When I was a teenager, I heard two albums that baffled me, took all my preconceptions and threw them away and took me the best part of a decade to absorb properly. One was Bitches Brew by Miles Davis and the other was Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
There was something curiously old-fashioned about that "his"; it seemed to evoke old-time acts like Mantovani and his Orchestra. This is strangely appropriate. For all his avant-garde reputation, Beefheart was a showman, and there's a playful theatricality in his music that in another life might have made him a housewives' favourite. You'd have a shock if you put the record on expecting some smooth strings though. I knew the album's reputation, of course - I was an obstreperous child and got that one because it had the most forbidding reputation - but the extraordinary noise that awaited me was something I wasn't prepared for. It took years (and I mean, around 10) for it to click that for all the complexities of time and tone, it was at heart a blues album. That moment of realisation brought everything into focus, and thereafter it seemed incomprehensible that I'd ever found this music forbidding. It never became comfortably familiar though. Like all great music, it remains unpredictable, startling, new.
It's nearly 30 years since Beefheart fell silent. He was advised that he'd never be taken seriously as a painter if he continued to record, so the Captain was put to rest and Don Van Vliet the painter took his place. There's a strong continuity between the painter and the musician. The paintings have that same playful experimentation as his music, and the music comes to seem painterly in the way he spreads sound across his canvas. So it's not really true to say that he'd been inactive in music since 1982; he'd just made music in pigment instead, where before he'd painted in sound. But beyond that, it seems an immediate loss just because he was so far ahead that we haven't really caught up yet.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
When I was a teenager, I heard two albums that baffled me, took all my preconceptions and threw them away and took me the best part of a decade to absorb properly. One was Bitches Brew by Miles Davis and the other was Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
I suspect the the attempt by Cage Against the Machine to take John Cage's notorious 4'33" to the Christmas No.1 spot is doomed to failure. There doesn't seem to be quite the focussed support for a single anti-X Factor purchase this year as there was with Rage Against the Machine last year. Anyway, Cowell's a canny enough operator to know that even such projects ultimately fuel his own machine, keeping the brand in the public eye. All publicity is good publicity, and the high-trousered one wins (and the rest of us lose) whatever happens, as long as we're not ignoring him.
Having said that, it's bound to be a noble failure, that gives a wider circulation to some of Cage's ideas. Some people seem concerned that the CATM project is "overexposing" Cage's notorious work (although I wonder if there isn't an element of hating it when our friends become successful). Meanwhile over at the Quietus, David Stubbs worries that people aren't taking the piece seriously enough. (There's an interesting discussion about about the question of humour in the comments.) He's partly right of course: 4' 33" isn't a joke. Cage insisted to the end of his life that it was his most important achievement, and that he thought about it before beginning work on every other piece he wrote. But at the same time Cage was certainly alive to the absurdity of the situation that performing 4'33" puts an audience in, and would have considered laughter as valid a response as any. The idea is important and robust enough to survive those who mock it.
Will CATM spark an interest in Cage's other work, so over-shadowed by his most notorious piece? Well, it's unlikely. But it equally seems wrong-headed to complain that it risks making Cage a cult. For one thing, he is already. For another, Cage knew the power of popular culture, and was happy to appear on a TV gameshow for instance. 4'33" was originally conceived as a protest against Muzak, so it seems fitting to employ it as a protest against the souless sausage machine Cowell operates. I suspect he'd have been delighted by the project.
Sceptics like to question how Cage can be said to have "composed" this piece at all, but its form is one of the most intriguing things about it. In its original form, it appropriates all the trappings of a conventional piece. It's divided into three movements, and that's not a joke: Cage's intention was that it should observe exactly all the conventions of classical performance, except of course for the production of any deliberate sound. The boundary between performance and the spaces between and around performance become blurred and uncertain. it's tempting to see this as a deliberate satire on the anxiety that modern concert etiquette inspires in people: the questions of how you know when the piece is finished and when you're "supposed" to clap. The CATM version, with its celebs getting together for charity and its remixes, actually seems to me to be a rather more faithful approach in this respect than the smirking of the BBC Symphony Orchestra that Stubbs mentions in his article.
A lot of those conventions - including the diktat that the audience should be silent - are essentially a product of the recorded music era. It would be silly to applaud a solo on a record in your own home after all. 4'33" reflects a fundamental shift: the audience has become divorced from the performer, and 4'33" formalises this by making the listener rather than the musician the focus, while also opposing it: as the work consists of ambient noise, the audience is as much a performer as anyone on stage.
CATM seems to understand and enage with Cage's idea in a way that "serious" musicians often seem incapable of doing. And four an a half minutes of "dead air"* turning up on the Radio 1 chart show would represent a genuine challenge to all contemporary convention, perhaps more so than David Tudor's premiere. After all, we now live in a world where silence* is becoming almost impossible to find. Background music has invaded music, and every shop, restaurant, pub and public space (even tube stations, increasingly) is overlaid with a patina of sound, there to protect us from our fear of being forced to be aware of ourselves. It's there not to be listened to, but to be ignored. The opposite of music.
This is the most elegant and important point 4'33" has to make. What is music? It's what happens when you pay attention.
Now go buy! Oh, and listen to some of Cage's other music too, because it's great.
(By the way, if you want a good starting point to explore 4'33" and how it fits into Cage's career I highly recommend Kyle Gann's excellent book No Such Thing As Silence.)
