Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The centre cannot hold

Some interesting and thought provoking stuff in this article, which I found via Molly Sheridan.

I was particularly taken by this:

Nobody in Winnipeg's classical community was upset last year when the Winnipeg
Symphony Orchestra played a new concerto for turntable and orchestra written by
Nicole Lizée, who plays keyboards for the Montreal band Besnard Lakes. I think
that's because the WSO and Lizée (who studied composition at McGill University)
were seen to be absorbing a dynamic bit of pop culture into the body of
classical music.
That's not so different from what Bartok did when he
imported elements of Hungarian folk music into his works for classical
performers. In both cases, something was pulled from the margin into the centre,
and the centre became stronger.

It occurred to me that this is actually phrased the wrong way round: it assumes that So-Called-Classical-Music is the mainstream. But surely it's the DJ who's at the centre of contemporary culture, and the orchestra that's at the margins?

Dvořák once thought that Black American music, in the form of spirituals, would be the future of composition. He was right, but not in the way he thought. He assumed that the melodic and harmonic principles of the spiritual would be absorbed into the traditional structures of European art music (the symphony and so on) and renew them. In fact, what happened was that the melodic and harmonic principles of European art music were imported into an entirely new structural aesthetic to create Jazz. I wonder if something similar might be happening here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Scaledown

The trouble with gigs in pubs, of course, is that your memory of them will tend towards the hazy next day. So if you don't get around to writing about Friday night until Monday lunchtime you're ineviatbly going to end up a bit vague. Fortunately I have the excellent people behind Scaledown's website to remind me more or less who played, and the rest I must piece together as best I can.


Everyone here's an amateur tonight, in the best sense: that is, they're here for the love of what they do, and barring whatever pennies get thrown into the hat that's passed around halfway through the evening they're getting no payment for their performances.


First up is Alain Lacroix, who is both small scale in that his act consists of just him and his guitar, and large scale in that his 15 minute set consists of just one song. It's all about the story, he tells us. I'm not sure what the story was, to be honest. The sound's a little bit prog, with a dash of XTC in it. Perfectly pleasant, if meandering and ultimately not my thing.

Dave Hopkins represents something rather different for Scaledown, not least because he's not actually here. His 30 second films are very funny, and I recommend you go over to YouTube and watch them, it'll be a lot easier than craning to see a laptop as we had to do. There are a couple of gig shorts at the end of his set that aren't as interesting, as there it turns into a camera pointed at a band, and his links between films ramble, but the main meat of it's very good indeed.

Vic Goddard was supposed to open the show, but he got stuck on the tube from work (his day job is as a postman these days), but he manages to get here and performa several songs, accompanied by Scaledown hosts Mark Braby and Dan Whaley on ukes and the guitarist from Subway Sect (can't remember his name, sorry - this is what happens when you try to remember details from a night in the pub several days ago). Goddard's a legend, and again, the vibe is, in the best sense, amateur - a man who's standing up becasue he has something he's passionate about, with no ulterior financial motive.

The Southern Tenant Folk Union have played here befroe, I see, but I wasn't there. At the moment I'm partial to anythign with "Folk" in the title though, so I'm looking forward to this one. Disappointment looms when they announce a song called "Cocaine" thjat turns out not to be the one Davy Graham sang. Every song seems to be preceded by a mention of their two albums, and that palls fairly quickly. They play very well, very slickly, but there's something not quite right about them. Maybe it's the over-earnest, mannered replication of a certain style, maybe it's the fact tht they sing in cod-American accents, which seems fake after Goddard.

There's always one act at Scaledown you think's wank, and tonight Oli Mayne, Thanos Chrysakis, and Jerry Wigens are it for me. As my companion notes, anyone advertising their use of a "Chaos board" is boding ill, and so it proves. I'm sure it's great fun playing with your knobs, but that's no reason to do it in public. Music to stroke chins by (or other parts of the body. But not in puiblic).

