Samuel Barber would have been 107 on 9th March, an event I marked by mentioning Paul Moon’s soon-to-be-released documentary on the composer, Samuel Barber: Absolute Beauty. I am lucky to have been able to view an advance copy of this remarkable film, which rather rewrites the rules of documentary film-making.
Moon essentially mounts his film projects alone, his most recent being a documentary exploring the remarkable circumstances of the composition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps:
This new film—a two-hour documentary of Samuel Barber’s life and work—is, however, several orders of magnitude more ambitious. It is the kind of project that used only to be made by documentary departments of major television studios. For its more than two-hour running time, you wouldn’t be aware that it hadn’t been.
Moon has assembled an impressive range of experts in the field. These are headed by two of Barber’s biographers, Pierre Brevignon and Barbara Heyman (both of whom receive producer credits). They provide the authoritative narrative backbone to the film. Heyman, especially, does much of the heavy lifting, introducing many of the key works and peppering her contributions with some delightful biographical vignettes. In addition to this, a number of well-known musicians (Leonard Slatkin and Marin Alsop, to name but two) contribute interviews, performances and rehearsals of the works. A third layer is provided by the use of archive material, which appears both as footage and as voice-overs. In most cases individual contributions are excellent (there is occasional hyperbole, the very early Dover Beach, for example, being described as ‘One of the greatest pieces of vocal music of the twentieth century’, a tall order given the competition), but it is the structural coherence that Moon brings to the whole that makes it such a remarkable success.
The tone and theme of the film is set at the opening in archive contributions from William Schuman, who identifies Barber as a composer who, like Bach, was content to operate within a given style, and by Leonard Bernstein, who describes Barber’s music as having the quality of ‘absolute beauty.’ After this Moon takes a sensibly, though not slavishly, chronological approach. The first section begins with the aforementioned Dover Beach (op. 3, 1931) for baritone and string quartet, certainly a remarkable work for a 19 year-old, before leading us through the Cello Sonata (op. 6, 1932), First Symphony (op. 9, 1935-6), the Adagio (op. 11a, 1936), Violin Concerto (op. 14, 1939/40), Cello Concerto (op. 22, 1945), Piano Sonata (op. 26, 1948), Hermit Songs (op. 29, 1953) and Ballet Medea (op. 23 1946/7). Each section allows Moon’s experts to expand on the individual works and, extrapolating from this, the themes identified at the opening.
Knoxville (op. 24,1947), a setting for soprano and orchestra of a text by James Agee, comes in the middle of the film, its theme of childhood leading naturally to an examination of Barber’s earliest life. This forms a happy interlude before the deeper explorations in the second half of the documentary, beginning with one of Barber’s most challenging works, his Piano Sonata (op. 26, 1948), where he consciously tested the limits of his style. Of the several works that follow only Summer Music for wind quintet (op. 31, 1956), where Moon shows us a curious piece of rehearsal footage with no further comment, feels a little perfunctory. More revealing is the section following Toccata Festiva for organ and orchestra (op. 36, 1960), which explores Barber’s lifelong relationship with composer Gian Carlo Menotti and Barber’s own attitudes to homosexuality.
The last years are painful to watch. Composer John Corigliano (who is also a significant contributor elsewhere) explains how the critical reaction to the first performance of his third opera Anthony and Cleopatra (op. 40, 1966) led Barber partially to withdraw from composing. He was also forced to sell Capricorn, his much-loved countryside home, and live in New York. There was a trickle of final works, but ultimately we are left with the image of a composer who spent much of his time alone playing the works of Bach. When the end came it was in his lifelong companion’s arms—Menotti providing a poignant description of that moment.
The documentary argues passionately that Barber should be ranked highly amongst twentieth-century composers, a question that it cannot, of course, answer definitively. For many, especially in Europe, he is known mainly as the composer of that work—the ubiquitous Adagio. In its own way, however, writing the Adagio was in itself a rebellious act, one that is plausibly identified in this film as a precursor to minimalism and to the emergence of composers such as Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki. Despite this, Barber was no revolutionary—to quote Liszt via Heyman, he knew that there is a ‘degree of innovation beyond which one does not pass without danger.’ He was content to avoid that danger by staying within certain stylistic parameters. It is within these boundaries, however, that his music must be judged, not by a perceived failure to join in with mainstream modernism (a confrontation that is comically described in this film in a chance meeting between Barber and Boulez). In this sense the quality and importance of his work should not be in doubt. If you are at all unfamiliar with this essential twentieth century composer, this marvellous documentary is the ideal place to begin.