*Yes, yes, I know.
** The Classical Music World has few questions as burning as this, and it wonders why it's seen as irrelevant and detached from real life.
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
Saturday, October 02, 2010
Friday, August 13, 2010
In which I celebrate my impending mid-life crisis by considering the first forty tones of the harmonic series. This entailed using the 37th partial, which I've not only never used and don't really have much idea what it sounds like, but also had to work out exactly what the notation signified (a lowering of pitch by about 23.24 cents, since you ask). I'm rather more excited about having worked this out than I ought to be.
(Just Intonation notation guide here.)
Saturday, August 07, 2010
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D.759 (Unfinished)
1. Allegro moderato
2. Andante con moto
There are in fact five fragmentary symphonies by Schubert, but only one that proudly proclaims its incompleteness. What marks this Unfinished Symphony out from the others is that two of its movements exist in a performable state. The other unfinished symphonies (and the third movement of this one) exist only as fragments and sketches.
The torso was not performed until 1865, over 40 years after its semi-composition. Schubert gave the manuscript of the two completed movements and the beginnings of a third to a friend shortly before his death, and the symphony did not come to light again until the early 1860s. By then the myth of Schubert the neglected genius, fuelled by Robert Schumann's advocacy from the 1830s onwards, was fully established. The much delayed première added to this myth. The “Unfinished” Symphony seemed a reflection of Schubert's fate: Poor Schubert, the untutored genius who produced music as naturally and effortlessly as a bird, doomed to neglect and a young death before he was able to complete his destiny.
Schubert's position in Vienna was not so much that of a neglected composer as an undiscovered one. He was well known as a composer of songs and dance music and had a number of works published. The music for which he is best remembered now was largely unpublished and unperformed during his lifetime not because of a lack of interest, but because he was a young composer at the start of his career who was still hustling for a position in the Viennese artistic scene. Had he lived into the 1830s he would have benefited hugely from the support of both Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt. It is worth remembering that had Beethoven died at the same age as Schubert he would be remembered as a far less significant composer, if at all.
Austria in the early nineteenth century was in many ways at the forefront of European civilisation. Steam boats and hot air balloons were two modern transports that could be experienced in Vienna as early as 1820. Yet there were as yet no sewers and disease was rife. The deathrate in Veinna had declined in the early 19th century but rose again sharply in the 1820s and 30s. Schubert's frequent concern with death in his work was not simply a personal obsession but a reflection of the conditions around him. To us 31 is a shockingly early age to die. To Schubert's contemporaries it was not.
On top of this, the society he lived in was a restricted one. Social occasions such as dances and the soirées where Schubert's songs and chamber music were heard were the closest it was possible to come to personal expression. As the art form least easily interpreted as political, music flourished as a form of covert communication of the hopes and desires of the Viennese. Fantasy, whether in the form of Schubert's “Fantasias” or less salubrious forms of entertainment, was the order of the day. This reflected not only the need for diversion but the desire to be freed from the shackles that bound society.
Schubert was such a prolific composer that it is hard to imagine that he could have suffered writer's block. However, the early 1820s appears to be such a period. This slackening of productivity came between his first great public success, the première of his setting of Goethe's poem Der Erlkönig, and his final illness. It seems that Schubert knew that he had to produce something extraordinary to achieve his ambition of recognition as an equal of Beethoven, but was unable to achieve this until the point at which he realised that time was running out. His earlier successes had been music for domestic, amateur performance. The next step was to produce large-scale instrumental music for public performance. This was no mean feat to achieve. Professional music making was an idea still in its infancy. There were no professional orchestras outside theatres, and no purpose built concert hall in Vienna until the 1830s. The fact that, unlike Beethoven, Schubert was not a virtuoso performer made gaining wider recognition still harder. When he finally organised a public concert of his own music less than a year before his death, it was overshadowed by Paganini's first appearance in Vienna three days later.
This symphony is therefore only one of many incomplete works from this period of Schubert's life. Why he failed to complete it is open to speculation. It seems likely that his poor health was a factor. He spent the latter months of the year in a sanatorium being treated for syphilis, the infection that would eventually kill him in 1828. It may also simply be that without an immediate prospect of performance there was no reason to continue work on it. He may have been stumped as to how to continue. This was after all a radical leap from his earlier symphonies. The fact that between May 1818 and August 1821 he had begun and abandoned 10 symphonic movements suggests a certain insecurity about this new direction. He would eventually bring his ambitions to fulfilment with the “Great” C major Symphony a few years later, but the “unfinished” represents a real breakthrough. Its two completed movements display an astonishingly original conception of what symphonic music can be, quite different to the Beethovenian model that was the norm at the time. In many ways its expansive paragraphs and obsessive repetitions and reiterations anticipate the symphonies of another composer who would find fame in Vienna: Anton Bruckner.
Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
Symphony No.9 in D Minor (Unfinished)
1. Feierlich, misterioso (Solemn, mysterious)
2. Scherzo: Bewegt, lebhaft (With movement, lively)
3. Adagio: Langsam, feierlich (Slow, solemn)
Few composers have been quite so divisive and quite so misunderstood as Bruckner. To his contemporaries he was either a simpleton or an astoundingly gifted improviser, a creator of revolutionary, futuristic music or of symphonic monstrosities comically in thrall to the cult of Wagner. After his death his music was co-opted by reactionary forces in Austrian politics as a symbol of a lost Germanic Utopia, a trend that would lead eventually to the linking of Bruckner, along with his idol Wagner, to the Nazis. The published versions of his symphonies were denounced as the distortion by Liberal Jews of the master's true, and new, “untainted” editions revealed the “pure” Bruckner. Bruckner has never fully recovered from this association, which partly explains why his music remains contentious over a century after his death. Since the war a new Bruckner has emerged: the attempt by pre-war scholars to create definitive versions of the symphonies has been replaced by a new idea, that the multiple versions of certain works constitute valid alternative realisations of the same musical ideas. Thus Bruckner comes to foreshadow contemporary ideas of the artwork that is never complete but in constant flux, epitomised by Pierre Boulez's ever-evolving “Works in Progress”. To some Bruckner is a mystic, channelling profound spiritual messages; to others he is an incontinent (and possibly incompetent) bore. The music meanwhile remains, evading any easy explanation.
He cut a strange figure in late nineteenth century Vienna. He spoke with a thick upper-Austrian accent and dialect, which made him seem like a county bumpkin to Viennese sophisticates. So numerous are the stories about his eccentric behaviour and strange obsessions that it is difficult to establish which if any of them are true. The manias that gripped him, his obsession with counting and his compulsive reworking of his earlier music have been cited as evidence of mental illness (he had some kind of mental breakdown in 1867), or of an overwhelming sense of his own inadequacy as a composer. It is quite possible that today he would be diagnosed with some form of Asperger's Syndrome. Moreover his devout Catholicism was suspicious to some in a country where tensions between Catholics and Protestants often ran high. Anti-Catholic sentiments certainly contributed to some of the opposition to his music, and the stoking of the idea of a rivalry between him and the other prominent composer of symphonies of the time, Johannes Brahms.
Bruckner was conscious of the example of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and in some respects his own is modelled on it. It was intended to be a summation of his compositional life, and this sense of a final confession is heightened by its dedication to “beloved God.” He began work on it in 1887, but progress was slow. He had sent the score of his recently completed Eighth Symphony to a sympathetic conductor, Hermann Levi, who had performed his Seventh Symphony to great success. Levi rejected the Eigth, and a devastated Bruckner embarked on a wholesale reworking of it. He also revised his first four symphonies (some of them several times). The result of this was that by 1894 only the first three movements of the new symphony were ready. His last years were marked by a sharp decline in health, but he continued to work on the finale. In any event, the surviving sketches suggest that he was very close to completing the composition of the movement. The next stage would be to flesh out the structure with details of counterpoint and orchestration. It is ironic that death prevented Bruckner from completing his final declaration of faith in the promise of resurrection and the life to come.
The opening has an elemental force, as though we are witnessing Creation itself. Having brought a world into existence though, Bruckner proceeds by the end of the movement to bring it crashing down again, as though to demonstrate that all human endeavour must come to dust.
There then follows one of the most extraordinary, bizarre movements that Bruckner ever wrote. It is filled with ambiguous harmonies and unsettling switches of mood, containing extremes of violence and fleeting, spectral shadows.
The slow movement's second principle theme is a quotation of the “Miserere” from Bruckner's own Mass in D minor of 1864. This provides a clue to its character: it is as thought the composer here falls to the ground and prays for mercy as he faces death. Allusions to the slow movements of the seventh and eighth symphonies, which both have explicit death-related themes, also suggest that this is intended as a final confession and plea for God's grace. Bruckner himself described it as his “farewell to life.” And then...
“Art is never finished, only abandoned” (Leonardo da Vinci)
Nobody worries very much about the fact that the Venus de Milo has no arms. As we all have a mental image of what a whole body looks like, the absence of appendages on the statue matters little. We may not know the precise details of her original posture, but the mind can fill in the gap satisfactorily from what the eye sees.
Incomplete symphonies pose a different problem. Music exists only in performance, so if a composer leaves behind only sketches for a composition (as with Schubert’s four other unfinished symphonies) it cannot be directly experienced without the intervention of another hand to elaborate or complete what is there.
We do not know how Schubert's symphony might have ended. Bruckner on the other hand left substantial sketches for a finale. Unfortunately many of the pages were stolen in the wake of his death by devotees seeking mementos. It seems likely that Bruckner had completed the structure in his head, if not on paper: his doctor reported that he had heard Bruckner play the finale through on the piano. Performing versions have been constructed from the surviving sketches which give a glimpse of what Bruckner had in mind, although this can only be a provisional impression of an emerging work. He planned nothing less than a summation of all music, climaxing with the combining of themes from all four movements and concluding with a “song of praise to the Dear Lord.” In the event of his dying before he completed the movement he suggested that his setting of the Te Deum might function as a substitute finale. This is rarely observed in performance, but the idea of a Te Deum gives us a clue as to the nature of what Bruckner intended as his conclusion, possibly more than emotionally: the surviving sketches show that he intended to use motifs from that work.
Unlike an arm, a missing movement is unique. Any generic principle we may have in our head about how the last movement of a symphony proceeds is of little help in understanding what the finished work might be like. The argument has been made for both these works that they are somehow complete in themselves, but this is wishful thinking. Certainly neither Schubert nor Bruckner would have considered their fragment to be finished work. Attempts to complete both symphonies have been made. The elaboration of an incomplete work is something that is only sporadically accepted. Bruckner's finale is controversial, yet the completions of Mozart's Requiem or Elgar's Third Symphony enjoy wider acceptance.
