The Shadows of Time, Le temps l’horloge, Mystère de l’instant. Henri Dutillleux was a composer always interested in the concept of time. And, as I write this on a cloudy day in Nice, I can scarcely believe that another year has past. It is especially appropriate to find my mind turning to the composer whose music has much occupied me over the last few years, since 2016 – 22nd January to be precise – marks 100 years since his birth. There are a number of events in 2016 celebrating this important anniversary, including discovery days in February (at Royal College Music) and April (at the Barbican). Elsewhere you will find his name cropping up with much greater regularity in concert programmes.
2016 will also see the 80th birthday of Steve Reich, the 100th birthday of Alberto Ginastera and Milton Babbitt, the 150th of Erik Satie and Ferruccio Busoni. You can also expect to hear more of their music this year. In the meantime, I offer you my picks of 2016. Entirely subjective and not comprehensive, they nevertheless give a snapshot of some of the treats in store for us.
I also wish all readers and especially CT members a happy, peaceful and, above all, musical New Year!
9th UK premieres of: Joan Magrané Figuera’s ...secreta desolación…, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Libro notturno delle voci for flute and orchestra and Jay Schwartz’s Delta – Music for Orchestra IV. BBCSSO, City Halls, Glasgow.
8th–9th Pierre Henry Continuo ou vision d'un futur. Philharmonie de Paris, Paris.
10th Boston Symphony Chamber Players – Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Henri Dutilleux’s Birth. New England Conservatory Jordan Hall, Boston.
12th Composers' Workshop: Writing for Voices with Judith Weir and the BBC Singers.
13th Simon Rattle conducts Dutilleux’s L'arbre des songes and Métaboles. LSO, Barbican, London.
14th–16th Magnus Lindberg, Violin Concerto No.2 (US Premiere). NYP, New York, David Geffen Hall.
15th Desmond Clarke Viola Concerto (world premiere). Barbican, London.
16th Francesca Verunelli Secondo Quartetto (world premiere). Quatuor Zaïde, Philharmonie de Paris, Paris.
22nd–23rd OPUS2016 Interactive Open Workshops. Barbican, London.
11th Dutilleux Day. The RCM presents a day of events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Henri Dutilleux.
11th&12th Samantha Fernando New Work in four movements (world premiere). London Sinfonietta, Southwark Playhouse London.
12th Louis Andriessen: La Commedia (UK premiere). BBCSO, Barbican, London.
13th Total Immersion: The Music of Louis Andriessen. A day of events exploring the music of the composer. Barbican, London.
21st Discovering Music 2: Anthony Payne. BBCSSO, City Halls, Glasgow.
24th Composer Portrait: Huw Watkins. BBCNOW, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff.
24th&25th Michel van der Aa The Book of Disquiet (UK premiere). London Sinfonietta, The Coronet Theatre, London.
25th Composition: Wales - Open Workshop. Hear the latest in composition in Wales, as composers worthy of wider exposure have the opportunity to hear their works performed by the BBCNOW.
26th–28th Peninsular Arts Contemporary Music Festival.
27th Hear and Now – Beamish/Payne/MacMillan/McCabe, including Scottish and UK premieres. BBCSSO, City Halls, Glasgow.
4th Contemporary Music For All. Programme of new music, including Hannah Kendall New Work (world premiere), London Sinfonietta, Kings Place, London.
9th Lunatree: Arvo Pärt in context. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.
9th–13th LONDON EAR festival of contemporary music.
9th&16th London Symphony Orchestra / LSO Composer Focus: Thomas Adès. Barbican, London.
10th Enno Poppe Speicher (UK premiere). London Sinfonietta, The Coronet Theatre, London.
12th–20th Lucerne Festival at Easter.
13th Darren Bloom Dr Glaser's Experiment (world premiere). LSO, Barbican, London.
18th Gunther Schuller Dreamscape (UK premiere), George Benjamin Dream of the Song (UK premiere). BBCSO, Barbican, London.
22nd John Williams Soundings (UK premiere), Andrew Norman New work (UK premiere). Los Angeles Philharmonic, Barbican.
23rd Gautier Capuçon and friends in a tribute to Henri Dutilleux. Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.
3rd Music by Fausto Romitelli and new works made in collaboration with artists. London Sinfonietta, The Coronet Theatre, London.
15th Concert Cursus: The composers from the Cursus 1 program - composition and computer music training taught at IRCAM - present their sketches for solo instrument and electronics at the close of the academic year. Centre Pompidou, Paris.
23rd Shakespeare 400, with world premieres from Chiu-Yu Chou, Tom Coult, Nina Whiteman, Aaron Parker, Daniel Kidane. BBC Philharmonic, The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.
27th&28th Composition: Wales. Open workshops and culmination concert. Hear the latest in composition in Wales, as composers worthy of wider exposure have the opportunity to hear their works performed by the BBCNOW.
27th–30th Franck Krawczyk Après (world premiere). NYP, New York, David Geffen Hall.
30th BBC SO Total Immersion: Henri Dutilleux. Several events exploring the music of the composer. Barbican, London.
4th–10th Vale of Glamorgan Festival
12th–4th June Prague Spring International Music Festival.
13th–29th Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
21st Joseph Phibbs new work (world premiere). BBCSO, Barbican, London.
23rd JACK Quartet Performs world and New York premieres by Cenk Ergün, Derek Bermel and Marc Sabat. 92nd Street Y, New York.
24th&31st World Premieres of more than 30 short works for solo violin. New York, National Sawdust.
25th Richard Dubugnon Caprice pour orchestre II. Orchestre de Paris, Philharmonie de Paris, Paris.
27th–5th June St. Davids Cathedral Festival.
Also in May (details tbc)
Bath International Music Festival.
Northern Chords Festival.
The English Music Festival
York Spring Festival of New Music
1st DUETS IN A FRAME, including premieres from Francisco Coll, Tom Coult, Tansy Davies and Harrison Birtwistle. London Sinfonietta, St John’s Smith Square, London.
3rd Colin Jacobsen BTT (world premiere), Tyondai Braxton Arp Rec 1 (New York Premiere). National Sawdust, New York.
5th World and New York premieres from Jennifer Higdon, Gabriel Kahane, Nico Muhly, Hannah Lash, Ashley Fure. Interlochen Orchestra, David Geffen Hall, New York.
7th John Pickard Symphony No. 5 (world premiere). BBNOW, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff.
10th-26th Aldeburgh Festival.
11th Esa-Pekka Salonen New Work (world premiere), Per Nørgård Symphony No. 8 (U.S. premiere). NYP, David Geffen Hall, New York.
17th–26th St Magnus International Festival.
19th LSO Soundhub Showcase. Featuring new music by Yasmeen Ahmed, Ben Gaunt, Oliver Leith and Lee Westwood, performed by chamber ensembles from the LSO. Barbican, London.
26th Sir Peter Maxwell Davies The Hogboon (world premiere), LSO, Barbican.
Other June festivals (dates tbc):
Munich Opera Festival Nationaltheater and other venues in Munich.
1st-–14th Soundscape. Maccagno, Italian Alps.
8th–24th Buxton Festival. A marriage of opera, books and music, including some by contemporary composers. Buxton, Derbyshire.
15th-10th BBC Proms. Programme not currently available, but there will be guaranteed premières aplenty. Royal Albert Hall, London.
22nd–31st August Salzburg Festival. Salzburg, Austria.
Other July festivals (dates tbc):
Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. Various venues, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
Tête à Tête Opera Festival. Described as ‘our most imaginative opera laboratory’, the festival focuses entirely on new music.
‘Aix en Provence Festival. ‘Aix en Provence, France.
1st–13th High Score Festival. Contemporary music festival and classes. Pavia, Italy.
5th–29th Edinburgh International Festival. Programme not yet available, but there is usually a good selection of new music.
25th–30th Presteigne Festival. Artistic innovation, musical discovery and, of course, new works in the Welsh Marches. Presteigne, Powys.
8th–17th Oslo Contemporary Music Festival.
Also in September (date tbc):
Warsaw International Festival of Contemporary Music. Not clear if there will be a festival in 2016.
22nd CONNECT. Christian Mason In the Midst of the Sonorous Islands (UK premiere)
Huang Ruo The Sonic Great Wall (UK premiere). London Sinfonietta, London.
Dates not yet available:
Festival Internacional de Música Contemporánea de Tres Cantos. Contemporary music festival in Madrid, Spain.
Sound. North East Scotland’s Festival of New Music. Various venues.
Wien Modern. Festival that focuses on contemporary music. Still showing 2015 programme. Vienna, Austria.
Dates not yet available:
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
Lucerne Festival at the Piano.
Date not yet available:
Spitalfields Winter Festival.
