Went to the Brian Ferneyhough Total Immersion day at the Barbican yesterday, though it was more of a toe dipping than the full baptismal effect as I only went to the string quartet concert and the talk in the afternoon. This is part of my (cunning) plan to try and listen more to things I think I don’t like – last year I was really taken with a Morton Feldman piece at the Proms, an epiphanic moment, largely courtesy of Howard Skempton who had put me in an empathetic frame of mind beforehand.
It is so often the case that going to an arts event of any kind with a friend who likes something that you don’t can be a very enlightening experience – I always remember going to an exhibition of Léger (under duress) with a friend who filled me full of excitement for a painter I thought I didn’t like. It is particularly true for performers who get to love something they started off hating through having to perform it. When I was in the BBC Singers, it happened over and over again – start of the week ‘what is this bollocks?’ – end of the week ‘y’know, this piece has got something about it…’ But it was also true that music which was wonderful to perform sometimes was mystifyingly unsatisfying to listen to, and that was experience I’m afraid I always had of Birtwistle. And that was definitely my experience of the Ferneyhough Missa Brevis, thrilling and ultra challenging to perform and then sadly dry and uncommunicating to listen to.
So I thought I’d try again yesterday, with the benefit of two talks with Ferneyhough, one with Julian Anderson before the string quartets, and the other with Tom Service (sporting one white glove, slightly sinister!). I went to the event with Elizabeth Winters, who some of you will know is a gifted composer, and writes music very unlike my own. We were both struck forcibly by the Barbican audience, which I would say was 90% men – in the second talk, the packed audience had 8 women in it, I counted them. I found this very distracting. After all, if you went to a Sofia Gubaidulina or Unsuk Chin Total Immersion Day, you would be staggered and unsettled to see an audience that was 90% women. It was hard not to feel that we were intruding, that we had stumbled into the Barbican Chapter meeting of train spotters, or a reunion of 1970’s bikers. I am joking, it was a bit smarter than, but you get the point.
It was also really striking how dense and impenetrable the language of the talks was: if some curious music loving couple had wandered in, attracted by the trail on the Today programme (not!!), thinking they’d give it a go, I don’t believe that they would have understood a word of the first talk, and very little of the second. There was an air of uncompromising intellectualism that was giving no quarter. A question like ‘what was your childhood in Coventry like?’ was definitely off limits!! The only hint of anything personal came when Ferneyhough talked briefly about being in a brass band, an intriguing piece of info, but Tom Service’s lip visibly curled, and we soon got back to super-heated fragments again.
Maybe Ferneyhough’s long hair had something to do with it, but I felt very much that the whole thing was like being at a Victorian meeting of a scientific society, where nothing emotional (God forbid!) was going to be mentioned, nothing personal. It was all strangely antiquated, dusty and arid. The thing you needed to know about Ferneyhough before listening to his music was that he had read Adorno in the original German. And, you know, it was a shame, because Ferneyhough himself was not pretentious in the least. I had an unpleasant memory of what it was like to be a woman composer in the 70s, like you were the indulged eccentric in the family being allowed to sit and listen with the grown-ups, as long as you didn’t try and say anything. Obviously and thankfully, things have changed, but not on Planet Ferneyhough it would seem, where a world of music that is written by men and a culture that only expresses the male libido, is taking its last stand.
Have been listening to a lot of Prokofiev lately, especially the piano sonatas and realised that I knew very little about his life. So I’m enjoying the Life and Times book on him by Thomas Schipperges. He gives you a paragraph’s description of Social Realism, which at its initial launch in 1934 at the Soviet Writer’s Conference, laid down its crass ideas that pessimism was anti-social (goodbye Eastenders!) and that music should be hummable and in major keys.
The book adds that a similar dictum was laid down by Irving Thalberg (1899-1936), the Hollywood producer, who in the 1930s sent the following memo to resident composers: ‘from the above date forward, no music in an MGM film is to contain a minor chord.’ This memo was still bolted to the wall 25 years later, when composers such as André Previn were there.