The German term for works such as these, Unvollendete [“Unperfected”], carries a greater charge than the more pragmatic English term “Unfinished.” It implies a distinction between a finished (i.e. performable) work and an ideal, which is unrealisable except by the composer himself. Perhaps the best way to consider all this is as an unintended extension of the idea of Bruckner's numerous revisions as separate, equally valid realisations of the same symphony: So the Ninth may conclude with a choral song of praise; or with an elaboration of the sketches for the finale, as a completed, albeit Unvollendete structure; or with a silence to be filled by our imagination.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Notational notes here. This is just a little progression, based on the difference between a Just and a Pythagorean major third, which then gets a little twist to push it up to the end.
Mrs Replica looks askance at her husband many evenings, and not for the usual reasons: he seems to spend an awful lot of time writing out fractions. She's used to his little ways, but even so.
It's a sobering experience, trying to work into a new and partly unfamiliar way of working. If I'd stuck to the old ways I could probably be rattling through churning out sketches for the next piece. As it is I'm slowly assembling fragments, trying to figure out what the sounds are called and how to tell the players, which is essentially what a notated score does. Moments of progress are interrupted by moments of realisation that I've got one tiny thing wrong and have to refashion everything as a result. You could see this as a pain in the arse, a lot of extra work and just making things difficult for myself. I prefer to think of the increased groundwork as a way of getting to know the DNA of the piece. These fractions after all represent the basic notes from which everything else will be built. The music's in there, it's just a matter of unearthing it.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Or should that be plus-minus ensemble at King's Place? Or +/- @ kingsplace? This sort of typographical quandry is par for the course in the world of Modern Music.
And this gig was definitely Modern Music, with capitals and all. I felt like I'd been transported back to the late 80s. Within seconds of arriving I saw my first Man Dressed In Black.
When I was a nipper, there was a certain set of clichés about Modern Music and the people who went to hear it. Men (always men), almost certainly dressed in black, either bald as a coot or hirsute, possibly of questionable hygiene, never smiling. This is Modern Music. It's Serious. It's Art. NO SMILING. Angular, difficult, hard edged music. Music for Men. Men who smoke and shun deodorant. Men who probably write similar music themselves.
If you believe what you read on the internet (and why wouldn't you?) this sort of thing's yesterday's news. We're no longer scared of music written by non-dead people, we all love each other and even know girls. There were actually some girls there, but they tended not to be talking to the boys, a bit like a school disco. I did see a couple of people smiling, so things haven't remained entirely static since 1989 for these folks.
(I'm uncomfortably aware, by the way, that if you drew a Venn diagram of people who fit into the category I'm talking about, I'd have at least one foot inside it. A lot of these guys are dressed like 80s-90s students, i.e. exactly like I did when I was a student, and sometimes still do. Although I rarely wear all-black these days, it feels weird when I inadvertently do.)
Like Goths and Catholicism, though, the old guard survives, and you'll find them at a gig like this. The particularly fearsome man who sat stiff-backed, hands at the ready to applause the second the Xenakis finished to show he knows when it ends (and is therefore better than the rest of us), paunch nearly covered by grubby shirt and leather jacket, the gentle smell of stale fag smoke wafting gently from his person, was only the most striking example of this Lost World of Modern Music fans (as in fanatics). Gruffly barking "Bravo!" to show he understands and appreciates Difficult Music more than the rest.
Back in the day you'd have gone to a church or a school drama studio to hear this sort of stuff. Fortunately King's Place Hall two has much the same vibe as a drama studio, so there's some continuity there. The presentation is resolutely old-school, too. No talking to the audience or anything like that, just a procession of musicians coming on, playing, and walking off again. This is Difficult Music. If you don't understand it there's no point trying to explain it to you.
I've heard pieces by Xenakis that knocked me out, and others that bored me senseless. Neither of the works that began and ended the first half were at either extreme, though I preferred the piano solo Evryali to the violin and piano piece Dikhthas. Evryali came over like a cross between Ligeti's Piano Etudes and Ustvolskaya's Sonatas without being quite as compelling as either. In between came Rebecca Saunders' Vermilion. Saunders is published by Peters Edition, who despite their signing of the likes of Jonathan Dove in recent years will always be for me the publisher non plus ultra of Difficult Modern Music, printed in Very Big Scores. The scores in this case were surprisingly normal-sized, but it was still definitely the sort of piece where everyone plays from a score. Saunders clearly has a fine ear for texture, and there was much to admire in that respect, but I'm afraid it left me cold, neither seducing nor provoking me. It was there and it was OK, but I didn't feel any sense of its existence as being necessary.
It was the second half I was actually there for. I like Bryn Harrison's music, but there's no getting away from the fact that it's basically a massive rip-off of Morton Feldman. Talent borrows, genius steals, they say, which puts him firmly in the talented camp. If you're going to borrow on this scale though, you may as well do it well, and Harrison (Head of Composition at Huddersfield University) does. I do wish he'd reference something other than other pieces of his in his programme notes though. Unless you're deeply acquainted with his work it's unhelpful and irritating. The lengths he went to to avoid mentioning Feldman were amusing though. Repetitions in Extended Time was commissioned by the Huddersfield Festival.