John White also twiddles knobs, but as you'd expect from the man who invented Systems Music, played a leading role in the British experimental music movement of the early '70s (that also gave rise to such diverse composers as Howard Skempton and Michael Nyman) and has written over 160 piano sonatas, it's of a different order to the previous turn. It's determinedly lo-fi stuff, a couple fo cheap casio keyboards wired together and forced out of their comfort zones. What makes it fascinating rather than self-indulgent though is White's keen ear for what works, and his sense of humour. He's very serious about what he does, but never po-faced, and will happily title a piece "Significant parachute jumps of 1910", after the fact that the first successful paarchute jump took place in 1911. It's this combination of seriousness of purpose with a sense of the ridiculous that gives his music substance, and it's a priviledge to be able to see this inventive and under-appreciated man peform.

I do have some photos, but they're not great, so here's something different, a little extract from the sound between sets:







Friday, July 25, 2008

Veneer

It's very easy, if you're white and middle-class like me, to assume that we live in a more tolerant world than the one of, say, 30 years ago. That prejudices once taken for granted are now equally taken for granted as unacceptable. And yet if you stop and listen, it's amazing how quickly you'll hear casual, unthinking prejudice raise its voice in the most adamantly liberal quarters. I count myself lucky to have friends who face this at first-hand, because it gives me a second-hand view, which is better than ignorance. Whether it's the funny voices of those funny foreign people with their funny foreign names and extra melanin, or the utter lack of awareness of the issues involved in day-to-day getting about if you're disabled, or the assumptions people make about people whose chromosomes developed rather differently to most of us, or those who fuck their own sex, don't assume that because we don't have advertising like the picture above (memorably featured in the film of Daniel Clowes' Ghost World) we're necessarily better than we once were. Just not quite as gob-smackingly awful, all of the time.

Other people have fought battles to bring us even the tiny step forward we've come, and one such man was Julius Eastman, whose remarkable music I've been listening to and will write about soon.

I'm just as bad as anyone else, of course, it's just that I have people in the immediate vicinity who keep me aware of the awful thoughts that lurk within. Everyone's a little bit racist, after all.

Cue music...


Prom 10: BBC Philharmonic / Tortelier (RAH)

Another dish of meat and potatoes? I must watch it, I'll get fat(ter).

Arnold Bax is one of those composers. You know the sort - English, tonal, vaguely post-romantic, championed by a lot of slightly scary obsessive middle-aged men who can't understand why this doesn't get played all the time on the radio instead of all that modern rubbish, and form a society (fan club) to prove their devotion. There's nothing exactly wrong with In memoriam, which receives its first public performance here. It's inoffensive waffle, and slightly less glum than Bax often is. But I was still bored by the end, as I always am by Bax. In a while I'll forget about this piece and start fretting again that he's a compose I ought to listen to more of. But i don't think I'll ever hear anything that'll actually make me want to.

Rachmaninov is surely near the top of anyone's list of composers you ought to think are a load of rubbish but don't. He ought to be irredeemably cheesy, but there's something about him that stops short of that. He's at least as glum as Bax, but people don't seem to comment on that much. His First Piano Concerto isn't played as often as the later ones, and it becomes clear that this is because it's not as good as them. It's okay, all the elements of his sound are there, but at this stage in his career he hadn't quite worked out how to stitch the bits together effectively. Yevgeny Sudbin plays brilliantly (as do the orchestra), and also looks frighteningly young from my perspective in the foothills of middle age. "But he's a child!" I think. He was born in 1980, so he's hardly a prodigy by now. But that seems practically foetal to me.

Vaughan Williams' Fourth Symphony is one of those pieces that always astonishes, not least because it's by Vaughan Williams. When I was young and foolish, I thought old RVW to be a crashing bore (Yawn Williams, I called him. God, I was funny). Then I heard this and the Sixth and realised I was going to have to change my mind. Would this extraordinary, violent and dissonant work get such an enthusiastic reception if it wasn't presented under the name of the patron saint of Classic FM, composer of The Lark Ascending?

