for its principal theme a tune from an early string quartet that dates back to 1862, around the same time as the youthful Dvořák composed his first symphony, The Bells of Zlonice. As is his way, the movement proceeds less through contrasts than ruminations on and tangents to the main theme in a thoroughly relaxed and generous manner which finds time to make reference to the slow movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Having doffed his cap to Vienna, the third movement is entirely and unashamedly Czech in character, taking the form of a furiant, a dance notable for its forceful cross-rhythms, that takes the folk ideas he had thoroughly explored in such works as the Slavonic Dances and propels them into an entirely new plane of thought. The opening of the finale that follows evokes the equivalent movement of Brahms' second, before launching off on its own expansive course, finally culminating in an outrageously lively dash for the finish.


Take a look at Anthony Holden's review from this week's Observer. Skip the bit about Strauss - Mr Holden doesn't like to stray too far from the opera house, so his reviews are usually about operas, especially expensive ones with big names in them. But occasionally he remembers that there are other classical music genres, and manages to get himself to one of those concert hall places. This week he's managed to navigate his way to Snape Maltings in Aldeburgh (probably relatively easy, as it was established by Britten, who of course was primarily a composer of operas). He's also aware of the current artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, Thomas Ades (presumably because he's seen his name about the Royal Opera House advertising one of those high-profile opera commissions that stop Mr Ades writing something more interesting), although the sub who prepared the copy doesn't seem to realise that Ades doesn't feature in this concert. But the excellent French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who's due to replace Mr Ades as thge Aldeburgh Festival'sartistic director next year, does.

Consider this:

"taste-free modern slices of Schoenberg, Kurtag, Webern and Charles Ives amid some nourishing Haydn and Mozart."

Taste-free? I've heard the above composers accused of many things in my time, but blandness certainly isn't one of them. How anyone can think such things of The Unanswered Question, or Webern's Five Movements, is beyond me. And "modern"? Kurtág's still living and breathing, sure, but of the rest the most recently animate is Ives, and he died in 1954 (that's 54 years ago, Mr Holden). Those four composers represent a remarkably wide spectrum of twentieth century musical trends, and it seems unfair to brush them aside in this manner.

Mr Holden also seems confused at the difference between conducting and directing from the keyboard. He describes Aimard's conducting of Haydn's Symphony No.22 as "sprightly", and specifically states that "All went well until Aimard attempted to conduct from the keyboard." And yet his conclusion is that it's
"Just as well, perhaps, that Aimard has disavowed any ambition to give up the piano for conducting."
Huh? You just said his conducting was good! It was his directing from the keyboard in the concerto that went wrong, you said. So not only is that little dig at the end nasty and petty, it's also factually wrong.

So there you go - three paragraphs which say next to nothing about the music, and are a set-up for a punchline that doesn't work.

If someone's got a narrow viewpoint, I can put up with it (well, just about, as long as you don't ask me to talk to them for any length of time). But if you're going to be a narrow-minded music critic, you'd better write with a Swiftian level of wit and be prepared to back your opinion up rather than just casually dismiss the past century of music. Maybe if you didn't gorge your palate with late-romantic opera you'd have taste buds clear enough to appreciate other flavours.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Computer Love

The earliest known recording of computer generated music has been unearthed.

(Intriguingly, the 1950s computer shows a healthy disdain for the puny human concept of the tempered scale, as you'll hear every time it hits the dominant.)

Careful! We know where this sort of thing leads:

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Big Ideas: Don't get any

Some time ago Radiohead held a competition for remixes of "Nude" from "In Rainbows". This is one of the entries. Be patient, it kicks off at about 1'10". It's not samples, it's actual equpiment playing live, as James Houston explains on the YouTube page:

Sinclair ZX Spectrum - Guitars (rhythm & lead)
Epson LX-81 Dot Matrix Printer - Drums
HP Scanjet 3c - Bass Guitar
Hard Drive array - Act as a collection of bad speakers - Vocals & FX

Utterly brilliant.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Friday link-o-rama

It's time for one of those posts you do when you can't think of anything interesting to say!

There's a wonderful tribute to Bo Diddley in today's Grauniad by John Moore.

Top violinist and David Badiel lookalike Leonidas Kavakos interviewed.
EMI's shameless cash-in Best of Radiohead CD given the kicking it so richly deserves.

His Bobness has an art exhibition opening next week.

I'm writing programme notes for this concert at the moment, and I must admit I'm struggling to find interesting things to say about some of the music -which is no reflection on the music itself, I hasten to add. I adore Dvořák, it's just tricky to find an angle on him that isn't the usual boring rubbish you read in programmes. But I'll get there.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Bo Diddley Is Jesus

R.I.P. Bo Diddley. One of those guys who, hovering behind a huge number of bands in my record collection as a kid, influenced me before I even knew it.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Happy Birthday!

Many happy returns to Cheerful One.

I'd sing "Happy Birthday", but as Warner-Chappell claims that the song is in copyright, I can't afford to. You can read more about the arguments over who owns the world's most popular song here and here.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Sound in place

So, the move is done, the crappier crap has been thrown out, and everything has found its place (or at least been put in a pile small enough to ignore). Normal service may be resumed shortly.