I find myself wondering though. The Xenakis pieces are, what, 30-40 years old now? Which is old enough that the style has acquired a comfortably quaint, nostalgic patina. Is there some weird thing happening here where composers like that are for people like this what Beethoven and Mahler are for mainstream classical audiences? Something old and familiar, that they feel comfortable with (and therefore almost certainly no longer understand)? And is the Feldmanesque trope now becoming so common (there a a lot of other composers ripping him off, myself included) that it's in danger of going the same way? I'm certain that one day that style will seem just as quaint and cute as Xenakis does now. I'm sure the New Music Men see themselves as keepers of a flame. If there's one thing that's definitely better now than 40 years ago it's that there's no style police telling us what sort of music we can and can't write or listen to, so in a way it's reassuring that they're still about. But maybe they're just as hung up on nostalgia as everyone else. The trouble with writing the music of the future is that it tends to skip the present and go straight to being the music of the past.
Thursday, April 01, 2010
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Blimey, who'd have thought you'd get this sort of thing in Wigmore Street? The Jerusalem Quartet found themselves at the centre of a political protest yesterday as they played Mozart and Ravel at the Wigmore Hall. The ruckus was such that the BBC pulled the live broadcast and played a record instead. You can find viewpoints of the protest from both sides of the fence here and here. My chums at Classical Music report that the Wigmore's head honcho says:
"I want to make the point very strongly that we can’t possibly condone any kind of disturbance to an artistic event. Wigmore Hall is a totally non-political organisation, and by disrupting performances the protesters completely take away the whole meaning of an artistic event, which is something that transcends politics."
Let's think about that for a second: "an artistic event... is something that transcends politics."
Can the Arts really shut themselves off from politics? Certainly the Great and Good are happy to lobby for funding when there's a general election in the air. It's a bit difficult to claim that the Jerusalem Quartet stand apart from politics when their biography points out their proud serving in the Israeli military. They are promoted as ambassadors for Israel, and so I'm not sure anyone can reasonably complain if people who oppose that country's policies want to protest at their event.
I'm not standing up for the protesters' views here. I don't know enough to be able to offer an informed opinion on that. But I do think the right to protest is a valuable and important one that's under attack in this country at the moment, and I applaud anyone who stands up for their right to demonstrate in a non-violent fashion. I also have to admire the quartet for having the balls to complete their programme in the face of the protest.
Art encompasses (or at least can encompass) a larger world than political squabbles, but it's at best naive, at worst disingenuous to say that it's too high to concern itself with such everyday concerns. Music certainly has been called into the service of some very dubious acts in history. It's important for artists and musicians to engage with the world around them. The Wigmore Incident (should we call it Wigmoregate perhaps?) demonstrates that you can't shut out the world. Art has to confront if it is to have any meaning beyond a bit of entertainment for the middles classes. At the very least the Wigmore Hall audience must have been considerably more engaged in the moment than some people lead me to believe is often the case.
Want to hear this exciting event for yourself? You can't: the concert was supposed to be broadcast live on Radio 3 but got pulled when the disruption occurred. The quartet later recorded patches so when it's repeated all you'll hear is the music, which seems a tad of a Stalinist approach to the historical record by the Beeb.
Monday, March 29, 2010
Sunday, March 28, 2010
I can't believe March is nearly over already. It feels like I've hardly got going. I'm determined to complete a page for every day this month, but it does feel like I'm running out of steam at the moment. I have the beginnings of a large scale, fully worked out piece on the drawing board, so after March 31 I'll stop for a bit, take a step back and breathe, and give myself a bit of mental space to think about that a bit more.
I recently got hold of a microphone, so another thing I'd like to do is maybe try and record a few of these little sketches. This involves getting my playing back up to scratch though, so a fair bit of work needed to get that done.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
Friday, March 26, 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Australian composer Brett Dean’s short work Komarov’s Fall was written as part of the Berlin Philharmonic’s “Ad Astra” project: Simon Rattle invited four composers to provide “asteroids” to accompany a performance of Holst’s The Planets.
Opinions on the astrological significance of Asteroid 1836 Komarov appear to be lacking. It was discovered in 1971 and named for Vladimir Mikhaylovich Komarov, who has a significant place in extraterrestrial history if not in metaphysics. He was selected for training on the Soviet space programme in 1960, and became the first cosmonaut to go into space twice. This achievement is overshadowed by his other, more dismal claim to fame: on his second trip in 1967 on board the Soyuz 1 craft, he became the first man to die in space.
As he waited to die in his failing spacecraft, his wife spoke to him by radio, as did the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Aleksei Kosygin, who told that his country was proud of him. Komarov’s reply was inaudible. Rumours persist that he died cursing the designers of the spacecraft and the flight controllers. The Soyuz mission had been hastily assembled and many corners had been cut. Engineers are said to have reported 200 faults to their superiors, but their concerns were overruled. In the wake of the United States’ disastrous Apollo 1 flight, the Soviet authorities were determined to push ahead in the race to be the first nation on the moon and to provide a conspicuous feat to celebrate the anniversary of Lenin’s birth.
In 1969 the last action of Neil Armstrong before he left the moon’s surface was to leave a memorial on the surface. This commemorates Komarov, Yuri Gagarin (who had died in 1968 not in space but in a plane crash) and the crew of the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission.