Thalberg died very young, having suffered from heart disease all his life, and that sharp sense of his own mortality may have affected his ability to cope with sad music! (I’m being kind, because personally I always think that people who don’t write music should leave the decisions up to those who do). Now I want to see Thalberg’s movies to see how many minor chords the composers managed to get past him! I am reminded of writing a piece for a male voice choir: I knew they were very limited in their abilities, so I decided to write a piece with no discords in it. I tried to make it sound strange and keep some tension going without introducing any dissonances. I found this so challenging and engrossing that I put No Discord Series No. 1 on the front page, thinking I would do more. The score was sent off and after a long pause came back: the choir was unable to perform the piece as there were ‘too many discords!’ Obviously, no-one had looked too closely at the title page, but it was more that (I felt) the newness of the music had brought its own discord into their lives. I wonder how many minor chords MGM’s composers could get into their scores just by presenting them in a certain way. I’ve always found it moving that Mozart often writes his most painful music in major keys, as if the reminiscence of sweetness is unbearable. I wonder whether Irving would have heard that music as if in a minor key? Film music of that time sometimes does something similar – a particularly poignant scene is often accompanied by a saccharine tune like ‘Home Sweet Home’ which is somehow more tear-jerking than a sad melody.
Composers are often forced to reinvent their music to suit dictators and governments: they could leave as Stravinsky or Rachmaninoff did, and Prokofiev did leave for a while. But he came back to Russia, for subtle and complex reasons no-one has ever quite been able to fathom. Other composers manage to stay afloat and stay unique despite the politics – Thomas Tallis springs to mind. I wonder what I would do in such threatening circumstances?
Back in the 70’s, I was told that my music needed to be ‘forced into a modern idiom,’ even though I was writing far more difficult and dissonant music than I write now. I felt very threatened by the atmosphere of that music world, and totally outside it, but my life was not threatened and so I had an easy choice to keep doing my own thing, rather than toeing the party line. Now it is as if the coin as been flipped right over, for now we often read in what music commentary there is these days, that new music should try harder to be accessible, that composers have a duty to write music that people like. In other words, that is hummable and without any anti-social pessimism! This has been going on for some time, and back in the previous century I went to a debate – I remember Roger Scruton was speaking – about how new music should be nicer. He didn’t say that of course, but he wanted keys and melodies, and I presume that he is a much happier man now. It has been a peculiarly English revolution, bloodless in more ways than one. We love foreigners, so we have swopped Boulez for Eric Whitacre. Conformity is the name of the game, whether it is the enforced atonality of my student days, or the holy wallpaper or quasi pop of today, it is in its own way a kind of oppression – oppression that has to be resisted. My personal motto has always been that all anyone can ask of me is that I tell the truth as I see it.
As is well known, Stalin died one hour after Prokofiev, they even died of the same thing. Prokofiev’s death was barely mentioned in the newspapers and there were no flowers at his funeral, due to the total hysteria over Stalin’s death. However, ten years later, Prokofiev’s anniversary was front page news, while Stalin’s was only celebrated in Georgia.
Last night I watched the first night of the Proms on the television, Mahler 8, always the most stunning of Proms openers. It has a special value for me as it reminds me of when I first came down to London as a music student. I joined the BBC Choral Society and the first First Night I did with them was Mahler 8, in 1971, when I was 19. Now the BBC has a Proms archive website (www.bbc.co.uk/proms/archive
) so I was able to look it up. It had an all British line up, unlike last night, with an all un-British line up of soloists, and one of the choirs from Sydney. The Proms is no longer seen just as a showcase of British talent, - whether that’s good or bad I can’t decide.
That 1971 Prom, with my first experience of singing in front of a huge audience, has become one of those reference points that all musicians have – the first time I heard ... the most wonderful performance of... the moment I realised that...we can all recall them. Afterwards, I had one of those teenage feelings of wanting to commit suicide in order to prolong and enshrine the total ecstasy that the world-embracing ending induces – in me at any rate! Now, I have often heard people affect a kind of distaste for Mahler 8, saying it is the weakest of the symphonies, or that it is a sea of kitsch. It’s often the case that once a choir is involved, people who think of themselves as intellectual start to curl a bit at the edges, and that is a view often heard in orchestras, - players who don’t like ‘working with amateurs.’ The fact that it is actually a hard sing, especially in the wilder harmonic moments of the first movement is not generally appreciated except by the people who sing it.