This is a second outing for this seasonal morality tale, which first appeared on CT last year. My apologies, once more, to Mahler and Charles Dickens. Merry Christmas to all CT members!
Mahler was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by his agent, the conductor, his understudy and the chief mourner. Scrooge would have signed it too had he been there, for Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.
Old Mahler, just as Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach before him, was as dead as a door-nail. The last in a noble line.
Oh! But he was a choosy man as a listener, Scrooge: melody, tonality, species counterpoint and classical forms! Hard and sharp as flint, with a distain for anything that defied the old norms. The excitement of discovery had little influence on him. No melody without tonic, no rhythm without pulse, no harmony without concord. The bitter wind of change blew and he resisted with scornful word and condescending look. But what did Scrooge care? He knew what he liked.
Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – old Scrooge sat busy in his house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them.
‘A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!’ cried a cheerful voice from the front door. It was Scrooge’s nephew, who, on being let in, presented his uncle with a small wrapped package.
‘I have a present for you. Open it!’
Reluctantly, Scrooge took the packet and unwrapped it.
‘Bah!’ said Scrooge, ‘Humbug!’ he said.
‘Stravinsky a humbug, uncle!’ said Scrooge’s nephew. ‘You don’t mean that, I am sure?’
‘I do,’ said Scrooge. “‘Stravinsky! All noise I tell you!’
‘Come,’ returned the nephew gaily. ‘I promise you, it is not even difficult Stravinsky: these works were written before the death of your beloved Mahler.’
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, ‘Bah!’ again; and followed it up with ‘Humbug.’
‘Don’t be cross, uncle!’ said the nephew.
‘What else can I be,’ returned the uncle, ‘when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Stravinsky! You invite me to your concerts of modern Music and you insult me with this present! Every idiot who goes listening to this nonsense should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
‘Uncle!’ pleaded the nephew.
‘Nephew!’ returned the uncle sternly, ‘keep to your own Music, and let me keep to mine.’
‘I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!’
‘Good afternoon!’ said Scrooge.
‘And A Happy New Year!’
‘Good afternoon!’ said Scrooge.
His nephew left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding.
Left in peace, he closed his door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his tie; put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and his nightcap; and sat down before the fire to take his supper. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing.The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.
‘It's humbug!’ said Scrooge. ‘I won't believe it.’
His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him; Mahler’s Ghost!’ and fell again.
The same face: the very same. Mahler with his swept-back hair, severe woollen suit, bow-tie and wire-frame glasses. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.
‘How now.’ said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. ‘What do you want with me?’
‘Much. I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping your fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer. You will be haunted by Three Spirits.’
‘Without their visits,’ said the Ghost, ‘you cannot hope to shun the narrow Musical path you tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One. Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!’
THE FIRST OF THE THREE SPIRITS
The following night Scrooge lay in his bed when he remembered, on a sudden, that the Ghost had warned him of a visitation when the bell tolled one. He resolved to lie awake until the hour was passed; and, considering that he could no more go to sleep than go to Heaven, this was, perhaps, the wisest resolution in his power.
The quarter was so long, that he was more than once convinced he must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock. At length it broke upon his listening ear.
‘A quarter past,’ said Scrooge, counting.
‘Half-past!’ said Scrooge.
‘A quarter to it,’ said Scrooge.
‘The hour itself,’ said Scrooge triumphantly, ‘and nothing else!’
He spoke before the hour bell sounded, which it now did with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy One. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor.
It was a strange portly figure with a white wig. It wore a long navy coat, white knee breeches and socks and buckled black shoes. In one of its delicate jabot and lace cuffed hands it held a piece of brown parchment.
‘Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?’ asked Scrooge.
The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.
‘Who, and what are you?’ Scrooge demanded.
‘I am the Ghost of Music Past.’
‘What do you want of me?’
‘Rise! and walk with me!’
It would have been in vain for Scrooge to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes; that bed was warm, and the thermometer a long way below freezing; that he was clad but lightly in his slippers, dressing-gown, and nightcap; and that he had a cold upon him at that time. The grasp, though gentle as a woman's hand, was not to be resisted. He rose: but finding that the Spirit made towards the window, clasped his robe in supplication.
‘I am mortal,’ Scrooge remonstrated, ‘and liable to fall.’
‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!’
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall and stood in the chancel of a large church. Scrooge's house had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The bulky walls of the building were broken by small arched windows, which let in so little light that it took Scrooge's eyes a moment to adjust. A choir of monks was rehearsing in the gloom.
‘Good Heavens!’ said Scrooge, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. ‘Who are these people?’
‘These are but shadows of people that have been,’ said the Ghost. 'They have no consciousness of us. Watch and listen'
The strange sounds filled the building. Scrooge was perplexed.
‘What is this Music? It is beautiful in its way,’ he said.
‘You sound uncertain,' said the Spirit.
‘I don’t know, it sounds…’ Scrooge struggled to find the right word.
‘It is organum.’ said the Spirit.
‘What is that?’ asked Scrooge, who had the feeling that a trick had been played upon him.
‘A type of Music common at this time. You only need to know that it is different.’
‘I cannot see how that concerns me,’ said Scrooge.
‘You stand here at the very source of all you love. It concerns you a great deal.’
Before Scrooge could reply the Spirit had taken his hand. He led him down the chancel steps before motioning him to turn back towards the high altar.
To Scrooge's astonishment the scene had changed: he now found himself in lavish courtly surroundings. There was a smaller group of singers and an informal audience of eminent personages in various positions of elegant repose. The men sported pointed beards and wide moustaches and wore close-fitting doublets, hose and breeches. Of the women, Scrooge’s eye was drawn to one more splendid than the rest. She sat apart with a pearl headdress, ruff, a finely embroidered blue doublet with a high neckline and matching skirts.
‘Who is that?’ asked Scrooge.
‘That is Margherita of Austria, bride of Philip III of Spain.’
‘And where are we?’
‘Mantua’ replied the Spirit.
Scrooge listened to the singers and quickly found himself engrossed. The beauty of the voices, the finely wrought counterpoint and, above all, the agonising and exquisite harmonies. Tears came to his eyes.
‘You are emotional,’ said the Spirit.
‘I cannot help it, this Music, it…’
Scrooge’s search for a superlative was interrupted by the sound of a chair scraping on the floor. One of the audience had sprung angrily to his feet and was walking noisily from the room.
‘Disgraceful!’ cried a scandalised Scrooge. ‘Who would interrupt such beautiful Music.’
‘A man who, perhaps, found these harmonies a little trying.’
‘Trying! I cannot believe it!’
‘Believe it you must. That man is Giovanni Maria Artusi. He will soon be writing a book called The Imperfections of Modern Music.’
Scrooge was incredulous. ‘Imperfections? I cannot imagine a Music more perfect’ He would have continued but his eye was caught by a member of the small choir, a man in his thirties, who looked as enraged as the man who had stormed out.
’Who is that?’
‘He is Claudio Monteverdi.’
‘Of course!’ cried Scrooge, ‘He is the composer. I am not surprised he is angry.’
‘The path of the modern composer is never easy…’
The Spirit looked pleased with himself. Scrooge was beginning to guess the game.
‘You show me these visions to what end?’
‘That tastes change,’ replied the Spirit ‘and Music progresses. You found the open harmonies of the organum dull compared to the Music you prefer. Imagine if those monks had been listening to this Monteverdi madrigal. How might they have reacted when even Monteverdi’s contemporaries found it shocking?’
Scrooge thought for a moment. ‘You make a good argument Spirit. I can see that what you say is true but how can I change the Music I like? Modern Music is so difficult, so complicated.’
'All will become clear'
Seeing that the ghost looked upon him with disdain, Scrooge became angry.
'Why do you mock me?' he exclaimed. 'Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”
He was suddenly conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, then, of being in his own bedroom. He had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.
THE SECOND OF THE THREE SPIRITS
Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, Scrooge found his bed the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour of one; and which, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at. At last, however, he began to think that the source and secret of this ghostly light might be in the adjoining room, from whence, on further tracing it, it seemed to shine. This idea taking full possession of his mind, he got up softly and shuffled in his slippers to the door.
The moment Scrooge's hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.
It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. He was looking at a schoolroom, more specifically a Music room. There was a piano and stereo system and several rough lines of chairs. On each was seated a fidgeting and excited child. As well as a large whiteboard, the walls were adorned with posters of composers: a plump and contented looking Bach, a dishevelled Beethoven, a hugely foreheaded Berlioz. There were also some other figures – Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Shostakovich – and also many others he had never heard of.
‘I am the Ghost of Music Present,’ said the Spirit.
Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Scrooge he had been; and though the Spirit's eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.
‘Spirit,’ said Scrooge submissively, ‘conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.’