Everything's here that hasn't really been about so far in the concert: anger, tension, and also a very sardonic sense of humour. Not a cowpat in sight. It's hot in the hall tonight, very close and sweaty. But that hardly registers when you're gripped by music this powerful.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Simplicity is a complex business

Obviously, living in this Google-Age of interweb ionformation overload, nowadays I've got the attention span of a goldfish, and not a particularly bright one at that. But I would like to draw your attention to this excellent post by Kyle Gann, which says a lot of very intelligent and insightful things that I agree with but don't posess the writing ability to express as beautifully as like wot he does, and is so good that I read right to the end, despite it being more than two paragraphs long.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Prom 7: Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra/Roger Norrington (RAH)

There are fancy cordon bleu dishes, exotic Eastern cooking, and then there are meat and potato dishes. The classical equivalent of meat and potatoes is overture-concerto-symphony, and that's exactly what was served up at tonight's Prom.

The thing is, meat and potatoes may not have much in the way of an exciting reputation,but sometimes you need something straightforward instead of all the fancy stuff, and the fact is that unglamourous as it may seem, a well-cooked side of beef and perfectly roasted tats is a meal that's hard to beat. And, to stretch this tortuous food metaphor a little further (don't worry, I'll drop it in a minute), the chefs of Radio Stuttgart delivered in many ways a perfectly timed roast dinner. Having said that, I have some doubts. But I'll come to those in due course.

Rossini's William Tell Overture is one of those pieces that's so famous I'm not even going to bother linking to Wikipedia about it, so famous that the prospect of hearing it fills me with almost no excitement at all. Luckily, Norrington and his band aren't as jaded as me, and a nimble performance reminded me that heck, this is really fun music. Obviously no-one these days can entirely pout the Lone Ranger out of their mind, and Norrington seemed to acknowledge as much by turning to the audience and winking when that bit started.

Jean-Guihen Queyras was the soloist in Haydn's wonderful C major Cello Concerto, and a very fine performance he gave too, the slimmed down band behind him providing able support, while Norrington hovered behind him, wisely leaving the players largely to it. This was an interpretation that seemed to point out Haydn's debt to Vivaldi, although the cadenza seemed to point forward to Beethoven.

My doubts set in in the second half. Not that the performance of Elgar's First Symphony wasn't in many ways a rewarding experience. But Norrington's advocacy of "authentic" performance practice seems to have hardened into dogma, and where he once seemed iconoclastic he now seems like a fundamentalist. It's true that players in Elgar's day tended to use less vibrato than they would now, and I'm generally all in favour of a more restrained use of it. But it's just not true that they used none at all (we do, after all, have recordings of Elgar himself conducting this work, albeit in the early '30s), and a device they would certainly have used much more liberally than modern orchestras would, which was entirely absent from the Stuttgart players' technique, is portamento. Norrington also shied away from any great rubato too, which, as can be heard in his recordings, Elgar certainly wouldn't have done. There were moments when the lean string sound brought great benefits to the piece, but others where it didn't. To call this style of performing historical/authentic is simply inaccurate, and I found these worries nagging at me throughout, which stopped me enjoying what was, I should emphasise, some very fine playing.

Another thing about Norrington's idea of performance practice involves that perennial bugbear, applause between movements. Now I'm pretty relaxed about this sort of thing on the whole: people clapped between movements in the Haydn, and it was fine as far as I'm concerned. But Norrington goes beyond asserting a right to do this into insisting on it, and in a piece like the Elgar, which is clearly conceived as one large span of music, and even ends its first three movements quietly and anticlimactically this seems to destroy the mood. If it's wrong to stop people applauding, it's equally wrong to stop people having a moment's quiet reflection after the heartfelt slow movement before the finale creeps in. Norrington's a fine, eccentric showman, and he'll undoubtedly handle the dreaded Last Night very well, but in this instance what once seemed a fresh approach seems to have ossified into willfulness.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Folking about: Proms 4&5 (RAH and Kensington Gardens)

A day devoted to folk music has been sneered at in some quarters, but I think it's absolutely right that the Proms should do this sort of thing, not least because the SCCM* scene could take instruction from the folk scene: a small, minority interest that for many years seemed threatened with extinction at the hands of indifference, a perception that this was a dead or dying genre with nothing to say of any relevance to the modern world, and well-meaning but misguided fundamentalism on the part of some of its most zealous advocates. Sound familiar?

