A director friend told me the other day about a well-known annual Irish arts festival where some events are held in the local cathedral and, although the church hierarchy is very supportive in general of the programmes, the two rules for concerts and plays there are that there must be no swearing and no blues. Because blues, of course, is the devil’s music. This reminded me of Cliff Richard’s song from a few decades ago, Why should the devil have all the good music? and the notion that did and still does exist in certain circles that there are such things as good and bad music purely because of genres rather than content. I remember, being closely affiliated in my youth with my university’s Christian Union, how there was then even a notion that Stravinsky’s Le Sacre was aberrant in some way – those naughty rhythms, perhaps.
Are these ideas simply the result of a misplaced Puritanism, the same kind which has led one bishop in Tipperary to ban concerts of any music from the local churches? Was Plato perhaps on the right track when he warned against the dangers of music because it could adversely affect the temperaments of listeners? Would he, in fact, be less worried if he could hear much of the music being written today? Because, to my ears, the notion of music as an emotional medium, a notion I cherish, seems to be out of favour with a number of today’s composers. To be sure, we are, on the face of it, far removed from the heady days of number matrices and the myriad other devices for keeping the composer and his or her music as far from each other as possible, but on closer inspection it still seems to be deeply uncool to express oneself through one’s music. Instead we are offered an endless parade (no pun intended there!) of irony and repetition, dumbed-down and numbed-up tinkling and electronica, a blurring of job descriptions between composer and sound artist warmly embraced by night-time DJs everywhere so that the last thing one can hope for, in concert or on the radio, is the opportunity to feel something.
Yes, I’m over-dramatizing the situation, but I can’t help feeling that the desire to express something – anything - is seen too often as Bad Taste, and I’m not sure how we came to be in this position, or how to get out of it. Other than to keep doing what we – we expressionists – are doing.
May starts bright and early at 7am for Vexations with London Sinfonietta players and 10am for an Alexander Goehr Study Day with musicians from the RNCM at Wigmore Hall. We then move on to major 20th c. orchestral statements, a multimedia opera, string quartet improv. with silent film, and other goodies.
Vexations London Sinfonietta
1 May 2010 / from 7:00 / Kings Place
London Sinfonietta's performance of this Satie 'happening' can be visited any time during the day - the music will be set against a moving image installation.
Alexander Goehr Study Day
Musicians From the Royal Northern College Of Music, Clark Rundell conductor
1 May 2010 / from 10:00 / Wigmore Hall
The day’s three concerts will feature works of instrumental, vocal and chamber music that span a period of nearly fifty years and closes with a performance of Sing, Ariel, a cantata from the 1990s which pays homage to, among others, his teacher Olivier Messiaen.
Stuart MacRae first rose to prominence when his Violin Concerto was performed at the 2001 Proms by Tasmin Little. His 2008 piece Gaudete - also featured at the Proms - set the poetry of Ted Hughes and marked a significant development in his musical language. Recently he has written a number of stage works, including The Assassin Tree (2006) with a libretto by Simon Armitage and Remembrance Day for Scottish Opera's Five:15 series
Tell us something about your background.
I was born and brought up in Inverness, though both my parents are from Skye so I spent a lot of time there too. Both my parents have 'normal' jobs, but they've been members of the Inverness Gaelic Choir for as long as I can remember - so music was always encouraged at home. I left school early and went to Durham University to study music, then Guildhall to do a Masters in composition, finishing when I was 20. I was in a big hurry in those days, for no particular reason. After that I stayed in London for a few years, spent a year in Paris and then moved to Glasgow, where I'm still based.
I went to Wilton’s Music Hall last night to hear a Kreutzer concert of Mozart and pieces by Rolf Martinsson and our very own Jim Aitchison. Great concert. One of the Mozart pieces was the ‘Nannerl’ septet, written to celebrate his sister’s birthday. If you have been to any of the Kreutzer concerts you will know that their violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved presents all the music in a most enlightening manner, making you want to rush home and google everything and everybody and download the music onto iTunes, which indeed I did. He talked about the Mozart septet as an undiluted expression of joy, Mozart’s joy at the thought of his home and family. When Peter was talking about joy, I was reminded of someone I met in Utah a few years ago, who said that she was interested in the concept of joy, which could only come after you had been truly penitential. I said at the time that I didn’t think I had ever felt joy, which I think of as an extreme emotion like ecstasy or murderous rage. It has a transcendental or spiritual quality that is very different from happiness or content. (And, what I didn’t say was that being truly penitential was a dubious concept in itself, not so much a grey area as a minefield.)