‘From these children shall ye learn!’
Another figure, a young man, was now in the room. He was putting a CD into the stereo system.
‘Remember’ he said ‘when you close your eyes to think of the Musical elements: tempo, texture, timbre, dynamics, duration, pitch and pulse. But, also, I want to know what you feel.’
Half-expecting some Mozart or Beethoven – something, he thought condescendingly, that would challenge these young minds – Scrooge was stupefied to hear a score of astonishing complexity and dissonance.
He recognised the opening words, Kyrie Eleison. But this was no cheerful Mozart Mass setting; it was a terrible and awesome wall of sound.
‘Where is the melody? Where is the harmony? I cannot make sense of this,’ opined Scrooge.
‘Your ears are dulled by the familiar. You must learn to listen anew.’
After a few minutes the teacher faded the Music out.
‘Who wants to tell me something about this piece. What about the dynamics?’ he asked.
Twenty hands shot up, twenty posteriors bounced on chairs.
Child 1: ‘Started quietly sir and got louder!’
‘As simple as that?’
Child 2: ‘No sir. It got quieter again at the end.’
‘And the texture?’
Child 3: ‘It started thin, there wasn’t much going on, but then there was more and more.’
‘Ok, good, so how would you describe the things going on? What about the duration of the notes?’
Child 4: ‘Lots of very fast short notes, all at the same time!’
Child 2 again (smart aleck): ‘No, there were some long notes every now and again’
‘What about the timbre of the notes? What instruments could you hear?’
Child 5: ‘Well, mostly the quick bits were with singing, but the long notes were played by instruments.’
‘And the pitch? Did anyone notice what happened at the end?’
Child 6: ‘It got higher’
Child 7: ‘Yes, but that stopped at the end leaving lower sounds underneath’
The teacher took out a pen and drew three shapes on the whiteboard: a rectangle, a wedge shape starting with the widest section and gradually tapering off to a point and a wedge that did the exact reverse.’
‘If you had to choose one of these shapes to describe the Music, which would it be? Who votes for the first?’
One hand, quickly withdrawn. Disgusted looks from the others.
Not a single hand.
Every hand shot up.
Child 2 (again!): ‘But maybe you should also put a little shape at the end to show it getting quiet.’
‘Quite right too!’ said the young man, well content. ‘And what did you think of the Music? Did you like it?’
Chorus of children: ‘Yes! It was spooky! Scary! Sounded a bit spacey! To infinity and beyond!’
The Ghost turned to Scrooge. ’Do you still think modern Music is too complicated to understand?’ he asked.
Scrooge felt hot with embarrassment. ‘No,’ he answered simply.
‘You listen to Music expecting certain things, especially you expect tonal harmony and melody. As soon as these things are absent you switch off your ears and close your mind. Children have no such preconceptions. They listen without prejudice and so hear without limit.’
‘How then can I free my mind?’
‘I have one more thing to show you’
The Ghost took Scrooge’s hand and suddenly found himself high in the air and moving with great speed. It was a great surprise to Scrooge, while listening to the moaning of the wind, and thinking what a solemn thing it was to move on through the lonely darkness over an unknown abyss, whose depths were secrets as profound as Death: it was a great surprise to Scrooge, while thus engaged, to hear a hearty laugh. It was a much greater surprise to Scrooge to recognise it as his own nephew's and to find himself in a bright, gleaming room, with the Spirit standing smiling by his side, and looking at that same nephew with approving affability.
‘Ha, ha!’ laughed Scrooge's nephew. ‘Ha, ha, ha!’
‘He said that modern Music was a humbug, as I live!’ cried Scrooge's nephew. ‘He believed it too!’
‘More shame for him, Fred!’ said Scrooge's niece, indignantly.
‘He's a comical old fellow,’ said Scrooge's nephew, ‘that's the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.’
‘I have no patience with him,’ observed Scrooge's niece.
‘Oh, I have!’ said Scrooge's nephew. ‘I am sorry for him; I couldn't be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always. He takes it into his head to dislike anything written after Mahler. What's the consequence? He misses a whole world of Music.’
‘But perhaps’, said one of his friends, ‘your old Scrooge is right. Why shouldn’t he listen to what he likes?’
‘My good man, you entirely miss the point. He is like a child who refuses new foods. I do not object to him listening to what he likes, but I object most strongly to him not trying new things.’
‘But your analogy does not work,’ his friend protested, ‘one can avoid the taste of new food by the simple act of refusing to put it in one’s mouth. That is childish indeed. Music is everywhere. He cannot fail to have heard some New Music so, even though he avoids it, his opinion is based on real data.’
‘Ah, but how many of us talk about “the acquired taste” when we talk about those marvellous flavours that we eschew as children. We have to work to acquire them. Once cultivated, life becomes rich indeed.’
‘Life without the great classical composers before Mahler is not rich enough?’
‘Simply not as rich as it could be. How can it be when you consider the enormous variety of Music written since that time? Actually, given that there is such a variety, he has even less excuse not to listen to it’
‘What can you mean?’
‘Some of our most eminent living composers do not pose a stylistic challenge in the way that he perceives it. Our first reaction when listening to Glass, Adams or Reich is not to bemoan the astringency of the harmonies and the impossible intricacies of the serial method. I am saying that, even given his current tastes, there are marvellous pieces he could listen to today without any great effort. He simply needs to be more inquisitive.’
‘But that is still an admission that he will never get to grips with more challenging fare’
‘What I refer to is a gradual opening of the mind. Of course if one begins with Boulez or Birtwistle, there is a possibility that a listener will perceive all the Music of our time as being difficult and stop listening. That is why I tried to give him some early Stravinsky today. The same composer who wrote the Requiem Canticles at the end of his life also wrote Fireworks and Firebird at the beginning. This is a microcosm of Music of our time; there is a multiplicity of styles. If you find some of it bewildering that is not an excuse not to listen, but to find something else, and perhaps try that which bewildered you again later.’
‘Anyway,' said Scrooge's nephew, becoming cheerful again, 'at least his oddities provide with us with good conversation, so it would be ungrateful not to drink his health. Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, “Uncle Scrooge!”’
‘Uncle Scrooge!’ they cried.
‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to the old man, whatever he is.’ said Scrooge's nephew. ‘He wouldn't take his present from me, but may he have it, nevertheless. Uncle Scrooge!’
Scrooge was so gay and light of heart, to hear his health so heartily drunk. Neither had the lesson been wasted upon him:
‘I do believe that my nephew is right. Perhaps there is something to be gained by being a little more adventurous in my listening habits. I will look into it when I have a moment.’
‘You feel no urgency?’
‘Is there any?’ asked Scrooge.
‘Very much so.’
The whole scene passed off in the breath of the last word spoken by the Spirit; and he and Scrooge were again upon their travels. It had been a long night, if it were only a night; but Scrooge had his doubts of this, because the Christmas Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together. It was strange, too, that while Scrooge remained unaltered in his outward form, the Ghost grew older, clearly older. Scrooge had observed this change, but never spoke of it, until, as they stood together in an open place, he noticed that its hair was grey.
‘Are spirits’ lives so short?’ asked Scrooge.
‘My life upon this globe, is very brief,’ replied the Ghost. ‘It ends tonight.’
‘Tonight!’ cried Scrooge.
‘Tonight at midnight. Hark! It is already time.'
The chimes were ringing twelve.
Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Mahler, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.
THE LAST OF THE SPIRITS
The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.
It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.
He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.
‘I am in the presence of Music Yet To Come?’ said Scrooge.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.
‘You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,’ Scrooge pursued. ‘Is that so, Spirit?’
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.
Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it.
‘Ghost of the Future!’ he exclaimed, ‘I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear your company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?’
It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.
The Phantom moved away as it had come towards him. Scrooge followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore him up, he thought, and carried him along.
A churchyard. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite.
The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.
‘Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,’ said Scrooge, ‘answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?’
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
‘Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. ‘But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!’
The Spirit was immovable as ever.
Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave the Spirit’s own name:
Music Yet to Come
‘It cannot be!’ he cried, upon his knees.
The finger pointed from the grave to the Phantom himself, and back again.
‘No, Spirit! Oh no, no!’
The finger still was there.
‘Spirit!’ he cried, tight clutching at its robe, ‘hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if it is beyond all hope?’
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
‘Good Spirit,’ he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: ‘I understand. Finally, I understand. I have always loved and honoured Music. I have fawned and doted upon composers, but never once have I stopped to listen to the Music of my time. I never realised that there was such variety and richness, that I already possess the faculties for comprehending it, if only I tried to be a little more adventurous.’
‘I will not let Music die. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!’
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
THE END OF IT
Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
‘I will not let Music die!’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh, Gustav Mahler! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Gustav, on my knees!’