We sauntered into Kensington Gardens at lunchtime to find the Folk In The Park mini-festival in full swing; scratch choirs and orchestras merrily hacked their way through some choice tunes, if to slightly limited effect to those of us who weren't right at the front (but that's open-air singing for you), while nearer to my eyes and ears some Morris Dancers did their stuff. Morris Dancing's had a terrible press over the years, unfairly I think, which I suppose is down to the general public's desensitisation to the point where jumping over each other with bells strapped to your legs and whacking clubs together can't substitute for actually getting your cocks out and waving them about. A shame, because in the right hands (stop it) it's a raucous affair with a healthy lack of reverence for its own traditions. I hadn't realised what a major part of it all was having the musicians hurl abuse at the dancers. The climax to our outdoor sojourn was a short set by Bellowhead (of whom more later).

The clouds began to cover the sky, so it seemed fortunate that it was time to head over to the Albert Hall for the first concert of the Proms's first Folk Day (the way they went on about it, you'd think folk hadn't existed before Roger Wright decided to bring it to South Ken, but I shall not continue in this measly-mouthed vein, as I come to praise the Folk Day, not to bury it).

This was a bit of a hodge-podge of a concert (rather as the First Night was): We began with an a Capella turn from the excellent young singer Bella Hardy (of whom more later also) which then segue into a performance of Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite by the Royal Northern College of Music's wind band. Being an afternoon concert, and hence rather more al fresco than your normal RAH affair, there was a smattering of applause after the first movement, which obviously utterly confused the lighting technicians, as the stage then went dark, then after a while the lights went up, but on the wrong group, and finally the RNCM were given back enough illumination to continue. They played very well, too.

The other group was the London Sinfonietta, which now lit up a second time to play for the first time: a couple of Percy Grainger arrangements. Grainger's a fascinating figure in the history of the folk revival, and undoubtedly we owe him a great debt, but his arrangements outstay their welcome and come across now as an eccentric curiosity. Then, after another turn from Bella Hardy, they were joined by Monica Bacelli for a performance of Berio's Folk Songs, the work he composed for his sometime wife, the late, great Cathy Berberian.

These are wonderful arrangements, subtle and glowing. They're also completely lost in the cavernous Albert Hall, and especially after the (miked) Hardy, the (unmiked) Bacelli) came across as distant and affected. She's a fine singer, but fell between the stools of not sounding folky enough, yet also sounding less convincing in her theatricality as Berberian would (a problem anyone's going to have in this work). The audience was getting restless, and that didn't really help. So all in all, this first half ended with proper folk:1, art-folk 0.

The second half began with Folkestra, a group of Northeastern young players organised by Katheryn Tickell, who turned out to be largely the flowery-dressed young lasses we'd had standing next to us in the first half. They play beautifully, and have an easy-going air about them that doesn't however distract from the evident care they put into their performance. And they had a clog-dancer, which is always a good thing.

For me, the highlight was the next act: Muzsikás, a quartet of Hungarian fiddlers who played a selection of traditional tunes with an energy and authenticity that was a marvel to behold. The audience began clapping along spontaneously, and I realised that what I really wanted to do was listen to this lot all evening, preferably in some small Eastern European bar. This was something quite startling: folk music, not reconstituted and revived, as English folk of necessity is, but a living tradition, ancient and yet utterly contemporary. They then joined forces with the London Sinfonietta for a performance of Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances, the classical ensemble alternating with the folk one, presenting their own versions of the dances, then coming together for the finale. This was a stunning performance by all involved, an entirely successful coming together of the art and folk strands of the concert. It also confirmed the suspicion I've long held, that contrary to what you might think Bartók's use of folk song is a watering down rather than a spicing up of the original's rough, dissonant harmony.

Which left Katheryn Tickell's "Confluence" rather redundant, as that was clearly intended to do the same thing, adding Folkestra into the mix for the climax of the concert. Unfortunately, having brought everyone onstage there seemed to be no real reason for the work beyond this inter-disciplinary jam, and the whole thing meandered along pleasantly but inconsequentially. It came across like a precis of what had gone before, done for no real reason than because they could.