Against a background inspired by the sounds of recorded telemetry signals, jagged textures reflect Komarov’s increasingly frantic radio messages to the control centre. A brief lyrical passage at the heart evokes his wife’s farewell, before the frenzy is suddenly cut off and there is only the cold silence of space.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Sinfonia da Requiem
1 Lacrymosa (Andante ben misurato)
2 Dies irae (Allegro con fuoco)
3 Requiem (Andante molto tranquillo)
Britten’s attachment to his parents, and particularly his mother, was intense. Her sudden death in January 1937 came as a great shock, only a few years after his father. Britten was at the time living in a flat in London with his sister. They were both sick with flu and their mother had come to nurse them, only to fall ill herself. Within days she was dead.
This marked the beginning of a turbulent year for Britten. Only a few months later his close friend Peter Burra died in a plane crash. Britten took on the responsibility of sorting out Burra’s things. He was assisted by a mutual friend and casual acquaintance who would soon become closer: the singer Peter Pears. By October, when Pears was on tour in America, Britten was raising the idea of emigrating to further their careers. At the same time he noted in his diary, “The loss of Mum & Pop, instead of lessening, seems to be more & more apparent every day. Scarcely bearable.” In January 1939 they followed Britten’s friend and mentor Auden and crossed the Atlantic to Canada. The plan was only to stay a few weeks, but they remained there for six months before crossing the border to the United States and New York. In the meantime their professional relationship had become an intimate one, which would last until Britten’s death in 1976.
By now war seemed an increasingly inevitable prospect, and they discussed the subject with Aaron Copland, who later recalled that the pair “worried constantly about whether to return to England.” He wrote advising Britten to stay put: “Anyone can shoot a gun – but how many can write music like you?” In any case, the flow of commissions meant that Britten was able to tell his publisher Ralph Hawkes that he was simply too busy to return. It was Hawkes who told him that Japan was commissioning music to mark 2,600 years of the Mikado dynasty. Britten offered the Sinfonia da Requiem, which he dedicted to the memory of his parents. The Japanese government rejected the work. They considered its use of titles from Christian liturgy insulting. The rejection turned out to be a blessing in disguise when the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 pulled the USA into the Second World War. To be an immigrant providing music for the enemy would have been an unfortunate situation. In 1942 Britten and Pears returned to the UK and were eventually granted conscientious objector status.
The Sinfonia’s three movements play without a break. The titles of the movements do not indicate any specific liturgical meaning, but suggest the tone of each movement. Thus the opening has the character of a lament, followed by “a form of Dance of Death”, and finally a resolution into peace.
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
1 Mars, the Bringer of War
2 Venus, the Bringer of Peace
3 Mercury, the Winged Messenger
4 Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
5 Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
6 Uranus, the Magician
7 Neptune, the Mystic
The origin of The Planets lies in a walking holiday in Spain that Holst took with his close friend Clifford Bax in 1913. They discovered a mutual interest in astrology, and their conversations sparked the idea for a large-scale work exploring the personality traits associated with the planets.
Such interests were not unusual. From Theosophy to Conan Doyle’s advocacy of the existence of fairies and the thriving trade in Necromancy, the supernatural and paranormal were popular throughout society. The frisson of scandal provided by the likes of the occultist Aleister Crowley added spice to the fashion for spiritualism of all hues. The British Empire, built on the science of the Industrial Revolution, created a ready market for mysticism from the East. This was reflected in the art of the era: Holst’s own Choral hymns from the Rig Veda were an early success.
Holst’s interest in mysticism and astrology was more than a passing fad: he continued to cast horoscopes for his friends throughout his life. His attention in The Planets however was focussed less on divination than character. Holst’s subtitles for each planet play fairly loose with strict ideas of astrological significance. It was more important to him to convey a sense of the development of human character than to be tied down by dogma. The overall plan combines a sequence of contrasting pairs with a progression from the physical to the spiritual. The movement that upsets this pattern, Mercury, was also the last to be composed, and Holst seems to have had trouble deciding how it should fit in. In a letter to a friend he recalled that “As far as I can remember I had the scheme of the Planets roughly worked out in my mind by Easter 1914 except Mercury which was added later.”
At the time he composed the suite, Holst was firmly established in his roles as director of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith and at Morley College in Waterloo, two posts he retained for the rest of his working life. This settled life was disturbed when war broke out in September 1914. Holst rushed to enlist, but was rejected because of poor eyesight. He was eventually offered a post working for the YMCA in Salonika as part of their educational work with the troops based in the near East. Before he left, Balfour Gardiner, who had championed many of his earlier works, gave him a generous parting gift: a private performance of The Planets by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Boult. Holst enlisted his pupils as the chorus in “Neptune”, as well as copyists to produce the orchestral parts. The work was performed at the Queen’s Hall in September 1918. Boult conducted partial performances in 1919, omitting Venus and Neptune, but it was not until November 1920 that the complete work was “officially” heard in public for the first time. By then Holst’s Hymn of Jesus, composed immediately after The Planets, had been premiered to great acclaim, and the orchestral work’s official debut had become an Event. Reviews of the early outings of the movements had been mixed (the Times described it as “Elaborately contrived and painful to hear”) but the reception afforded the official premiere verged on the fulsome.
Mars is often taken to signify Holst’s reaction to the outbreak of war in September 1914. What is depicted, however, is a psychological conflict. The warlike temperament is one that turns upon itself, reflected in the theme that continually tries to expand but collapses in on itself, all the time driven by the restless tattoo that underpins virtually the entire movement.