He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears.
Scrooge was better than his word. He listened. Oh how he listened! Berg, Boulez, Benjamin; Messiaen, Murail, MacMillan; Stravinsky, Simpson, Saunders. The modern classics and the classics in the making. He bought tickets to concerts and evangelised. The occasional piece he did not like he did not cast aside, granting instead that, perhaps, he had not fully understood it or that a second or third listening might be required. He did not forget the old composers. In fact, his knowledge of the repertoire helped him better understand the Music of his own time.
Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew his Music, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, God bless Us, Every One!
A recent release on Harmonia Mundi contains two important Dutilleux works for cello, the diminutive but weightily-argued, Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, for solo cello and Tout un monde lointain (effectively a cello concerto – indeed that was its original title). This is separated by Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor. The memory of Rostropovich hangs heavily over the two Dutilleux works – he commissioned them both. The recording of Tout un monde, however, makes a compelling alternative to the Russian’s recorded interpretation, even if it would be impossible to supersede it.
A complete contrast is Lucas Richman’s In Truth on Albany Records, which contains recordings of his Concerto for Piano, Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra and Three Piaces for Cello and Orchestra with the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra. The style won’t be for po-faced lovers of esoteric contemporary music. It is unabashedly romantic – a mixture of Rachmaninov, schmalzando film music and sturm und drang melodrama. It’s well-crafted and kind of hard to resist.
You will probably need a good palette cleanser after such sweet fare. An ideal place to find this is in the crystalline beauty of Juan Carlos Paz. His is an important name in Latin-American circles, but not so well-known elsewhere. His new disk on Wergo contains four works for chamber forces, from solo piano to septet. The style is clearly derived from Webern, it has all of his serial clarity but at the same time is more expansive and picturesque. If you are like me, you probably won’t want to listen to the whole programme in one sitting, but as a refreshing change and one work at a time, it is – to paraphrase another composer – like a glass of cold water in a world of elaborate cocktails.
The works included on Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s recent Dutilleux disk make a good introduction to the composer’s music, even if I think arranging them chronologically would have given a better insight into his stylistic development. Symphony No. 2, Le Double (written 1955–9, last on the disk) is, in a way, Dutilleux’s great transitional composition. It is the piece that ostensibly marked his last dalliance with older forms (he never used such a classical title as ‘Symphony’ afterwards) and more consonant harmonic writing. His new thinking was consolidated in the five movement orchestral work Métaboles, written immediately afterwards (1959–1964) but inexplicably first in this programme. It is justifiably considered one of the great works of twentieth century music. L’arbe des songes, a violin concerto written for Isaac Stern, is a mature work finished in 1985.
Despite the decided stylistic shift that occurred in Métaboles, a significant link with the Symphony is in the use of a form of thematic transformation often called ‘progressive growth.’ It was a concept that emerged gradually and is bound up in the composer’s interest around this time (and, indeed, afterwards, for example in Tout un mode lointain) in variation forms. Even the title Métaboles could be thought of as a synonym for ‘variation.’ Whereas the Symphony takes these processes and treats them with traditional discursive, dramatic and/or lyrical intensity, in Métaboles the impression is more hard-edged, with harmony that is more dissonant and static, smooth thematic progression often replaced with abrupt contrast. Seattle Symphony Orchestra under French conductor Ludovic Morlot understand this piece well, playing with commitment whilst also retaining a kind of objective control that this clear-headed and poised music demands. The result is not revelatory but it is certainly effective.
Even without knowing L’arbre des songes well (as I do not), it is possible to see some of the common stylistic fingerprints of mature Dutilleux. There is the pictorial title, for what could have been labelled as a concerto (like Tout un monde lointain, 1967–70); a four movement structure that on first glance appears traditional, but is broken into seven sections by the insertion of interludes (Dutilleux famously added an interlude to Timbre, espace mouvement and Ainsi la nuit is broken up by a series of movements entitled Parenthèse). The musical language has much more in common with Métaboles than the symphony, though both share the use of pivot notes to ground the harmony, most obviously in the third movement; Dutilleux never stopped believing in the importance of pitch hierarchy. The sound world also has strong links with the work that followed it, Mystère de l’instant, in its somewhat nocturnal atmosphere and, most especially, because of the presence of cimbalom in both. The violin writing is, unsurprisingly, virtuosic, the soloist Augustin Hadelich managing its demands with aplomb. I would need to be more familiar with the work to give a real recommendation as to his interpretation, but my instinct is that this is a fine performance, sensitively accompanied. The balance between soloist and orchestra is ideal.
The transitional nature of the Second Symphony is, I think, what makes it so very attractive and, as such, the best starting point for anyone trying to get to know the composer’s music. The First Symphony is too regressive in style to be truly representative. The works that follow the Second Symphony, including Métaboles, are not so quickly understood, even if they are ultimately just as rewarding. Symphony No. 2, Le Double manages to be accessible without feeling encumbered by the past.
The Symphony is subtitled Le Double, ostensibly in reference to the presence of, in addition to the main orchestra, a group of 12 solo instruments. The obvious analogy is that of a concerto grosso, though the reality is that the group is rather more integrated into the main orchestral body. I don’t consider myself an expert in the discography of this work, but have always found myself returning to Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse conducted by Michel Plasson, a recording that, I know, has its detractors, most especially because the ‘dual’ nature of the work – the small group contrasting with the large group – is not especially pronounced. Actually, and having heard the work live, I think that this is just an aspect of the writing and not a fault of the conductor. I also think it is how the composer anyway intended the smaller group to be heard, as a resonance, a continuation of the main orchestral sound (he said as much).
In this recording the smaller instrumental group is, on the whole, further forward. It does, at times make for a more effective listening experience, though it does not really give more of an impression of duality than in the other recording. Also I would say that on balance Plasson better understands the architectural forces at play. This is most apparent in the first movement where the regularly spaced and thematically critical orchestral climaxes have devastating impact. In the Seattle recording they sometimes sound a little tame. Ludovic Morlot shapes the second movement rather more successfully; in particular the build involving a long trumpet solo that leads to a luminous climax is wonderfully paced. The cleaner recording is also better appreciated here, since overall dynamic levels are much softer.
The final movement again lacks something of the necessary orchestral punch, especially in the opening. There is, though, a surprising benefit to what at first seems a rather pedestrian tempo; it renders the lengthy coda, which Morlot takes at a decent pace without seeming to rush, much more in proportion to the rest of the movement. Unfortunately the recording then ends with an inexplicable choice. Dutilleux famously changed the end of the work from a straight C# major to a clustered and questioning final chord. It appears that Morlot has decided to reinstate Dutilleux’s first choice, though the effect is strange; there is a strong felling of added second, presumably from orchestral overtones.
Despite this, I wouldn’t disqualify the recording from consideration. One could argue that the original ending has historical interest and, anyway, the other pieces on the disk are extremely well performed. I would, however, hesitate to recommend this disk as a first choice for those getting to know the composer’s oeuvre.
I don’t know how many shopping days or sleeps there are until Christmas, but I’m beginning to be fairly stressed about buying presents. There are two problems: people asking me what I want and people not telling me what THEY want. It’s not really in the spirit of things to make Christmas lists, but they certainly help to relieve the pressure a little. Here are a few suggestions of my own, either things you might like to ask for or, perhaps, presents that might interest the composer in your life…
Pierre Boulez: Penser La Musique Aujourd’hui (£2-6)
A friend said to me recently that few musicians write as beautifully as Pierre Boulez. It is true; this is not just a manual of his technical approach to composition but an arresting book of musical philosophy. Even if the compositional issues may, nowadays, seem arcane or even convoluted, this is a key text in understanding twentieth-century music. The English translation, entitled ‘Boulez on Music Today,’ is out of print but easy to locate secondhand on AbeBooks or Amazon.
One Star at Last BBC Singers, Stephen Cleobury (MP3 download, £8)
New Carols from Kings, Stephen Cleobury (MP3 download, £15)
Stephen Cleobury is synonymous with the BBC Singers, Kings and carolling. One of his first acts on being appointed at Cambridge was to begin a tradition of commissioning a new work each year for the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The Kings album brings together all of these new carols up to 2004 (we could do with an update). The BBC Singers recording also contains a selection of contemporary carols. There is some overlap with the first, though not enough to make it redundant.
Will Todd: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (CD, £12)
Gerald Barry: The Importance of Being Earnest (CD, £13)
These contrasting CDs illustrate the vitality of new music. The Todd, as I mentioned in an earlier review, wears its antecedents like a rose, not remotely self-conscious when pastiching and parodying popular musical styles. The result is both immediately accessible, fun and so much more than the sum of its parts. The Barry, by contrast, is written in a much more challenging and technically consistent idiom. He manages to pull off a similar trick, however, the music being effervescent and witty. If in doubt just listen to the outrageous and hilarious piano solo that prefaces the words ‘Did you here what I was playing? I don’t play accurately. Sentiment is my forte.’ Infectiously entertaining.
