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.

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