As well as the Rhona Clarke (see my previous blog post, below) other recent releases include, on Wergo, Tun Tu, a disk of electroacoustic music by Chinese composer Sing Wang; Wechselspiele, vocal and instrumental works from Tom Sora; and Midstream, andMidstream, a disk of chamber music from Japanese composer Keïko Harada.
NMC has released a couple of new albums: a varied selection of music by Rolf Hind, including his Viola Concerto, chamber works and I am I Say, for soprano, bass and children’s chorus; and a disk of orchestral works by Simon Holt.
Naxos, meanwhile, has new recordings Jennifer Higdon’s Viola and Oboe Concertos and her orchestra suite All Things Majestic; as well as new additions to the Dutilleux catalogue in the form of a new recording of his Second Symphony, Mystère de l’instant and Timbres, espace, mouvement.
Col Legno, finally, have released a rather interesting disk of classic electroacoustic works. It includes such well-known pieces as Varèse’s Poème électronique, Ligeti’s only two contributions to the genre Glissandi and Artikulation; Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuous Plango, Vivos Voco; as well as works by Berio, Lachenmann Maderna, Boulez and Ferneyhough. These are not new recordings, of course—in many cases this would be difficult to achieve, the original documents being, in a sense, unrepeatable—but remasters. Some of the works, for example, can be heard for the ‘first time in surround sound in order to show the relevance of the spatial presentation of works intended for multichannel speaker configurations or complex setups of speakers distributed in space.’ This makes them a must for anyone interested in this repertoire.
Piano Trios 2, 3 and 4 (‘A Different Game’); Gleann Da Lough (solo piano), Con Coro (violin, cello and tape), In Umbra (solo cello). The Fidelio Trio, Métier msv 28561.
This new disk features three strongly contrasted works from Irish composer Rhona Clarke. Her Second Piano Trio is, by turns, darkly introspective and neurotically obsessive; the Third, in its jazz inflected first movement especially, more lyrical and harmonically relaxed. The Fourth Trio is a recent work (2016), and here one suspects that it has been influenced by Clarke’s encounters with electroacoustic music—extended instrumental sonorities are explored, most notably in the very clustered piano writing. All three works are structurally lucid.
Of the three bonus pieces, I was particularly struck by Con Coro which, as the same suggests, explores mixing choir and chamber instruments. The result is exquisite.
This disk is available for streaming on both Apple Music and Spotify. It is likely to appeal to both more and less adventurously-inclined.
The Riot Ensemble in association with Sound and Music have just begun a new podcast series exploring the world of new music. It is playfully titled Chest of Toys after an anonymous attendee at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary music was quoted as saying ‘the problem with contemporary music is that much of it sounds like a chest of children’s toys coming down the stairs.’
I’ve just listened to, and very much enjoyed, the first episode, which explores the creative path of violinist, composer and improviser Alison Blunt after she experienced health problems that forced her to stop playing for two years. It is embedded, below:
There is a nice story over at Slipped Disc about conductor David Bernard’s reaction to a small boy talking between pieces in a recent concert. Audience members became restless at the disturbance, asking his parents to take him out. Bernard’s reaction is priceless.
Warmed hearts aside, the incident raises an interesting question about the suitability of bringing young children to concerts of classical music. In the first instance one might be inclined to say that the parents were wrong to bring the child. In the end, however, the conductor was able to turn the situation into an valuable lesson, and not just for the child.
If music is to be accessible to all, it needs to be welcoming to all. Part of that is a willingness to be flexible about concert conduct. Whilst it is important that others can listen to the music without interruption—a lesson properly learned in the Bernard story—I have never, for example, understood why people get so prissy about spontaneous applause between movements. Are we really so delicate as to let such small things disturb our enjoyment?