Audacious Euphony: Chromatic Harmony and the Triad's Second Nature (Oxford Studies in Music Theory) (£25)
On the recommendation of a friend, this book is on my own Christmas list. I haven’t read it yet, so it may seem a little strange me mentioning it here. What it appears to promise, however, is fascinating: a systematic explanation of how composers have been able to avoid tonality and atonality, following a middle path that allows them to flirt with both. My own music sits in the middle like this and I’m rather hoping that some technical explanations might help me to tidy up some of my compositional thinking…
AKAI LPK25 | 25-Key Ultra-Portable USB MIDI Keyboard Controller for Laptops (£31)
I can’t fault this little keyboard. Over the last couple of years it has been from West Wales to Mexico, Guatemala, Switzerland, France and then back again. The keys are small, which in turn allows space for two octaves whilst keeping the whole thing diminutive and light, important considerations when on the move. It’s certainly not for playing but, as an input device for Sibelius, it’s allowed me to continue arranging and composing wherever I have been.
Spotify or Apple Music Subscription (price varies: see description)
Actually these don’t appear to be as straightforward to give as presents as you might hope: not only is there the three-month trial period with Apple Music, which would anyway reduce the impact of such a present, but neither specifically allow you to give the service itself. You can, however, buy a Spotify gift card which can be redeemed against a subscription. Similarly, with Apple, of course, you can buy iTunes tokens, the problem being that the present-receiver will probably end up buying something completely unrelated from the iTunes store.
Over-Ear Headphones (£31–£270: several suggestions)
I’ve tested a number of different over-ear headphones recently. If you’re looking for noise cancelling I suggest two options. Cheap and cheerful are the 7dayshop AERO 7 Noise Cancelling Headphones (£35). I’ve had a pair of these for a year. The sound at this price is more than acceptable, the noise cancelling as effective as anything I’ve heard elsewhere. The only downside is that I find them uncomfortable to wear for more than a couple of hours at a time. It will come as no surprise that my high end recommendation goes to Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Cancelling Headphones (£270). They are incredibly comfortable, have much better sound, though, in my opinion, the noise cancellation is not substantially better than the cheaper pair. For those not worried about noise around them or, for that matter, about it escaping from the headphones and annoying others then open-backed are a good way to go. A great pair of headphones in this class are Sennheiser’s HD598 (£130). The cream colour even look pleasingly retro. For a compromise between an open design and full noise cancelling go for a fully closed headphone. In this case an excellent option are Bose SoundTrue II, the sound is balanced (so many headphones I tried were bass-heavy) and detailed. Even better, in my opinion, are AKG’s K550. They are good value at £110 and the sound is superlative. If you don’t believe me, take a look at What Hi-Fi’s review.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (from £749), Staffpad (£54) and Sibelius (prices vary: around £460 for pro version with yearly upgrade plan)
An extravagant present, I admit. It also sticks in my craw a little to recommend it since I normally prefer Apple products. Unfortunately, there is no Apple equivalent that comes close to the elegance of this score-writing solution. It’s possible, of course, to run Sibelius on a Mac, but not the incredible new Staffpad programme, which closely mimics the feel of writing music with pen and paper – Mac doesn’t support touch input. The iPad, which does have this input, does not run Sibelius. Unfortunately, at the moment, neither does it support Staffpad, though you might consider Notion, which has just added handwriting and stylus support. Even then, the fact of the matter is that to run legacy programmes like Sibelius and stylus-based products requires two machines if you are an Apple user and one if you buy something like the Microsoft Surface. Pull your finger out Apple!
Christmas may come earlier every year, but new music seems to be developing a bit of resilience to the onslaught of carolling, Messiahs and candlelit choirboys. There’s plenty to enjoy well into December.
The Spitalfields Winter Festival runs from 4–15th December. As well as ‘dining experiences, film screenings, historic walks, singing workshops and family entertainment’ there are seven new music events. Two of these stand out. On 7th December The Riot Ensemble give the UK première of Djuro Zivkovic’s Night Music and the world première of Helga Arias Parra’s Incipit, who describes her music as ‘experimentation, risk and control in that exact order.’ Also intriguing is the performance of 10-year-old Marie-Louise Ptohos’s Moon Dance, part of the ensemble’s Young Composer of the Year project. You can see a copy of this and the other participants' imaginative scores here. On 11th December The Choir of Royal Holloway perform music by Baltic and Scandinavian composers Arvo Pärt, Rihards Dubra, Vytautas Miškinis, Bo Hansson, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Ola Gjeilo, Einojuhani Rautavaara.
On 13th December the Casals Quartet and pianist Alexander Melnikov hold a Shostakovich Day at the Barbican’s Milton Concert Hall. The three concerts focus on his String Quartets and Preludes and Fugues for piano. There will also be readings from the composer’s letters.
A much less well-known, but also interesting, figure is Elisabeth Lutyens. Known for her wholehearted adoption of modernism, her music has not been widely performed since her death in 1983. She will be the topic of a Discovering Music day at City Halls, Glasgow on 14th December with presenter Stephen Johnson and BBCSSO conducted by Jac van Steen. Works played will include Music for Orchestra II, op.48; Rondel, op.108; and Music for Orchestra IV, op.152. The next Discovering Music day will feature the music of Anthony Payne on 21st Feb 2016.
Premières this month include Matthias Pintcher’s Idyll played by BBCSSO on 3rd. On the same day at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh is Hirda, a new opera written in collaboration between Chris Stout and Gareth Williams. In Birmingham on 4th, BCMG present works by Dominic Muldowney and Howard Skempton including, respectively, world premières of Smooth between sea and land and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Back in London, meanwhile, there is the first chance in the UK to hear James MacMilan’s Women of the Apocalypse on 4th and Andrew Norman’s Switch on 11th; with the world première’s of James Moriarty’s Windows on 6th and Magnus Lindberg’s Violin Concerto No. 2 on 9th.
Full-circle, and proving that contemporary music does do Christmas, at BBC Maida Vale on 17th December is the chance to hear six world premières, all of them SATB carols selected as part of the BBC Radio 3 Carol Competition. If you can't beat them, join them.
Sound and Music has just published the results of its second Composer Commissioning Survey. This year it aims to give a more international perspective, with the Australian Music Centre also providing data. Not surprisingly, it makes for grim reading. The average commission fee last year was £1392. This year it is £918. Whilst SaM are quick to point out that the two figures are ‘not directly comparable’ the sum is, nevertheless, ‘incredibly low.’
Further analysis also reveals the disparity between what composers actually receive and what they believe is fair. Asking someone how much they should earn may seem a slightly pointless exercise; you’d think the answer would be ‘as much as possible.’ In the case of composers the opposite seems to be the case. On average, for example, composers suggested that a 60-minute major work should command the fee of £17,532. Such a project might take anything up to a year, so this sum does not seem avaricious. The survey does not, unfortunately, provide a direct comparison with real-world figures, but the range of fees on offer for such projects as a ‘Digital Installation’, ‘Small’, ‘Medium’ and ‘Large scale’ works are all low, ranging from £157 to only £2258. Neither do these figures include the many respondents who were commissioned but received nothing.
Other interesting, but perhaps not surprising, perspectives include: that composers believe that there is not enough time for rehearsals; that commissions seem to be fewer and worse paid over the last three years; and that, if anything, the situation in Australia is even more bleak than in the UK.
For a complete picture, head over to Sound and Music.
I had hoped to bring you some of my thoughts on the MANCA Festival here in Nice, France. I was particularly looking forward to the two Michel Pascal premières (see my interview, below). Sadly, events conspired against this. It is, perhaps, not realised how profound an effect the attacks in Paris have had on the rest of the country. Here in Nice – about as far away from the capital as it is possible to be – three days of national mourning led to the cancellation of three days of festival events.
It must be stressed, of course, that this happened as a mark of respect, not from fear or security worries. The French people show a spirit of defiance that is remarkable. Tonight I will be attending the first big concert of the foreshortened MANCA Festival. I have no doubt that we will be perfectly safe, but, as concert-going life restarts here in France, we should take a moment to reflect on the significance of Friday’s attacks, Bataclan in particular.
Whilst the choice of this venue may have been incidental – the terrorists were looking for a place where security was poor but many people were present – Daesh (also known as Islamic State), were keen to suggest otherwise. In their statement they referred to ‘precisely chosen targets’, which included ‘the Bataclan theatre for exhibitions, where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.’