On Facebook the other day there was a brief interchange about Ligeti, and somebody said that he was ‘too musical’ as compared to say, Xenakis. I didn’t want to add to this discussion: I often worked with Ligeti when I was in the BBC Singers, and he was the most human of composers – often really charming, sometimes volatile and bad tempered. We always liked working with him though, and his music has a wonderful range that encompasses stuff that can be done by amateur choirs as well as the hardest of pro singer stuff. I have very good memories of him and of performing his music. I have to say that it did strike me as the height of pretentiousness to say that Ligeti was ‘too musical.’ What on earth does that mean? Can a composer be too musical, or not musical enough? Is that a matter of taste? Or snobbery? Or analysis? The ending of Mahler 8, with a pantechnichon of trumpets playing that staggering Eflat, Bflat, top C motif is certainly ‘very musical,’ in the sense that it goes utterly beyond words in its effect. It has gone into a place of extreme self sacrifice, where the intellect no longer has much sway over its cosmic spirituality. It is no longer pointing itself at the music world and its tendency to bitchy analysis, but towards the mass of people who can bathe in it, immerse themselves in it and emerge like born again humanity. At the end of my 1971 performance, the roar of the applause at the end seemed to shockingly complete a circle, in a way that was beyond analysis but forever seared into the musical memory.
The first time I went to Italy I was staying out in the Tuscany countryside, and being interested in bird watching, was surprised by how quiet the Italian countryside is. In Britain we’re used to a constant background sound of birds, in town gardens as well as in the woods or by the sea. In Tuscany it was common to hear the sound of guns in the distance and the fruits of their labours turned up on the restaurant menus, though I never saw larks’ tongues or blackbird pie! But every year thousands of small brown birds are shot in Italy and Greece, many of them en route for northern Europe. To me, it seems barbaric and ignorant, and here, the shooting of eagles or birds of prey will find its way into the newspapers, as well as the theft of eggs. The RSPB has over a million members, and it seems obvious now to protect bird life and cherish it. Yes, there are still plenty of people who like to shoot birds here, but we have civilised laws that stop them from wiping out whole species as has happened before.
I was watching the TV the other night and hating that stupid Dove moisturiser ad ‘I’m a man!’ using the William Tell overture as music. Really, there is no way anyone can listen to the William Tell overture now and access what it was originally intended to say. I am old enough to still think of the Lone Ranger when I hear it, but it has officially become a joke piece. If you hear the whole overture you can still dimly perceive some unique meaning, but unless you care you’re unlikely to know that Rossini did a cutting edge thing – made a political statement even -by introducing Italian folk music into classical opera. There are quite a few pieces of classical music now that have more or less lost their depth of meaning – whole chunks of Carmen and Tchaikovsky, the Hallelujah chorus and Zadok the Priest, and most sadly, the tenor voice, which is drip drip drip being turned into a joke voice by the media and pop music. Viz the Go Compare ad. On telly at the moment you have The Queen of the Night aria advertising Haribo sweets, the humming chorus from Madame Butterfly for Asda (why??) and the Barber Adagio over or under a burnt Warburton’s loaf. More and more classical music is being seen as a virtually free resource in a costly industry. Want to have a poignant moment in a historical drama? Stick in Nimrod. Want a noble patriotic tune? Why not have the big tune from Holst’s Jupiter. Stick in a bit of classical music just to give something the aura of sophistication. Or, frighteningly, to make a joke of culture. The trouble is, this music may come free in financial terms, but the cost is enormous. A piece of classical music is not owned by anyone (however much they may try), but is a work of art for the individual to experience in their own way. By attaching it to an image, especially the trashy images of advertising, you devalue, even debase the vocabulary of the music, and make it virtually impossible for anyone to have an individual experience of it without the image of a loaf of bread or a chocolate bar popping up. The piece of music with all its unique meaning, is lost to that person, even to a generation. Like the bird world, there are always plenty of people happy to savage and despoil without thought, either from idiotic and meaningless self indulgence, or from simple greed. Like the birds, once you protect them, it seems an obvious thing to do, and impossible to live without.
I think it is time to list classical music in the same way that buildings are listed. I really believe that it should not be possible to use classical music for commercial purposes. I would make it (if I ruled the world) illegal to use listed music for ads, for films, for any kind of background or commercial music. I think it needs time to recover, and I think people need to see its value and that the classical music world values it. Of course, you can knock a building down and it is gone, and I remember the shock of seeing that happen in a way that it could not now happen. A piece of music cannot be knocked down in that way, but its possibilities, deep and unfathomable, can be taken away from you for your lifetime, for no more reason than that somebody wants to make more money from their product. As a child, I used to laugh with the rest of my family at the Hamlet cigar ads, which used, famously, the Air on a G string, by Bach. Even the title of the piece made us laugh. Now it makes me almost want to cry that I cannot listen to this music, this spiritual music, without thinking of those ads. Nobody can give me back the clear head space I need to hear this music in a fresh way. In some terrible way, the music has been murdered.