Given the recent controversies around musical notations, I offer a few brief thoughts of my own about the subject. The wonderful thing about the various kinds of notation are also, perhaps, the vector of current problems, and much confusion seems to be abroad regarding what they actually are and do. Notation in music can be many things and hold very different uses and meanings for different people. The disadvantage of this broad flexibility is that some can attempt to make them a repository for counterproductive subjective agendas. The effect of this can be to bring about a general corrosion of access to this remarkable cultural phenomenon, which should be available for everyone in whatever way is useful and rewarding, no matter what their background. There is an enormously pressing issue around deteriorating access linked particularly to advantage or lack thereof, but this should not be conflated with the practice of using notations themselves or blamed directly upon them.
Musical notation embodies a highly developed, flexible, transferable visual mediating point, available to many differing musical approaches and traditions, and yes, in the context of recent debates, in this case relevant to much current, recent and historic European-related music. For some musicians, merely a small fragment of notation acts as a skeleton starting point such as found in lead sheets used by many Jazz and pop musicians, and similarly, this kind of approach was in use in the late C16th to the first half of the C18th in the figured bass tradition. For others, the score is a dense document of highly detailed instructions seeming to take in every particle and parameter of a piece of music. Other musical scores occupy territory somewhere in between, and still others leave either most of or the entire usual lexicon of symbols and conventions behind and seek to provoke more improvisatory or chance-affected responses through a whole range of visual strategies, from abstract shapes and contours, to suggestive figurative symbolism, to measurements of duration, to instructions in text, to technical diagrams, and/or mixtures of all of these. For music existing before the advent of sound recordings and outside strong oral traditions, notation in scores represents the only documentation made at the time of its creation and this includes many historically, culturally and artistically important pieces of music that could not have been re-created without them, and a loss of the ability to read notation in any significant way could eventually see live performance of this music come to an end. There also follows a further category of music that no longer relies upon notation, but nonetheless cannot escape the traces of musical ancestry that did use it, and another that relies substantially upon the diagrammatic properties of notation to provide a series of transmissible evolving templates indispensible in both codifying its principles and developing them. This last category is that of contrapuntal music, which would almost certainly not have developed to such extraordinary levels without being able to be written down.
As a composer, my relationship to the score is a complex and constantly changing one. In my youth, I can remember being much more invested in the cosmetics of the document. As I have aged, in some ways I am far less concerned with this and much more with the process of composition (sometimes expressed as notation), the sound and also practicalities for players. However, I have also developed a separate practice of using notation to create graphic scores that are predominantly visual artefacts, and in effect, silent ‘imagined’ music with the visual effect predominant. A life without access to the use of notation would likely not have yielded this area.
In terms of the process of musical composition, there are times when the characteristic organization of notational containers and scaffolding do have an effect on the direction of my imagination, and as do a host of historical musical tropes realized in notational configurations that inform my thinking. However, there are also plenty of times when musical sound comes unbidden and un-notated into my imagination, and other times into my fingers while improvising affected by the disposition of shapes and contours of the piano keyboard and by a host of physically learned and performed formulas and sounding historical tropes, either remembered or unconscious. Yet more external to this is my long practice of engaging with visual artworks as repositories of potential ideas for processes and approaches, which, in turn, adds another layer of filtering for the approaches affected by notation and physical rendering. Notation is just one element, yes with its own limitations, but also such an extraordinary open and flexible tool, widely sharable, often seamlessly merging with other approaches, sometimes worked against, sometimes emphasized in is own right.
In my teaching, I find myself working with students both with and without notation(s). Some read, some do not. One particular student stands out: he did not read staff notation and worked in a field not very familiar to me, making and producing dance tracks using glitchy, minutely detailed experimental electronica. Our sessions provided, from my perspective, the best example of engagement between different fields gaining enormously from one another. I felt immediate respect for his diligence, workmanship and attention to detail and his intelligence in terms of grappling with larger aesthetic and formal concerns and the compositional process, and in this we were able to find so much common ground that sessions frequently ran over time. He in turn, showed me nothing but respect for my own points of reference, and was eager to learn as much as he could from relevant examples of staff-notated music that we explored along with the tracks that he brought of examples from the field that he worked in. There was no colonization imposed upon his creative territory, no indoctrination, no assertion of quality of one style over another, no patronizing toleration, just exchange of ideas mediated between two different interfaces, one on page, the other on screen, each informing the other. To me, the above is a wonderful example of openness, engagement, sharing of very different approaches, respect and careful listening on both sides, and any assumptions that those of us who work in fields relevant to the use of different notations have not thought deeply about historical and current conflicts and injustices that permeate our own domains are simply completely wrong.