If it is debatable how direct an influence Daesh had in the selection of Bataclan, there is no doubt that music has always been one of its central targets, a sign, in their eyes, of the West’s degeneration. In Syria earlier this year musicians were punished with 90 lashes for playing ‘un-Islamic’ instruments, which were also destroyed:
Soon afterwards, in Libya, Daesh fighters symbolically burnt a number of drums:
In this sense, the choice of Bataclan had extra significance. It was also an attack on a concert venue, an attack on music.
I don’t expect many musicians or lovers of music see themselves as being on any kind of front line. Most of us probably try to avoid politics, except as a topic of debate or when we are complaining about the latest arts cuts. Now, however, is a good moment to remember how lucky we are to be able to ply our trade in free societies, where our creative impulses are not haunted by the spectre of masked men knocking on our doors. The freedom to express ourselves, and the freedom of others to appreciate this in our concert halls, is a sacred and beautiful thing. It must be cherished and defended.
After setting down these thoughts I came across this shocking article, which seems of particular relevance in this context. I think the video it links to speaks for itself.
Christian Morris talks to French composer Michel Pascal, whose 'Requins' and 'Never Die' are premiering at the 2015 MANCA festival.
Photography © Luc Henri Fage
What was your earliest success as a composer?
The first piece that received a good audience outside the conservatoire area was an acousmatic music composed for a painter named J.M.Sorgue. A series of very large ink drawings called "Falaises et Emergences", on view at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence in 1980. The funny thing is that the same piece was played in Albi the year after and Jean Etienne Marie heard it there without meeting me. Because he liked it he contacted me and offered me to be his assistant at CIRM in 1982. This is why I'm now in Nice.
Who or what has influenced your style? I’d be very interested to hear about your experiences being taught by and/or working with Amy, Berio, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Xenakis and others.
Many people and experiences influence one's style. Some on very large scales, some other only with a few words given at the very right moment. I met the composers that you talk about and many others in very different situations, some in workshops, others in close professional situations, some very briefly, others around classes along a year or more. Even people that have nothing to do with music can influence your style. For example, during a concert with Jean Etienne Marie in Valberg under snow, I was remembering a childhood memory coming from another mountain, waiting that my father will stop speaking with his cousin in a mountain farm stuck under snow. The farm clock was ticking and the conversation was so incredibly slow, very few words, very much silence thinking between them, and time almost cruelly measured with this beautiful ticking... Jean Etienne Marie smiled to me and told: "so you had good composition teacher".
As a student in music, I've been bewitched by the ability to design, transform and precisely set the inner matter of sounds with electroacoustic techniques, even more today with the computer power. So most of the great French electroacoustic composers have influenced me. With a special thought for Bernard Parmegiani who died 2 years ago, and he was a delightful human being. I was also amazed with the Ligeti's pieces of the seventies decade, with the freedom thinking of several composers (including Berio and Dutilleux). It is impossible to tell in a few words about one's influences and give names without forgetting some. More, you may be changed by one piece or even a part of the piece, and do not like the rest of the composer's production forever. It does not matter, I like when contemporary musicians give us to hear things that raise questions. They are part of a movement of fertile human ideas, a picture in sound of their time. From the moment you accept to renew your usual way of listening, open your mind to different point of views, forget hearing (and thinking) on a pre-fabricated level, there will be so many beautiful and interesting things to discover: no end until life itself ends.
>> Click here to read the rest of the interview
As well as the Manca Festival here in Nice, there are two other major music European festivals to look forward to in November. The opening concert of Wien Modern (5th–28th November) celebrates the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez with a performance of Pli Selon Pli given by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, soprano Marisol Montalvo and conductor Cornelius Meister. New works in the festival will be seen through the prism of popular music, with a series of crossover projects focusing especially on the music of younger composers. The winning entry of the Erst Bank Composition Prize, Substantie by Syrian composer Peter Jakober, will receive its world premiere performance on 13th.
Swiss composer Jürg Frey is composer in residence at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (20th–29th November). There is a sound installation of his work throughout the festival, a public masterclass with PhD students from the University’s Centre for Research in New Music, a ‘Meet the Composer’ session as well as concerts and premieres. There are so many other world and UK premieres it is impossible to list them all here. One that is particularly special, however, is the first performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Plus-Minus (realised by Derek Bailey) on 20th.
Other premieres this month include: at Wigmore Hall on 6th the Arditti Quartet play a new work by Harrison Birtwistle together with the UK premiere of Michael Jarrell’s ...in verästelten Gedanken... (Nachlese VIIb); at the same venue the following day the Nash Ensemble give the first performance of Ring Dance by their Composer in Residence Julian Anderson; at the Royal Opera House, a major new commission, Morgen und Abend by Georg Friedrich Haas, runs from 13th–28th; in Birmingham on 15th November BCMG perform their Sound Investment Commission FRACTURES: Monk Unpacked by Melinda Maxwell; at the Barbican on 18th the Britten Sinfonia perform a new work written in collaboration between Simon Bainbridge and jazz bassist Eddie Gomez. On 26th November, finally, at City Halls, Glasgow, there a number of UK premieres in a BBCSSO concert that includes, most substantially, Rebecca Sounders’ Alba for solo trumpet and symphony orchestra. The concert will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now. Lovers of Welsh music would also do well to go to the BBC National Chorus of Wales Concert at BBC Hoddinott Hall on 15th. There are no premieres, but there is the chance to hear some rarely performed works by Grace Williams, Alun Hoddinott, Mervyn Burtch, William Mathias and others.
Congratulations to Ludovico Einaudi, whose album Elements debuted at number 12 in the popular music charts this week, the most successful classical composer since Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs in 1992. The Telegraph yesterday sought to present this as a revelation, as if – good Lord – people might actually want to listen to contemporary classical music. It even went so far as to highlight Einaudi’s cutting edge credentials by evoking the name of his teacher, Luciano Berio. But the popularity of the album is not surprising. Five minutes in its company will tell you that his music fits a genre of contemporary music that has often found a wide audience: relaxingly tonal, certainly well-written but maybe a little anodyne. That’s not to criticise; I’m delighted that a living composer is popular, but I would only really consider it news-worthy if it were something a bit more challenging.
If you are looking for something more in this vein, a good place to go is Wergo. They have just released settings of Giacomo Leopardi poetry by composer Klaus Oswald’s sung by WDR Rundfunkchor Koeln. There is also a disk of music by Vito uraj entitled Changeover, consisting of five instrumental works, as well as a collection of the complete works for piano duet and two pianos by György Kurtág, all originally published in the eight volume Játékok (‘Games’).
On Naxos there is a new album of chamber music from Chinese composer Jia Daquan; Penderecki’s song cycle Powiało na mnie morze snów… composed for the Chopin bicentenary celebrations in Warsaw in 2010; orchestral music by composer-pianist Walter Saul; and a programme of wind ensemble music by Steven Bryant, Joel Puckett and John Mackey.
NMC have just released Echo and Narcissus, an album of Ryan Wigglesworth orchestral works conducted by the composer. Available for preorder on Nonclassical, meanwhile, is The Art of Remix #Ep1. The first track of this, Cortical Songs by John Matthias and Nick Ryan, is available for streaming on both Spotify and Apple Music.
Björk’s Biophilia in 2011 was a watershed moment for me. A cross-disciplinary project that married music, artwork, games, animation and wider environmental themes, it provided a compelling demonstration of how apps might be an ideal medium for new music. It was a shame to revisit it today and to find that it has not been well cared-for in the intervening years. It now crashes like a pig.
I thought that Biophilia would be followed by a host of similar projects, hoping, indeed, that they might be musically a bit more experimental. It seems such an obvious way of introducing our iPad addicted younger generation to new music, if not in the home then certainly in school music lessons. Sadly, the anticipated avalanche never happened, probably because contemporary classical music is as devoid of cash as it is abundant in imagination.
Given this I was delighted recently to come across Sonorama by composer and artist Claudia Molitor. The app is designed to be listened to on the train from St. Pancras to Margate, with journeys between each station along the way being accompanied by readings, archive recordings and original compositions.
Whilst the app can’t approach the multimedia slickness that was Biophilia, it is, nevertheless, beautifully presented. The opening screen gives the option to learn more about the app, to browse by all content or to explore the musical journey in a map of the train route. The easiest way to navigate is by the latter method, since this gives a better sense of both the musical and physical voyage. Of course, the best way to listen is whilst actually on the train from St. Pancras to Margate (take the Southeastern Highspeed train via Ashford International, if you’re interested). Even without this, however, the material on offer is wonderfully evocative, thought provoking and, in the composed sections, gently – the music rarely insists – compelling.