Venus sounds much simpler than Mars, but is in fact filled with a sophisticated subtlety alien to the Bringer of War. Elements of the opening movement are here transformed from negative, unresolved tension into ethereal beauty. In this light, Mercury may be seen as a kind of transformation of Mars, showing how its characteristics may lead to positive and inventive behaviour when tempered by Venusian serenity. This playful and fleet-footed movement may contain an element of self-portrait: Holst’s own star sign was Virgo ruled by Mercury.
Of all the movements, Jupiter has perhaps suffered the most from its popularity. The unfortunate appropriation of its central melody as a patriotic hymn has brought associations of solemnity and piety that really have nothing to do with its true character. It is certainly exhilarating, but partial performances of the suite that use it as a finale miss the point: its energy is of the physical world and therefore transient (Holst’s use of the term “Jollity” rather than “Joy” is significant). This is emphasised by its complement, Saturn. However, the Bringer of Old Age is not the tragic figure some see it as. The steady tread reflects the inevitability of physical decay, and its conclusion the serenity that follows acceptance of this. Only by accepting the passage of time can one hope to transcend it and enter the metaphysical realm of the final two movements.
The first of these, Uranus, the Magician, would appear to be played as comedy. The term “Magician” has inescapable associations with children’s birthday parties, and Uranus comes across as a conjuror rather than the magus we might expect from the portentous opening flourish. Perhaps Holst is poking fun at the pretentions of the occultist movement. The music easily brings to mind a Crowley-like figure grandiosely casting spells. The comedy falls away at the climax, as something altogether more dark and powerful is revealed, and the Magician realises he is dabbling with something rather serious.
Neptune, the Mystic moves into another realm altogether. Its meter and much of its thematic material echo events right back to Mars, but transformed far beyond the concerns of the physical world. The incorporeal aspect is emphasised by an offstage female chorus (for the audience, literally disembodied voices). There is no conclusion of any conventional kind: only the voices, floating into the distance endlessly.
Friday, March 19, 2010
Thursday, March 18, 2010
You'd think that as I'm on the South Bank Centre's mailing list I'd have heard about this gig from them. As it was an email limped into my inbox a few days after the man in Harold Moore's told me about it. He was particularly excited about the prospect of a Gerald Barry premiere; it was the Richard Ayres piece that dragged me along.
It's quite a while since I've been to a proper Sinfonietta-type "contemporary music" gig, so it was reassuring that the crowd seemed to be largely the familiar mix of composers, journos and the nearly-dead. It was also a relief not to have to avoid anyone I've offended over the years. It was the kind of audience full of people who recognised each other, some of whom I recognised, none of whom recognised me. Reassuring but also depressing, because this music ought to be getting a much wider audience than the same old clique.
A lot of this must be down to a failure of advertising. Arts venues generally seem incredibly complacent about their audiences, not really making much effort to reach beyond the audience they already have, and then wondering why they're going down the dumper. It's not really good enough, and the likes of the South Bank really ought to be taking a long hard look at what they do rather than sitting back and feeling smug because they had that Jarvis Cocker doing Meltdown a couple of years ago.
On the other hand, kudos is due for allowing punters to take their drinks into the hall, which I think is an entirely civilised thing to be able to do, and stuff anyone who says different.
But I digress. What of these two fine pieces I heard?
First up was Gerald Barry's Beethoven. This is a setting to music of Ludwig van's famous letter to the Immortal Beloved, in which the great man takes time out from metaphorically bashing us over the head with his cock to go all Emo on us. As Barry says in his programme note, it's a very odd love letter: a combination of declarations of undying love with declarations that it'll never work. If you're feeling sympathetic it's a desperate cry from the heart; if you're not it's some self-flagellating whiny shit.
I can't make up my mind about Barry's music. I like the idea of it,but somehow the reality of it never seems quite as exciting. On the other hand, this particular piece didn't seem too long to me, as a lot of what I've heard of his has. Singer Stephen Richardson negotiated the extremes of his vocal register with wonderful aplomb, and the final section that appropriated the very famous hymn tune that embarrassingly I can't remember what it is now is rather lovely.
I hope the man from Harold Moore liked it. For me though, Richard Ayres' No.42 (In the Alps) was the real deal. Ayres is a comparative rarity in these circles: he has an ability to combine full on, often very silly, humour with moments of genuine profundity, without becoming either superficial or pretentious. He makes it seem entirely reasonable that the band should all come on wearing woolly hats, while conductor Martyn Brabbins is dressed for a good long hike, backpack included.
The use of projected captions (in the manner of a silent movie) is an inspired way to convey the story being depicted in the ensemble, as well as providing some brilliantly timed jokes The female protagonist's raising by very maternal mountain goats raises a chuckle, as does the nicking of bits of Strauss to evoke the Alps (although that's not as funny as the woman next to me thought it was). this also fits in with the silent movie references, as that sort of lifting of well known music is a standard trick of the cinematic accompanist.
Barbara Hannigan (dressed like a post-punk Brunhilde) gives an astonishing performance, in which she's required to impersonate goats, hogs, cicadas and eagles (and probably some other things I've forgotten about), and does so brilliantly. The use of animal noises is a wonderful example of Ayres's way with a joke: it begins as something funny, but evolves into something strange, wonderful and affecting. Likewise Alistair Mackie (fetching in lederhosen) shows that the gag of a hero who can speak only through his bugle can be something much more than slapstick. The tale of unrequited love between these two characters ought to be just silly, but Ayres magically spins something moving out of it.
