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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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 Jim Aitchison commenting on That which touches, or that which surprises:
11 January 2010 at 23:12

Oi, that's my manor!

Only joking! Graham you raise stuff we are both struggling with and have talked about, but putting in the context of the British Museum is brilliant and so incredibly salutary: there can't be much in there that wasn't worth saving, and as you say, it's unlikely that any of that precious material was made simply to innovate, possibly often the reverse.

The hard truth is that we don't know what will happen and it will do so whatever we do or believe. But you are so right: let's worry about what we write now, and worry that innovation if it comes, comes out of our own delight, not out of fear or self regard, tough though that is...

Fantastic article!!

 David Bruce commenting on That which touches, or that which surprises:
12 January 2010 at 08:20

Interesting to see that Pierre Boulez still prefers the 'surprises' to the 'touches' in this NY Times interview:

“The main question we need to ask ourselves is: Do I try to be necessary to the evolution of language? Do I try to be original? And being original means using the tools necessary to be original, not just having the desire to be original.”

Is that really the main question we need to ask ourselves as composer? "Am I necessary to the evolution of language?" ???!!

 Jim Aitchison commenting on That which touches, or that which surprises:
12 January 2010 at 13:55

Ahh, once again, I see we're in this most historical-chronological-straight-line-evolution-orientated of C20th/C21st grooves: what do we mean by originality (is *anyone* actually original - if they were truly so wouldn't their work be unintelligible? And what is 'evolution of language?' Some might argue that Monsieur B, for a time, decisively put a stranglehold on and caused the atrophy of 'evolution of language'. But then what does this mean and is it good, bad or neutral...?

 MartinY commenting on That which touches, or that which surprises:
13 January 2010 at 15:59

The blogs by Graham Lynch and Jim Aitchison seem very topical in the light of an article in the Guardian about peak oil, peak coal, and peak water which jokingly (?) suggested we had already passed [i]peak music[/i]. I remember there was a time when people thought chess would die because soon all the good games would already have been played but that does not seem to have happened yet. The finite but very large number of possible games seems big enough.

If I can highlight one disappointment from developments in music it is microtonal harmony. One might have naively expected that use of microtones could lead to a really effective harmonic language which would make Wagner look like doh, ray, me. There would be repertoire works in this harmonic language, students would have to learn about it and it would infiltrate popular and film music. This does not seem to have happened........ I just remembered when I was rambling on about quarter tones on fretted instruments a maker about 30 years ago sold quarter tone fretboards and I considered buying one. I do not think he sold many, however I will still experiment with scordatura though probably nobody will see a finished piece, of mine, anyway.

 Graham Lynch commenting on That which touches, or that which surprises:
13 January 2010 at 17:12

Yes Martin, it's interesting about microtonal harmony. I remember composers, back in the 80s, seeing this as the way forward. And I'm surprised, and disappointed, that it hasn't caught on more, in some ways it seems even less of a hot topic than it was then!

I should just clarify - I wasn't intending to suggest that we are in a time of 'the death of music', or anything like that! I feel that perhaps our time is one in which the idea of musical 'progress' is no longer so relevant. Many other periods and cultures have happily produced great art without the notion of progress. Things will certainly change, but more slowly, and the next important developments may not be (as Jim Aitchison pointed out) in the Occident anyway.

 RichSaunders commenting on That which touches, or that which surprises:
20 January 2010 at 21:26

"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."

What does it matter? As long as (the music) removes me from my current state of mind I'm, not so much content as I am impressed. Ah, to re-invent the moment.©

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