As if to emphasise the cross-disciplinary nature of this work, the graphic score, a work of art in itself, is on display at Turner Contemporary until 1st November. It is also viewable in the app. There is also an accompanying book, available here. The app itself is only available on iOS, though other mobile devices can stream it from the web.
There was much talk of doom after the close of the UK Sibelius Office in 2012. With hindsight, it now seems that it was justified. The next paid upgrade to the software did not occur until the beginning of 2014 and, even then, it was labelled version 7.5 rather than 8, an acknowledgement, perhaps, that the suite of incremental improvements did not represent a major advance. I was not tempted to upgrade.
I confess I did not even notice the release of Sibelius 8 until a few days ago. Given that I spend the majority of my working life using the software, that seems incredible. I am certainly on Avid’s mailing list (I’ve just checked) but can see nothing specifically about Sibelius, the only Avid software I use. Could it be because this update is even more lukewarm than 7.5? As far as I can see, the most interesting addition to the software relates to the addition of annotation options for Microsoft’s Surface stylus, a complete irrelevance to Apple Mac users.
Even from a Microsoft PC perspective, however, Avid are not doing enough to keep Sibelius in the game. The recent demonstration of StaffPad on Microsoft’s Surface 4/Surface Book provided compelling evidence that the future of music notation software in touch and stylus, not mouse and pointer. It is a lesson that Apple would also do well to heed. Whilst their recently announced iPad Pro would theoretically be capable of supporting StaffPad, it is so late to the game that there is no guarantee that it will be ported. Also, Microsoft’s strategy of combining tablet with laptop is now beginning to pay dividends. How many hard up composers would buy both an Apple Mac in order to use legacy software like Sibelius and an iPad Pro to run a next generation program like Staffpad, when Surface will happily run both?
After a wet Pembrokeshire summer I find myself in Nice, capital of the French Riviera. My reasons for being here aren’t entirely (or even partly) musical. So, after a week in the city, trying to discover what the place has to offer is, frankly, a bit after the event.
France’s fifth-largest conurbation has, happily, much to recommend it. What is especially pleasing is that I seemed to have arrived at the right time, since next month the city plays host to the Manca Festival of Contemporary Music (14th–24th November). Transport links to Nice are excellent (four cheap Easyjet flights a day from Gatwick, for example), so you might consider a short city break to catch some of this.
Manca takes place under the auspices of CIRM, one of six Centres Nationaux de Création Musicale (National Centres for Musical Creation) in France, the other five being in Bethany (outskirts of Reims), Albi, Marseille, Lyon and Alfortville. CIRM was founded in 1968 by composer Jean-Etienne Marie, its mission being ‘to promote the contemporary music repertoire, focussing its activities mainly along four lines: production, diffusion, training and research.’ The organisation has strong links locally and internationally and has a special interest in the promotion of electronic music, especially by playing host to composers who create works in its three electronic studios.
Some of these are written especially for the Manca Festival, as is the case in this year's opening concert, which features premières of two CIRM commissions, Tiantian Wang’s The distant murmur and Yikeshan Abudushalamu’s Divine Light, both for chamber orchestra and electronics. The concert also features two premières by Michel Pascal: Never die and Requins for 16 instruments and electronics.
Highlights from the rest of the festival include, on 18th, Hugues Dufourt’s Burning Bright for six percussionists, an hour-long work inspired by William Blake’s The Tyger with lighting and scenography by Enrico Bagnoli. On 20th there is a live electronic performances given by Gaël Navard. It is inspired by the the discovery of exoplanet Kepler-186f in 2014, the performance wittily billed as a piece of ‘exomusicological’ research conducted through ‘telesonoscopes’, the result being the first performance of ‘Keplerian’ music on their native instrument, the ‘soundplane.’ On 21st is a performance of Phèdre, an opera for solo voice by Marianne Pousseur and Enrico Bagnoli based upon a text by Yannis Ritsos. There are also two concerts of electroacoustic music presented by students at British universities on 19th and, on 24th, an international study day on the theme ‘Geste Musical : Modèles et expériences.’ Three of the papers at this conference are in English, one of which also includes a video projection and live performance.
Prices for all events are very reasonable: many are free, others mostly being 5 or 10 euros.
As planned, I tuned in for the broadcast première of Max Richter’s Sleep on Saturday. I’d initially thought that the 8 hour work, which is designed to be slept through, was a peculiar idea. Why would a composer want his audience to be unconscious? And if you really wanted to influence a person’s sleep, shouldn’t the music be a little less restful? I was wrong; I experienced extremely vivid dreams in which sound was a constant feature, the experience being both fascinating and a little disturbing. It was an interesting experiment, worth checking out.
If you are looking for something less somnolent, check out Objects at an Exhibition, a splendid collaboration between the Science Museum and NMC in which six composers took an exhibit as the starting point for a new work, the whole being a homage to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Thea Musgrave’s Power Play takes its inspiration from the steam engines of the Energy Hall, the result being charmingly ‘technical’ work with a good deal of Stravinskian neoclassical wit. The statue of R.J. Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, is the starting point of Christopher Mayo’s Supermarine, a grungy piece for cello, double bass and sampled aircraft engines. Claudia Molitor's 2TwoLO takes its name from first BBC transmitter. It begins with BBC archive recordings explaining some key facts about early days of radio broadcasting – the surprising fact that music was not initially permitted to be broadcast, an account of an early recording session and an early broadcast schedule – whilst the music, perhaps reflecting its gradual acceptance in the new medium, atmospherically creeps, bumps and scrapes into existence, gradually taking on a more solid form. David Sawer’s exciting Coachman Chronos, flies along with the energy of the historic York Mail Coach, though not without periods of thoughtful repose. Gerald Barry’s melancholic The One-Armed Pianist is inspired by a false limb designed to allow the left arm of an injured pianist to play octaves. In it a simple two note figure is gradually expanded until the octave is reached, and then insisted upon with sad significance.
Barry Guy’s Mr. Babbage is Coming to Dinner, an improvisatory work full of keenly imagined and felicitous instrumental timbres, completes what is a very satisfying programme – the works are wonderfully varied and one can easily imagine how effective they would be in situ. This project, one must remember, is just one of many – some collaborative, some solo – from NMC over the last few years. These include 20x12, New Music Biennial Project, Music Map, Digital Discoveries and Next Wave. When it comes to supporting and promoting British contemporary music, no other record label comes close.
2015 is a Venice Biennale year, the 10 day music programme running from October 2nd–11th. In total there will be 18 concerts presenting 31 new works, the main composers featured being Pierre Boulez, Georges Aperghis, Helmut Lachenman and Giuseppe Sinopoli.
In his 90th birthday year Pierre Boulez will be the subject of a special tribute with a performance of Messagesquisse prefaced by 10 pieces written in homage to him on 11th. Machinations for 4 female voices voices, electronics and video by Georges Aperghis, winner of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement for 2015, will be performed on 10th. Helmut Lachenmann, 80 years old this year and the winner of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2008, will see performances of Grido for String Quartet, Trio Fluido for clarinet, viola and percussion and Streichtrio I for violin, viola, cello. Souvenir à la memoire for 2 sopranos and mezzo-soprano by Giuseppe Sinopoli will be performed on the final night.
Other composers represented are: Milica Djordjevic, Nina Šenk, Pasquale Corrado, Federico Gardella, Silvia Borzelli, Lara Morciano, Dai Fujikura, Marcin Stanczyk, Luca Antignani, Filippo Zapponi, Benoît Chantry, Aureliano Cattaneo, George Benjamin, Fabio Nieder, Vladimir Tarnopolski, Fabio Cifariello Ciardi, Dieter Ammann, Matteo D’Amico.
In the UK the Aberdeenshire Sound Festival runs from 22nd October to 9th November. The programme is extremely wide-ranging. It kicks off with Philip Cooke’s By Reason of Darkness, a setting of sections of Job, verse 37 scored for community choir and bells at 6pm on 22nd. The rest of the first week focuses on cross-art forms, including art and music installations in partnership with Gray’s School of Art; Sandglass with choreography by Lucy Boyes and music by Thomas Butler; and an audiovisual collaboration Requiem for Edward Snowdon by Matthew Collings and Jules Rawlinson. The second week focuses on contemporary music performances with pianist Ian Pace and Ensemble Alternance from France. There will also be works for organ as part of a part of a collaboration with French festival Musiques Démesurées, including a new work by Jean-Luc Guionnet. There’s much more besides, including new operas, a series of new works commissioned to partner each of Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas and new joint commission by six Scottish composers.