The evening concert, meanwhile, featured three acts, two of whom we'd already caught a glimpse of. Bella Hardy had already demonstrated during the afternoon what a beautiful voice she has, and her set here was equally impressive, adding her own fiddling and harp and concertina to the palette to produce a sound that managed to fall entirely within what you might call a purist definition of folk, but never seeming anything other than fresh.

Martin Simpson, meanwhile, represents another aspect of tradition in a set that I wasn't sure I was going to like at first, as after Bella Hardy it seemed to have a whiff of noodling about it. However, he's such a persuasive performer that I soon settled into the more introspective mode, and ended up thoroughly bewitched by his mellifluous guitar style (and was impressed by the way he avoided those awkward pauses you often get while a player re-tunes by making little sketches of music out of his string adjusting, wryly commenting on the unashamed way classical musicians tune up.

Bellowhead are in some respects about as far from traditional or purist as it's possible to get, and yet they escape the trap of crossover hell by the simple fact that no matter how loud they get, no matter how many Latin rhythms or dance beats they throw in, everything they do has its roots very firmly in the folk tradition. There are different ways to extend and revitalise a tradition though, and giving it a good (friendly) kicking can be just as effective a way as tender care.

It's easy to knock this sort of day as tokenism, and I guess the proof of that particular pudding will be in whether further potions are served up in future years. I hope that happens, as this day has scratched the surface of a very deep mine that could be profitably explored for a long time. When you think that a century ago, as Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp travelled around the British Isles collecting folk songs, that this was a tradition on the brink of extinction, it's remarkable what a healthy and diverse landscape now exists, and it's a thought worth dwelling on that without Vaughan Williams there might not be Bellowhead. It's fascinating both in its apparent unlikeliness and its potential to spark new connections and evolutions, and this is just the sort of thing the Proms ought to be nurturing.

*So-Called Classical Music

Friday, July 18, 2008

each moment gone as it comes

There's an undeniably manic-depressive element to composing (or any creation): ideas, and the energy to work on them, do not flow constantly, but splutter, sometimes disappear to the extent that one is ready to declare them extinct, then suddenly flood forth without warning, to such an extent that one struggles to catch them, and must surreptitiously scribble while keeping paperwork handy to preserve the illusion that one is getting on with the uninteresting things that are nevertheless what justify the wage that keeps the bills paid and the food stocked. Notebooks become like buckets, filled with as much of the deluge as the clumsy pen skittering across the page can manage, in hope that these fragments may provide some nourishment when the drought returns. Fecundity ought to be something to be celebrated, revelled in, but it becomes another source of anxiety: what happens if this doesn't last?

This is the root of it: to get down the ideas, as many of them as quickly as possible, while they still come. While they do come it feels as though this is the only way it could be; and the same is true when they disappear and will not come, no matter how much one may long for it.

Too much or too little; dissatisfaction; achievement. And the hope that what has been achieved will serve us through the lean times.

And what then? The hope that it begins again. And so we continue.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My precioussss!

Just when you thought we'd seen off this sort of thing, I see on Coolfer that the record companies are up to it again.

I can see why the EU is concerned about artists' income, but it really isn't about starving singers, it's about big corporate companies clinging onto their cash cows.

95 years? 95?? Just how long do you need to recoup an investment? Forever, I'm sure they think.

I'm not at all convinced by the get-out clause, either. It reminds me of the sort of contractual thing that DC used to screw Alan Moore.

If the record companies put half as much effort into nurturing new talent as they do in clinging onto their old warhorses, the music industry would be in a hell of a rosy state.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is your critique really necessary?