In the starkest contrast, it seems as if the most extreme of the shrill voices leaping to judgment on what they perceive to be the practice and purpose of using notations, call for separation, diminution, exclusion and impoverishment, taking tools away, not adding to the sum of human knowledge. In attempting, supposedly, to correct a notion of an injustice of inherited and/or unfairly gained musical privilege, it is very hard not to apprehend this as seeking simply to usurp an extraordinarily rich and varied realm of practice and to replace it, this time with a domain under their control. I hope very much that I am over-reacting; I hope that I am being unfair and making unfounded assumptions and inaccurate generalizations; I hope that I am wrong. Erasure would simply push the reading of music (of whatever kind) and access to a huge, valuable and important cultural tradition with a lasting legacy more emphatically into the sole domain of the wealthy and privately educated, and rob us of the tools to be able to explore it and to be able to re-apply its rewards in new creative applications, including creative acts and processes that react against its use. Notations should remain a presence in order for them to be of either lesser or greater importance: it is the tension between past and existing structures (whatever they are) and evolving reactions to them, violent or muted, building upon or breaking free from (or both simultaneously), that is essential for processes of making. Taking this away simply yields a drastic reduction in options, experience and resources and a watered-down expediency of low expectations imposed upon everyone not a member of the privileged few.
Gill's article begins uncontroversially. She is correct to observe that music is being squeezed in schools, the subject becoming ever harder to access. She also appears to grasp that one of the problems faced is that pupils can only access the subject if they have access to individual (or at least small group) tuition. The scandal here, as everyone knows, is that schools are no longer able to offer free instrumental lessons, which was always a key part of progressing in the subject. This has left ambitious parents and children little option but to seek private tuition.
It seems strange then that whilst, on the one hand, bemoaning the fact that this kind of high-quality teaching is not available for all, that Gill proposes to dumb down the whole subject so that, presumably, such academic rigour is not needed anyway. Her attack focuses specifically on music notation, which she calls:
‘a cryptic, tricky language–rather like Latin’
So tricky, in fact, that most children can pick up the fundamentals in a few years of regular tuition (arguably less time, but I choose a period that allows the child to attain some fluency).
And like Latin it ‘can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education’
Gill manages to make it sound as if learning notation were an esoteric and morally dubious activity only pursued in top public schools. As she has already implied and we have already said, however, the scandal is that one-to-one tuition (which includes the study of notation) is not available for all, not that it shouldn't be available at all.
And she concludes by saying that ‘Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.’
I think most schools would take issue with this. They do their best under difficult circumstances to nurture the talents of their pupils, as Gill accidentally proves when recounting her own experiences. She mentions that she was one of those frustrated, abandoned pupils, then rather spoils it by saying that: ‘At secondary school, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who picked up on my passion. One day he pulled me aside, and said “you like music, don’t you?” before throwing me into two choirs, as well as singing and piano lessons. I learned Mozart, West Side Story and can now sing in Latin [that cryptic, tricky language!], German and Italian, eventually getting my grade 8.’ I would suggest that this experience is rather more common that she realises.
There are other problems with the article. Gill seems to imagine that there is an oppresive academic elite (what is it with elites at the moment?) that prevents anyone from making progress who cannot read music. This has never been the case—ask Paul McCartney, who seems to have done quite well as a non-reader. There are plenty of musicians operating in genres of music that have traditionally not required notation and, in fact, schools cater rather fully in classroom music lessons for non-readers, many of whom study the subject further. Where there is a disconnect, and a genuine problem, is that eventually, usually around the A Level stage, these classroom musicians fare less well because they need to engage with the subjection in a more academic way. This does require notation. At this point it would be possible to have a genuine conversation about the merits of a more practical line of study for those pupils, but we cannot pretend that a deep understanding of music can be achieved without recourse to notation, any more than one can study languages without reading.