Two interludes and a postlude reflect on how animals with different heartbeats perceive time. As with so much of this piece, this began as comedy, but by the conclusion was transformed into something altogether more thought-provoking.
It's a terrible shame that the Queen Elizabeth Hall was half-empty. Both these pieces combine immediate appeal with a genuine depth that would repay repeated hearings. Both deserve to, and I'm convinced can find a much wider audience than that tiny in-crowd that turns up to this sort of show. So when are the organisations in question going to make a serious effort to find it?
I scribbled this down in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall before a performance of a piece by Gerald Barry called "Beethoven" (of which more anon.). That turned out not to have anything to do with the Fifth Symphony. But let's face it, it's pretty much the first thing that comes to anyone's mind when they think of Beethoven.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
When the Beeb first screened Russell T. Davies' Casanova in 2005 we were at the height of a bout of frenzied speculation that David Tennant was going to succeed Christopher Eccleston in the revived Doctor Who. That was confirmed very shortly afterwards (possibly while Casanova was still running if I remember rightly), and I remember thinking at the time, "ah, this seems like Tennant auditioning for the Doctor."
So watching it again now, as Tennant leaves Who and we eagerly await Matt Smith's debut, brings a revelation: blimey, Casanova pretty much is the tenth Doctor. Tennant's performance is absolutely stuffed full of the vocal and physical tics that characterised his tenure in the TARDIS, to the point where you have to remind yourself that it's not a Who story set in the 18th century. The copious shagging helps with that, of course.
What's even more remarkable is that Rusty D's script seems just as hewn from the same cloth. You'd expect similarities of tone, of course, but so much of the schtick present is similar - the running about, the cheery smart-alec persona occasionally leavened by hints of darkness, even some of the dialogue ("I'm sorry, I'm so sorry") bears a relationship beyond even what you'd expect from two shows with the same writer. I wonder if it was a dry run for Tennant's Who for Rusty, too. Minus the shagging, of course.
It's not all marvellous: the scenes with Peter O'Toole as old David Tennant seem strangely stilted. Maybe it's a lack of chemistry between him and Rose Byrne. Or maybe it's just that the entire set-up reeks too much of maguffin to allow the narration of Casanova's memoir. The other thing is that for a writer who's so vocal about the terrible amount of expositionary dialogue on telly, Rusty puts a lot of expositionary dialogue in, especially in the first episode. And Tennant's blue contact lenses don't convince. Honestly, if they're going to go to the trouble of changing his eye colour to fit O'Toole's, you'd think hey could go the extra mile and choose the right shade of blue. Having said that, the performances (particularly Tennant) fizz with energy, as does most of the dialogue, and I remain very fond of the Adam Ant-channelling court scenes.
It remains a wonderful romp, and surprisingly affecting at the end. It's a shame it also shares Nu-Who's weakest characteristic: Murray Gold's shit music. I know he has his fans (e.g. Rusty T), but to my ears it's clumsy, half-arsed rubbish that really lets everything else down. I cannot for the life of me understand why TV people are so enamoured of his stuff. Every so often he threatens to have an idea that will match the inventiveness on the screen, but the execution almost always falls flat. And the crappy synth strings don't help, either.
Still, if you overlook that, it still stands up well even after the unimaginably long time of five years.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
There aren't many words here at the moment (thank god, I hear you say), but I should put a few up to note the 84th birthday of Ben Johnston, one of the best composer's you've probably never heard of, yesterday. Kyle Gann posts a wonderful tribute to his teacher here.
I've never met Johnston, and almost certainly never will, but nevertheless finding his music has, as Kyle Gann puts it in the linked post, opened a door onto a new universe for me. I'm still finding my way round his notation system, but until I get round to blogging about that you'd be well advised to start here. And this book's worth getting hold of, too.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Friday, March 12, 2010
Thursday, March 11, 2010
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Monday, March 08, 2010
Sunday, March 07, 2010
Saturday, March 06, 2010
Friday, March 05, 2010
Thursday, March 04, 2010
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Tuesday, March 02, 2010
In February I wrote a variation for each day of the month* on the piece I wrote on the last day of January. March is slightly different. Writing each variation I often referred to the source, or at least to earlier variations. The idea this time is not to do that and see where my imperfect memory takes me.
I thought about using the last page of the previous month as a starting point again, and partly did in that I've used a similar texture to begin. But the actual "theme" is literally what the title says: a cypher on the word "March".
*Not the same as a piece every day; some days I wrote more than one, others none.
Monday, March 01, 2010
There are probably some naive souls who'll listen to Joanna Newsom's new album on its own merits and conclude that she's a singular talent who doesn't need to be lazily compared to other female singers. But none of these people will be music journalists. As everyone who knows anything knows, all women in rock and pop can and must be compared to a very small number of other women. Using this simple equation we can construct a compass which enables us to categorise all female artists without having to think about it very much. So rather than say anything genuinely insightful about Ms Newsom's excellent new release, I offer this handy graphic depiction of where she's come from and where she's at, as derived from sundry reviews of the record:
Saturday, February 27, 2010
This is the last of this sequence. Notes on the notes will follow.
I have an idea for the next series, more later.
I also had an intriguing idea mentioned to me this week for a larger scale piece, which chimes nicely with a few ideas I've had while churning out the stuff I've been posting here recently. Sometimes things seem to come along at the right time. We'll see what happens.