This interesting article (which I found via the splendid folks at the Detritus Review) provides much food for thought on the place and aesthetics of criticism. Defeatist Towers is of course on the whole a repository of half-witted ranting and raving rather than proper criticism that actually says clever stuff, like, but I like to believe that it all serves some sort of purpose in exploring ideas and thoughts about music and whatever else I drone on about. I sometimes wonder if there's any real value in what I type here, it being all pretty subjective and often outright ignorant, so it's good to have someone with more brains than me justify the utter lack of critical distance I so often display. And as there's a debate in the air about critics, bloggers and the relationship/divide/overlap of the two, it's always good to have some more ideas chucked in the pot. Call it work in progress.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Judas

They've just finished the second song, and the crowd seem restless. There's a lot of slow clapping going on. They carry on, anyway. The sound's raw, loud, kind of sloppy. But it's exciting and immediate too. At least that's how it sounds to me. I'm not hearing it like those unhappy people in the audience, a sinking in that we're not in Kansas anymore. I know I'm not in Kansas anymore, I wasn't even born when we left.

There's some enthusiastic cheering as they reach the end of song 3. So it's not a given that what they're doing is alienating. Some people like it.

It really is loud, though. I want to turn the volume down on my earphones (an option not available to the people in the hall), but I'm going to stick it out, because there's a thrill in it, a sense that I'm transgressing something, even though it's only in my own mind (and whatever tinny hiss is escaping my headphones and reaching those at the desks next to me).

The slow hand-clapping starts off, and he tails off his introduction to the next song... the audience falls silent, and he continues. The cat-calls resume, and are starting to grow. There's a definite air of menace. I can only hear, of course, but it sounds fair to say the audience is divided.

Well, that one seemed to push them a bit far. The guitarist's tuning, and the jeering is growing. The singer is mumbling into his mike, speaking nonsense as far as I can tell. Eventually the claps subside as people realise he's talking and they can't hear what he's saying: "...mblmblmblmblmblif you only wouldn't clap so hard." There's a smatter of applause at this, so I guess he still has his supporters, they haven't all turned against him.

The thing is, you can't really tell what the audience is doing during the songs, because it really is fucken loud.

The guitarist is tuning again now, and the atmosphere really does sound like it's getting ugly. The piano starts off, and this song' different to the rest; where there's been a lot of exuberance before, now there's palpable menace, the hostility in the audience reflected back at them. "Something is happening, and you don't know what it is..."

They finish, there's more heckling, the audience laughs. One man shouts out. He's just saying what he thinks, he doesn't know he's just become part of a myth.

The singer's exasperated. "I don't believe you!". Then he realises the literal meaning of what he's just said. "You're a liar!"

Then, to the band:

"Play it fucking loud!"

How does it feel?

Thrilling.

(There's some clapping at the end. A few stuck it out, then. Animated discussion. The national anthem comes across the tannoy. Then the tape cuts out.)

(Seems someone's always upset about something, aren't they?)

(Now go here.)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Eight Songs for a Mad King

A heated debate on the Grauniad blogs in response to an article by Joe Queenan on why all modern SCCM* is rubbish (of course I put my tuppenceworth in) takes me back to when I was 11 or 12 and encountered my first bit of real, proper, honest-to-god modern music: Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King.

It was an LP in school, performed by the excitingly named Fires of London, conducted by the composer and with a chap called Julius Eastman singing (well, vocalising, anyway) and it was one of the most extraordinary things I had ever heard. I started off laughing, then being delighted at the extraordinary sounds that were coming out of the speakers, then finally captivated and shocked by the realisation that what I'd first taken for comedy was in fact searing horror.

I grew up in a house where music abounded, but I'd heard nothing like this: my parents' favourite composers were Mozart and Haydn, and the other sounds I heard were my brothers' and sister's rock and pop records. This was something entirely new: it was wild, crazy, untameable stuff, and it felt as though I'd lived a life in black and white** and suddenly been catapulted into the most garish technicolour imaginable.

I (and several of my friends) became obsessed with the piece; I ordered in the score from my local music shop and marvelled at it - it seemed to function as much as a work of art in itself as a set of instructions for which notes to play when. We harboured the idea that we might try and get hold of the parts, construct the giant cages in which the players sit, and perform it. We never did of course. I wish we had, though. It would almost certainly have been a terrible performance, but it would have been a hell of an exciting thing to do.