Gill also says that she cannot join the many choirs that insist that members can read music. So why not join one that doesn't? There are plenty of them, and standards of sight-singing vary so widely, even amongst trained musicians, that such a requirement is more honoured in the breach than the observance. We cannot, however, apply these amateur standards to our top music groups. Imagine the BBC Singers open to non-readers. Or, whilst we are at it, our top orchestras. That would make rehearsals pretty interesting. The fact of the matter is that music, particularly classical music, is a rigorous, difficult subject that requires years of study before any kind of mastery is attained. In this respect, like all serious subjects, it is elitist. The important thing is that the path to mastery is available to all though education, not that the subject is crippled by a creeping philistinism that insists that everyone’s contribution, regardless of their training, is equally valid.
The IMS conference ended a few days ago. I meant to mention a few of the final papers at the time, but got tied up with other things, mostly sightseeing—Japan is a very lovely country indeed.
If I’m honest, the papers at the conference varied alarmingly in quality. It’s actually better, I learned, to go to papers of people that you know will do a good job, regardless of the topic. With that in mind I saw a superb presentation given by John Rink, an old lecturer of mine who is now at Cambridge. He spoke with wit and insight on performance practice in Chopin. There was also an interesting session on film music, with Gregory Camp’s paper on the various means by which an actor may be musically characterised standing out. I was also pleased to be introduced to a largely unknown Swiss composer, Hermann Meier (1906–2002), in a paper given by Michelle Ziegler of the Hochschule der Künste Bern.
Meier was a primary school teacher by day, by night a composer of some substance. His long career followed some of the major trends in Europe music. He wrote in the dodecaphonically until 1952, later adapting a more personal serial style in works such as Klaviervariationen and Stücke (1956 and ’57 respectively). In the 60s he began using montage, the subject of Ziegler’s fascinating lecture. In doing so Meier sketched using graphical representations of his musical material (which occasionally also became a final score). These representations are influenced by artists such as Piet Mondrian. Indeed, his sketches, many of which we were shown in the presentation, are works of art in themselves:
Graphic sketch for Mauer for winds - Piece for large orchestra and three pianos HMV 60 (1964)
In the 70s Meier was introduced to electronic equipment at the Südwestfunk's studio, subsequently realising a number of works for the medium. He stopped composing in the late eighties.
For those interested in seeing Meier’s sketches, they will be exhibited at Kunstmuseum Solothurn on 28th October 2017.
The graphics were, of course, only a part of the composing process for Meier—in most cases they were realised in normal staff notation. Here are is a playlist of Meier’s music:
Further examples of his works are available, here.
I am currently spending a few days as an observer at the International Musicological Society’s 20th Annual Congress (19th–23rd March) in Tokyo, partly to provide company to my partner, who is giving a paper on Thursday, partly because there are so many interesting topics being discussed, many of which relate to contemporary music. It has so far been a lot of fun, if a little bewildering—the programme is so packed that many papers occur at the same time, often of things you would like to attend. We are also based in Chigasaki, some way from the centre of Tokyo. This makes getting to the morning sessions tricky.
As well as the lectures, there have been a couple of concerts organised as part of the event. The first was the performance of Gagaku, held before a sake-fuelled opening reception on Sunday night. It was my first live experience of this elegant and ancient art form. We were treated to both traditional Gagaku works, and a modern piece by Sano Kōji. This latter was clearly respectful of its roots though it made me wonder what might be achieved by taking a rather freer approach.
Last night there was a concert of contemporary music. It provided a superb showcase for graduates of the Tokyo University of the Arts (which is hosting the conference), almost all of the performers having attended the institution. Of the works, Regis Campo’s witty and well-heard Pop Art (2001–2) and Grisey’s more substantial Talea stood out. Kenji Sakai was in the audience to hear his Monopolyphonie/Défuguration for solo cello, a work that effectively explored the possibility (or not) of writing polyphonically for the instrument. Boulez’s Derive I left me rather cold; dating from 1984 it feels rather less substantial than some of his more cerebral early efforts. Most bewildering, however, was Wolfgang Rihm’s Fremde Szene II for piano trio. It was easy enough to hear the work as a kind of dialogue between Rihm and Schumann, much of the figuration and even the harmonic writing deriving from the latter, but there was a heaviness to the writing with problems of balance that did not derive from the performance.
I would write more, but finish this in haste. Hope to catch the keynote lecture by Toshio Hosokawa this afternoon, as well as a session on twentieth century French music….