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.
The piece that he wrote straightaway after his father’s death, the Musical Joke, parodies bad composing, an astonishing thing to do just after Leopold’s death. Yet you never read anything to this effect, that this piece is almost like post-traumatic stress syndrome in action, music by turns childish, vicious and angry, painfully unfunny like the unwanted guest at a wake. It is even played as a piece of easy listening!
Maybe you think I am over-analysing, and after all, this is just my personal reaction, which is tinged with my own psychology. But I do think that the colossal mythologizing of Mozart that has gone on over the last 100 years or so has made it difficult to hear (or play) the fine gradations of feeling in his music, in any case, those feelings that do not conform to the cute wunderkind of legend, and the Salzburg Tourist Office. I remember the first time I heard Mozart played on period instruments, when the gut strings seemed to underline the unhappiness that lies at the core of the music, how I felt that he was a Lost Boy, and not the silly-ass of Amadeus.
As for composers who can genuinely reach a transcendental level of joy, the obvious choice is J.S. Bach, who makes a deliberate attempt to spiritually work through his ‘issues’ in his music. I can honestly say that I have never written anything joyous, and wonder what I would do if I was asked to write a piece on the subject of joy, or that was undilutedly joyous in nature. It would be an incredibly challenging commission for me. Maybe I am not ‘truly penitential’ enough yet!
It seems to have fallen to Radio 4 (rather than 3) to have informative and engaging programmes about classical music. The last one I heard was about the enduring power of ‘When I am laid in earth,’ by Purcell. Various bods were wheeled out to deliver their epiphanies and insights, and I have to say that I really enjoyed Alison Moyet’s gorgeous rendition, a fifth down – how much easier to do that tricky word ‘remember’ -normally on a top G! Everyone had their point of view, including the muso who declared it ‘the best melody of the 17th century!’ Does it irritate you as much as me when people create league tables and play off one unique work of genius against another? I shouted ‘shut up!’ at the radio.
What was absent from a composer’s point of view was just that – the composer’s point of view. To me, whatever a piece of music becomes, whatever peg the composer hangs it on, it always starts with the composer. Amongst all their sense of personal ownership, nobody seemed to wonder about Henry Purcell, the human being, and what his personal input had been into those 40 bars of exquisite pain. Could anyone doubt that he identified with Dido rather than the colourless Aeneas? This is not an idle point, for Aeneas is on a mission to create a new country, surely something a creative person might identify with, and yet it is Dido’s fragility and easy decline into early death that is drawn with such pain. I wondered why nobody mentioned the surely pertinent fact that Purcell was a child of 6 or so when the Great Plague hit London, and then the following Fire. And/or wondered whether Purcell, still a young man, had just experienced something similar by way of a rejection.
It is the vagueness of music and it being a non-verbal language that makes people take ownership of it, and elbow the person that was the composer out of the picture. This doesn’t seem to happen so powerfully in the visual arts and it certainly doesn’t happen with books or poetry. It is a wonderful thing to become totally engrossed in a piece of music. I like to binge on a particular piece, playing nothing else for days, - the music becomes subsumed into your existence like the first days of being in love. The downside of this is the ludicrous and depressing mythologizing of dead composers that goes on. If you believe that some God-given gift is at work then that rules out any influence from dreadful upbringings, or hot-housing parents. Let’s face it, living composers are nothing like the Jill and John picture of dead ones. You can have a pizza and a laugh with them, get irritated by them, owe them money, talk about mobile phone tariffs with them. They can sleep with your wife or have to go to AA.
Recently I read a brilliant book about Schumann by Peter Ostwald called Music and Madness, - a psychological study based on letters and diaries. I nearly laughed out loud to read that Schumann, as a young man, may have had a sexual relationship with William Sterndale Bennett. Immediately, the two young men seemed totally recognisable as people I know now, and I felt a tremendous rush of sympathy for them. It made me want to listen to some Sterndale Bennett as well.