It's that feeling of intense excitement, that I'd discovered a new world and could never think of things in quite the same way ever again, that set me off on the road to this disreputable role we call "composer", and it's the feeling I still look for even now, which is why I still listen to new music and refuse to sink into comfortable middle-aged predictability. It's also why, when I want to explain what contemporary SCCM is and how magical it can be, I think of that record first.




*So-Called Classical Music

*Well, orange and brown; I grew up in the 70s, after all.

Friday, July 04, 2008

What we call the beginning is often the end

And then there are those pieces that are indisputably unfinished. I think in particular of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, which I've been listening to and thinking about a lot recently. And in particular the realisation of the finale, a controversial project.

Where his finished symphonies offer one sense of an incomplete project in their multiple workings of the same material, the surviving sketches for this movement offer another side: the work that can only be experienced as work in progress.

This is where facts, traditions and romanticism collide: the tradition has grown up that the three complete movements are in themselves complete, and therefore it's unnecessary to attempt to complete the fourth. But it's certain that Bruckner didn't think this: on his deathbed, realising he wouldn't live to finish the symphony, he suggested that his Te Deum be used as a substitute finale. So whatever else he may have thought, he definitely didn't consider it as a three-movement piece.

In was amazed when I discovered that there was a playable version of the finale: I grew up, like most people, thinking that nothing existed of it beyond a few scraps, and yet it turns out that there's enough there to show that Bruckner had the design fully formed in his mind, and was probably only weeks from completing a draft score.

It's remarkable how hostile some people seem to be to the idea of this reconstruction. Of course it's to some extent speculative, as it has to be to provide a satisfying listen (you can't listen to an unfinished piece of music and really get much from the fragments in the way you can look at an unfinished painting), but isn't it better to have an idea of what the composer intended rather than cling to a delusion?

Gottfried von Einem, by the way, wrote a piece called "Bruckner Dialogue", which uses the chorale from the finale of the ninth, which seems another alternative. It's certainly far from what Bruckner would have intended, but it does acknowledge the truth that there is an enormous vacuum in the wake of the slow movement. It seems to me better to recognise, and not deny, this absence.

The finished and the incomplete are two extreme ends of a spectrum, and there's a lot of space in between, a strange and forbidding place that nevertheless can offer great rewards to those brave enough to explore it.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The end is where we start from

When is something finished?

I crawl through my manuscript, typing it slowly and painstakingly onto my PC, changing notations here, making cuts there, elsewhere inserting or rewriting passages. When I've got to the final bar I'll go back again and may well see other points ripe for change. And then I may do it again.

But at what point will I decide that enough's enough? It's a question that every composer has to face. One of the composers who taught me told me that his rule of thumb is that a piece will have to be draughted about six times before it's ready. If you're lucky you might get it done by the third or fourth.

Art is never finished, only abandoned, as one artist said; some take this to extremes - Pierre Boulez designates pretty much his entire oeuvre as "work in progress", which seems a bit extreme to me. When I worked for a music publisher, often were the times that a piece seemed doomed forever to stay in revision hell - one (very fine) composer in particular had enormous trouble with the concept of letting go, and continued to tweak and tweak at scores for years after their premieres. It's one thing to rewrite music that doesn't work as well as it might, but endless tiny alterations seem top me to be a symptom of neurosis, which I guess stems from the awful pressure on composers to produce "Masterpieces" - that strange quirk of the so-called classical music world where it seems unacceptable to admit that a piece may be a great work while still containing weaknesses.

I think of Bruckner as well, re-writing his symphonies (sometimes on his own initiative, sometimes at the behest of well-meaning but misguided supporters) to such an extent that different versions stand as entirely different works that just happen to use the same material. There's a parallel to be drawn here with Boulez and his re-writes - the piece as an ever-evolving entity, that cannot be definitively fixed. This goes against the dogma of the score as Bible that underpins all SCCM since the late 19th century, the same dogma that sparks the kind of neurosis mentioned above, and perhaps, as infuriating to librarians and cataloguers as it is, it represents a way out of the straitjacket of the score, and the Masterpiece.

Access all areas*

The Internet Music Score Library Project is back online.


Attention, publishers: This sort of thing could be good for you, if you work with it rather than against it.


*Well, except the ones you can't access, of course.