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Blog » That which touches, or that which surprises

11 Jan  

(With apologies to Jim Aitchison, as this covers some of the same ground as his own recent blog)

How very ‘present’ the past is these days. Our daily existence finds the past ghosting up beside us and making an appearance in so many ways: retro designs, the nostalgic costume dramas and history programmes on TV, and the current fascination for tracing the family tree, to name a few of many examples. No other culture has been as entranced with previous times as our own is.

I find the past endlessly fascinating, not for the reasons I’ve mentioned above but for the fact that it gives us a chance to see the world through other’s eyes, to try and break out of our own contemporary conditioning. When I’m in London I’ll often visit the British Museum, and wandering from room to room I come across affirmations of being and awareness; the way octopus designs curl cleverly around Minoan pottery, the Sumerian sculptures of power and shamanistic presence, the perfected and dramatic forms of ancient Greece. As I can’t access the music of these distant cultures I can at least see how they created artefacts that tackled problems of visual depiction - form and space, the precision of content – and somehow this experience, and my reflections on it, throws my own creative processes into relief. It also shows me how much creativity is enabled, and restricted, by the medium that is available for it to work through.

From a musical point of view, a quick survey of the contemporary composer’s resources proves illuminating. Instruments have reached a stage of ‘finite technology’; there are only so many ways one can produce sound – blow, pluck, scrape - and these seem to have been mostly explored. Electronic music has added a new dimension, but has failed to have more than a fringe impact in the classical arena. Another piece of finite technology is tonality, which slowly developed its complex and expressive system of harmonic relationships until it appeared to exhaust all possibilities. As classical composers we worry a great deal about the regressive aspects of writing tonal music, but the rest of the musical world seems happily undisturbed by this question – pop, rock, jazz, and many other styles, continue to produce new music that recycles the same harmonies. Are we fretting unnecessarily? After all, novelists fashion their work within the context of a verbal language that is developing very slowly, and mostly by small additions of vocabulary than by any larger changes to grammar and syntax.

If instruments are no longer developing in new directions, and if it is hard to create any previously unused harmonic relationships, is there any sense of the ‘new’ in music. Is it even necessary? Am I running up a white flag by suggesting that novelty and innovation are no longer a composer’s prized aspirations?!

Much of the music written in the decades that followed 1945 had something of the ‘shock of the new’ about it; graphic notation, improvisation, total serialism, silence, mobile forms, and so on. Many of these innovations have withered and failed to produce a genuinely new language that can move music forward; there were of course interesting offshoots from these experiments that shouldn’t be ignored, but they have not become mainstream. More importantly, there was a mindset during this period that contemporary music should be intensely serious, profound, difficult (to both listen to, and perform), and always striving to break new ground. This approach seems to have alienated audiences to the extent that contemporary classical music is now virtually off the cultural map.

François Couperin once wrote, ‘I would say, quite honestly, that I greatly prefer that which touches me to that which surprises me,’ a viewpoint that I’d concur with. The question of what was being communicated in post war music was at times ignored in favour of a scramble for innovation; no wonder so many listeners lost interest. Technical modifications and cutting edge processes were rarely partners to new sentiments, although some composers could do both, and continue to excite me today as much as they did when I first encountered their music.

This is why, for me, the experience of hanging around the British Museum is so important – a mixture of caffeine and culture is always heady anyway. Looking at the exhibits one can see objects that offer up passion, beauty, ritual, enjoyment, pleasure, craftsmanship, and many other qualities. Some show incredible technical refinement, others have a strange mythic presence.

The creative hurly-burly of the last two centuries (or to be precise, the whole process of the emancipation of the artist after the French Revolution) seems to have slowed. If we are to get modern classical music back into cultural life perhaps we need to worry less about the future of music, and more about the qualities we invest in the pieces we are writing right now. Those who fashioned Greek vases, or the decorative motifs of ancient Egypt, were not concerned with ground breaking innovation, but with pleasure, meaning and communication, which is why these objects still speak to us after all this time.

An afterthought: I was listening to BBC Radio 4 today – there was a trailer for a new series of programmes in which the comedian/writer/actor Lenny Henry is to explore three things that he’s always failed to get his head around. The trailer announced, ‘Lenny Henry will examine the plays of Samuel Beckett, the paintings of Jackson Pollock…and maths.’  There was a slight pause before the ‘and maths’ bit, in which my mind automatically filled in the blank with ‘the music of Stockhausen’. It was a logical thought, literature/art/music; but it turned out to be one of the many instances in cultural life that one notices contemporary classical music only because of its absence!

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