On 3rd October at Barbican, London there is a BBCSO Total Immersion Day exploring the music of Henryk Górecki. This begins with an introduction by Polish music expert, Professor Adrian Thomas at 11am, followed by performances of Górecki’s String Quartet No. 1 and 2 at 11, a film documentary at 3pm, a concert of his vocal music given by the BBC Singers at 5.30pm, and a final evening concert of orchestral and vocal music at 7.30pm.
Outside the two festivals other premieres this month include the BBCSO playing Richard Ayres’ No. 48 at Barbican on 8th; Laurence Crane’s Chamber Symphony No. 2 The Australian and Marisol Jiménez’s XLIII - MEMORIAM VIVIRE at St. John’s, Smith Square on 10th; the UK premiere of John Adams Scheherazade.2 at the Barbican on 29th; and Lotta Wennäkoski’s Verdigris given by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, also on 29th. The Swansea Festival, finally, runs from 2nd—17th. There’s not a whole lot in the way of contemporary music, but a major highlight is the chance to hear the five-star rated ballet Cinderalla with Ballet Cymru and music by Jack White.
On DG there are new recordings of Witold Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto and Symphony No. 2 conducted by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle.
NMC is celebrating the life of Steve Martland with a two-disk set that includes Horses of Instruction, Patrol and Crossing the Border. It is currently available for pre-order.
Galina Ustvolskaya was a composer whose uncompromising style led to its almost complete neglect in Soviet Russia. She was, however, widely admired, including by her teacher Shostakovich. The 11th volume of a survey of her music played by Natalia Andreeva is released this month on Divine Art, together with a new disk featuring the clarinet music of Ian Mitchell.
On Col Legno, Austrian Heartbeats #2 is a programme of music by young composers selected by Georg Friedrich Haas: Marco Döttlinger, Peter Jakober, Hannes Kerschbaumer, and Manuela Meier.
On Navona Records Moto Continuo features contrasting works by Osias Wilenski, Nicholas, Anthony Ascioti, Diane Jones, John A. Carollo, Robert Fleisher and Brian Noyes.
On F-IRE, finally, something a bit different: Alex Hutton’s Magna Carta Suite, a lively and enjoyable crossover album that features elements of jazz and classical music.
Max Richter’s new album on DG, the 8 hour Sleep is a gigantic set of variations that explore the way music can interact with states of consciousness. The complete work is only available as a digital download (no streaming) from iTunes where, it must be said, it has been gathering a string of five star reviews.
The piece, as the title suggests, is designed to be slept through, an idea that leaves me with mixed feelings. I can see that a more provocative work might affect the quality of a person’s sleep in a way that would be of artistic interest. I can’t, however, imagine this music achieving such an effect; its slow, minimalist beauty is certainly admirable but more likely, I would have thought, to induce a state of sleepy contentment.
If sleeping through a composer’s work seems perverse, an alternative would be to buy the one hour highlights disk, which is intended to be enjoyed fully conscious. This version is also available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music. If the full experience is of interest the 8 hour version is £24.99. Even better, there is also an opportunity to try before you buy: Radio 3 is broadcasting a complete performance from midnight on 26 September to 8am on 27 September. Despite my reservations the idea is a fascinating one, so I shall definitely be tuning in.
One of my favourite radio shows at the moment is Radio 5 Live’s Film Review Programme, dubbed Wittertainment by its devoted army of listeners ('Hello to Jason Isaacs', by the way). It’s hosted by Simon Mayo with Mark Kermode as its resident film critic, the two of them being a cross between a warring couple and father and son, the former trying to discipline a recalcitrantly loquacious latter. As well as listening to the most recent programmes, I am so addicted I have been trawling my way through their back catalogue. Here are some of Mark Kermode’s views I decided to scribble down whilst listening to an episode from 2011:
‘It’s like Annie Hall meets the grim reaper without the jokes.’ (on the film Restless)
‘Passable waffle whilst it’s there.’ (on Monte Carlo)
‘I did watch the whole thing and I didn’t enjoy it very much.’ (on Reuniting the Rubins)
These were written down in a random moment when the idea for this blogpost came to mind. They’re actually pretty anodyne. A really terrible film will provoke a full-scale ‘Kermodian Rant’, a stream of invective that is, nevertheless, elegantly-phrased, well-argued and based on a massive store of film knowledge. Here’s a classic example: Mark Kermode’s monumental dismissal of Pirates of the Caribbean 3.
The criticism is passionate, honest, well-informed, sometimes divisive and, frankly, not always right (though Kermode would disagree there). Listening to the programme I have been struck by the extent to which the passion, which cuts both ways (when Kermode likes a film he also really lets you know), sends me searching for a film, or at least adding it to my growing ‘to watch’ list. It has also made me seek out films in actual theatres, an activity that I was never that much interested in. I’ve recently paid good money for screenings of popcorn nonsense like Minions, Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible V and more thoughtful fare such as Conducta, Birdman and an arthouse screening of North by Northwest.
This reengagement with film is entirely down to good criticism. Which inevitably made me wonder why we don’t have this kind of energy in contemporary music criticism? I am not saying that it is terrible but, whilst there are certainly examples of scathing reviews, I more often have a creeping sense that critics are afraid to say exactly what they think. I read, for example, a recent thumbnail review of John Adams’ Absolute Jest in a national newspaper that said something along the lines of (I paraphrase) ‘I don’t subscribe so much to enthusiasm that others show for Adams music, but.…’ And so went on to give a generally lukewarm review. That opening phrase was actually pretty daring in the context of current criticism and I appreciated its honesty, but it had, nevertheless, a politeness that was crushingly dull. Why is this?
The first reason is, I think, is probably fair enough: criticising high art is, on the whole, a different proposition from criticising commercial art. With high art there is a level of competence in its execution that qualifies it to have that label in the first place. So a critic is probably right to be cautious in his approach, even if he should be constantly on the lookout for imposters: low art that is masquerading as high art. And I think the contemporary music scene has sufficient pretentious twaddle in it for critics to make things a bit livelier than they are. Why they don't is probably down to the second reason, which I think is much less excusable: the fear of being called out for being wrong, ill-informed, or, God forbid, simply ‘not understanding’ dear boy.
Do you know what? It’s okay to have an opinion, to risk being wrong, and to have a gut reaction on one hearing alone. These are deep waters, I know, since I’m only too aware that challenging music, as in any form of art, sometimes requires effort to achieve understanding and even enjoyment. Gut reactions matter, however, if we are to have a lively public discourse. Inflamed, partial, even erroneous debate is healthy as, in the same way I have been inspired to go more to the cinema, it might lead curious audiences back to our concert halls.
What worries me is that currently all of the lively criticism is taking place behind closed doors. I’ve had some fabulous discussions with friends about recent Proms premieres, or the difficult music of old stalwarts. On one occasion I told someone close to me to turn off Boulez’s Structures II because I thought the music was so ghastly. A lively debate has since ensued that has opened my mind to some of his works (the magical Pli Selon Pli, for example), whilst rather confirming my opinion about others. At the other end of the stylistic spectrum someone recently said to me that they thought Steve Reich’s The Desert Music to be the greatest orchestral (ok it has voices too) work of the last four decades. I went back to it and found it monumentally pretentious and, actually, quite dull. I’m probably wrong, but as Kermode himself would say: ’Other opinions are available.’ Mine matter too.
I realise I am maybe criticising others for something that I am guilty of myself; I am often quite cautious about criticising other composers in this blog. Actually I think this is probably right and proper. Whilst figures of the stature of Boulez and Reich can take care of themselves, this forum is a place for encouraging and supporting composers. And I don’t consider myself a critic. What I can’t help wishing, however, is that the real critics had a bit more Kermodian wit and verve. A livelier discourse might lead to a bit more enthusiasm about new music. In the meantime maybe it's incumbent on the rest of us to have and to share strong opinions about the music we listen too. We really don't have to like everything or, worse, pretend we understand everything. It’s time for us to have the courage to hate music.
Members may remember Sound and Music’s commissioning survey from last year, which received a fair amount of gloomy press coverage. My own reaction was a little more positive, though maybe a little contrary; I would, of course, like to see composers paid a lot more. Sound and Music is currently running the survey again, which should give the first hints as to whether the situation is growing worse or better.
On this year’s survey, Susanna Eastburn, Chief Executive of Sound and Music, says:
Being invited to create a new work (and being paid for it) is a vital part of life and income as a professional composer. Last year’s findings sent ripples of shock around the world as it revealed just how little most composers are being paid to create music. Without composers, there would be no music, so I very much hope that we see some signs of improvement.
Listening is core to Sound and Music’s vision and is at the heart of everything we do. This survey is an important way that we can listen to what composers tell us about the realities of their working lives so that we can better understand and advocate for them and their work. I urge any composer reading this to take a few minutes to complete the survey, and I thank them for their time.
Head over to Sound and Music to make your contribution.
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