How different to the repulsion I feel (and I seem to be alone in feeling)towards the latest biogs of composers on BBC4, by Christopher Nupen, in which a profoundly reverential tone is taken and the things which influence other people – ‘normal’ people – are ignored – stuff like alcoholism, or child abuse. Psychologically, they are 100 years out of date. Near the end of the Schubert episode, which seemed to be made up of one long close up of the pianist’s right hand (modern piano of course – nothing too real!), Nupen mentioned in a hushed voice that Schubert had contracted syphilis. Now I am shouting at the TV! – When, where, why?? But already he has moved on.
It is this ghastly attitude to dead composers that bedevils the lives of living ones. The lack of compassion towards their everyday existence, the lack of interest from the press as compared to the truly extraordinary interest there is in books and writers, the impoverishment that accompanies the lives of 90% of composers, is only enhanced by this romanticising of the dead. Living composers can only ever be a disappointment.
Friday night I went to a concert at the Bishopsgate Institute, that odd little tucked away venue in the heart of the City. The concert was Czech piano music played by William Howard and included some preludes and fugues by Pavel Zemek Novak, part of a huge piano work over an hour and a half long that William Howard has championed here.
There was a pre concert talk with David Matthews, an old pal of mine, and it was remembering his enthusiasm for Novak’s music that attracted me to the concert. Novak is very interesting, despite his very sober and rather shy appearance: he has a preoccupation with unison writing, and an interest in trying to erase dissonance both horizontally and vertically – he tried not to have the ‘melodic’ line travel in seconds or sevenths even.
The music is not without tension though, but has an unusual freshness and energy all of its own. Intriguing was the word that came into my mind. In the pre-concert talk I asked Novak what the music world in Czechoslovakia had been like after the war, given that so many musicians had died in Terezin or had fled the country. Did the composers that were left look back, or did they try and create something entirely new? Novak spoke very sympathetically (and with a lot of emotion) about two composers, Miloslav Ištvan, and Miloslav Kabelác who were subject to virtual house arrest by the Communists after the war, and not allowed to travel, nor have many performances.
I think I wasn’t alone in feeling a bit shame-faced that I hadn’t heard of them, or heard their music. He spoke with passion also about the different sorts of folk music in Czechoslovakia, and about national feeling. Afterwards I thought how different it is to live in a country that was not invaded, and how it has allowed us to be incredibly complacent about our own cultural identity. Can you imagine anyone ever asking me in a pre-concert talk about national identity? - I always feel that if I have used British folk music I have to be a bit apologetic, or risk looking either very conventional or worse, fascistic.
I wonder how we would feel about 20th century composers like say Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Britten, Tippett, or Malcolm Arnold, Elisabeth Lutyens, Elizabeth Maconchy et al if they had been carted off to death camps, or forced to leave everything behind and flee? The last time British composers came under any real threat was the Reformation, and their music has come to represent a kind of essential Englishness, and along with choral evensong it encodes an extraordinary national identity.
The other day some dimwit in a major newspaper talked about how few great composers Britain has produced, and was the usually disparaging idiot about contemporary music. When I was a student it was absolutely forbidden to like the sort of music known as ‘cow pat music,’ (a term coined by Liz Lutyens!) as if national identity was something to be utterly despised.
Then as now to some extent, professors in music colleges prefer a European model to a native one. We have no experience of what it would be like to lose our cultural exponents in the way most European countries have, and have become unbelievably careless with our own culture. Maybe one day it will all be taken away from us, and then we will talk, with tears in our eyes, like Novak, of the treasures we had and lost.
I am writing a piece at the moment, a singspiel, which is taken from a satirical story by Hoffman. Hoffman was satirising Napoleonic times with its delusions of grandeur and attendant subservient flunkeys – a universal theme if ever there was one! Although I have moved the story away from Napoleon, I feel that I want to keep one foot in the early 19th century, and so I am referencing Rossini a bit, and using one particular melody ‘Di tanti palpiti’ from Tancredi (for all you Rossini fans!) as a basic source material for the music.
This tune is a real ohrwurm. I do recommend that you look at the Wikipedia entry for earworm (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earworm) – it is amazing how much people have thought about tunes that get stuck in your head. And did you know that earworms should not be confused with ‘endomusia, a serious affliction, through which a sufferer actually hears music that is not playing externally.’ Hmm.