Mozart as a child
In the last blog I think I said that I believe every piece of music starts with the composer, his emotional life, something that people often forget when they temporarily take possession of a piece. Would anyone who has read about Mozart deny that he had an extremely complex character? – if you have ever met a prodigy as I have, they have a strange combination often of genius and arrested development. The value of their genius to the world can make people blind to everything else about them, especially once they are dead! But I believe that Mozart was constantly returning to his lack of childhood as a theme in his music – and more than anything, after a particularly dark or serious passage or movement he seems to erupt into a savagely hysterical burst of childishness. People talk so fondly of Mozart, as childlike or – joyous, whereas to me it always sounds like Mozart has gone into denial about whatever it was he touched upon. The sudden turn that the music sometimes takes into child-like happiness is like an arrow that points to the darkest sadness, even despair.
After posting my previous article, I was astonished to find myself so quickly on the receiving end of a few negative reactions to the text and to my work (not on the CT website it must be said). While I felt the speed of some of the responses was indicative of presumptions and criticism leveled without the foundation of any enquiry into the context or substance of my work, it also occurred to me that I had rather brought this upon myself by presenting such an abbreviated and unexplained overview of my activities with Antony Gormley and visual art in general. And so it seemed a timely moment to investigate some of the issues raised, with reference to the Memory Field project.
In summary, the main objections focused upon my posting of my ‘sound-map’ of the Angel of the North, in response to which it was stated that to corral notation into the shape of a 2 dimensional angel was meaningless in terms of how that shape would relate to the resulting sound, and further to this, to use the notion of retrograde in sound as any kind of representation of a retrograde visual structure (as in symmetrical forms such as a body), was similarly meaningless when transferred over into the new domain. It was also stated that the experience of music resides solely in the orbit of what is heard (i.e. it is a hermetic auditory-only experience) and all reference to the visual is either coincidental and/or irrelevant.
Recent or soon to be graduates from the Yale school of music comprise a fine collection of young composers, including Timo Andres whose album length work for two pianos was recently released by Nonesuch, and Ted Hearne who won the Gaudeamus prize ( and whom we interviewed on CT here). Now five of this talented group have enterprisingly got together to put on a show of their music at New York's Le Poisson Rouge this April 12th. I interviewd Chris Cerrone about the project.
Tell us about the upcoming concert.
Sleeping Giant is the premiere concert presented by a group of emerging composers that have come out of the Yale School of Music over the last few years. We'll be presenting new works by Timo Andres, Ted Hearne, Jacob Cooper, Robert Honstein and myself. I cooked up the idea for the concert when the five of us spent a weekend up in Westport, NY at the Honstein family summer cabin. There was so much joy in the group of us spending time together that for me it made sense for us to put on a concert. We're all close friends with a shared history and a strong desire to make music. As for the name, we wanted to name the concert after something New Haven-y, so we finally settled on Sleeping Giant, a park in Hamden, CT, an homage to our professor Ingram Marshall, who is famous (at least around Yale) for taking hikes and collecting mushrooms in that park.
I first met the sculptor Antony Gormley in 2007 in the spacious drawing studio of his magnificent studio complex in Kings Cross. I seem to remember our meeting was cut short by his having to rush off to an emergency dental appointment with toothache (at least I hope that’s what it was). Nonetheless, Antony was fascinated by the idea of his work being used to generate music and generously encouraged what were continuing to be, my faltering and mostly frustrated efforts. It took 2 years to travel from the first ideas to the finished piece. Initially I found the severity and concentration in the material execution of Antony’s work left me with no purchase with which to begin anything.
Taking a bow is one of those curious aspects of being a composer. I've sometimes caught myself wondering what is going on in a composer's mind as they jump on stage- does this moment in the spotlight make it all worthwhile; is it a terrible duty which would be avoided if only it could; or is it something somewhere in between?
I still find it a quiet source of pride how few composers are ready for that moment in the spotlight, we emerge tramp-like and awkward - the epitomy of uncool, uncommercial - we come on stage in our un-ironed jackets, or with a sock still stuck in one trouser leg. Then we scurry across the stage as quick as we can, not knowing where to put ourselves, and take an awkward bow. There's an interesting paradox in the way so many composers are so unnatural on the stage: we spend our entire lives trying to create something that is after all intended for performance 'on the stage'. We are aware of the finest, subtlest details of how certain effects in our music will come across - we can subdue an entire crowd, get them laughing or crying with our notes; and yet when we have to present ourselves in person on the stage we are likely as not to stumble on the steps before we even get there!
The Aurora Orchestra seems to be going from strength to strength. Now in their fifth year, they recenly debuted at Kings Place where they have a new home, and have just announced a major three year residency with LSO St Lukes which will feature a series of cross-arts collaborations, the first of which I'm attending this Friday (full disclosure: I was offered a freebie) featuring Berio's Laborintus II and John Adams's Son of Chamber Symphony.
Since I first heard about them a few years ago, I sensed a freshness in their approach and programming; and the quality of their playing was confirmed when I saw their production (together with Mahogany Opera who also feature on Friday) of the wonderful but rarely performed (let alone staged) Renard by Stravinsky.
New ensembles come and go, but these guys have an air of permanence to them.