The brief for my singspiel was that the theme of the festival it’s in is Robert Schumann and mental health, and you may know that Robert Schumann had endomusia, and sometimes believed that angels were dictating pieces to him. But I wonder just where the dividing line is between hearing music in your head when you are composing and the serious affliction known as endomusia? I often wake up in the night and the piece I am writing is playing in my head, and I maybe even find it is solving a problem. (Sometimes I find it thinks it is solving a problem but it is not.) But whatever, I am always reassured that in the attic room that is my subconscious, work is being done while I (the drone) get to sleep.
History demonstrates that it seems to be important for a piece of music to be memorable in order for it to survive. But it is hard to define what memorability means. It doesn’t mean easy or hard, for something like the Rite of Spring is extremely memorable, both melodically and harmonically. When I was in the BBC Singers it was always interesting what stayed in your mind and what didn’t. We recorded all of Boulez’ choral works, and performed them many times and yet personally I could not sing you anything from any of them, or even properly recall them in the way that I can recall The Rite. Sometimes as soon as the rehearsal had finished, the music was gone and the reigning earworm whether it was by Reich, Radiohead or even me, would return as if it had simply been put on hold.
Pieces which have been heard only once but have impressed can be recalled months or years later in a sort of compressed memory chip, some aural image of them which has been retained. What it is that makes them memorable is not necessarily that they can be whistled, like Rossini, but that something about them is so important to us personally that we need to repeat the memory of them. Maybe our subconscious minds are sending us some sort of psychological message in the same way that I believe illness is a physical message. I realise that this is an unsatisfactory explanation! and would welcome everyone’s input. Meanwhile, I must get back to the serious affliction that is composing.
I am still reeling a bit from the British Composer Awards, held last Monday in case you didn't know. I was up for an award in the Choral category for Shakespeare Requiem, written for the Leeds Festival Chorus and the BBC Phil last year. It wrote it under the cloud of my brother's death so it held a special meaning for me. Having been at previous awards I knew better than to prepare a speech! Yes, superstitious. But I had a vague idea of what I might say if I won. The category before mine was Wind Band, and Adam Gorb, who won, said some kind words about Tim Reynish. If you haven't come across Tim, he is the superhero of wind bands and has personally commissiioned - well it might be hundreds of pieces for all I know, but he is a bit of an unsung hero in the wider music world. I thought that I would add some more words about him if I won. This was fatal as I was still thinking about this as I lost! Gabriel Jackson's piece The Spacious Firmament, which I've heard a few times now at JAM concerts, won, which was brilliant for him and very good news for JAM.
Don't let me go on about losing, I know I am neurotic. It is horrible though! Bad reviews are one thing, they may be public, but you can read them in the kitchen and then push them to the back of your mind. But losing in front of the music industry is another thing altogether. It has made me think a lot about the value of arts awards. All composers are acquainted with grief, to quote a seasonal piece, and spend their lives struggling to be recognised but also struggling with the work itself. I don't know about you but I think writing gets harder and harder. Any piece of art is unique, and it is surely folly to try and compare a piece of funky minimalism with some New Complexity utterance?
BASCA of course knows who has won each award. They say they don't tell the composers but it is not a well kept secret that some better known composers will not come unless they know, and who can blame them? Birtwistle lost 3 awards on Monday, he could hardly be expected to stand there with a smile on his face pour encourager les autres! There is definitely a temptation to say to Sarah Rodgers at the beginning 'we who are about to die salute thee, Caesar!' Obviously it is a lot more exciting to make the event competitive and a surprise, but it makes a very difficult experience for the composers, whether you win or lose. This isn't X Factor, nor is it the Oscars. Composers are not film stars, they don't earn vast amounts of money and public appearances on these occasions do not necessarily benefit them. Keep the surprise for the audience but just have the one winning award in each category - this would also give more time to talk about the piece and the commissioner. I would have liked JAM to have got a bit more publicity than it did, given its stellar work for new music. This evening should be celebrating new music and not BASCA.
And the standing! It was the topic of the evening and the next day, that standing for an hour and a half (in new shoes in my case!) is not good for you. A composer friend of mine said he had to take pain killers when he got home and was thinking of sueing! All the people at the back of the packed hall can't see and just chat and drink, while the rest of us hop from foot to foot. An already long evening this year had the addition of two new jazz pieces. For goodness sake BASCA, get real and book a theatre!
Concert Listings Today & Tomorrow: