On the Importance of a Unique Voice

Today is John Cage’s birthday, a composer whose music I find myself turning to more and more as I get older, a composer who devoted so much of his work to questioning our assumptions about music, and a composer who has made me ponder one of the mysteries of my own response to music.

Over the years I have unconsciously developed a test for whether a composer is worthy of my further attention or not: Does he or she have an individual voice that marks them out from others? You can use this test with music of any period old or new, and indeed it can be extended to other genres of music such as jazz, though then I normally ask the question of the performer rather than the composer. I am picking my words carefully. Worthy of further attention is not the same as like. There are plenty of composers whose music passes that test, and who are undoubtedly important in the history of music, but where I struggle to say that I enjoy them. Liszt, Rossini and Verdi for example. Equally there are minor composers who do not have that special something, but who have written at least some pieces that I enjoy regardless. Guilty pleasures such as Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphonyand d’Indy’s Symphonie sur un Chant montagnard français.

Musicians and others more expert than I am can probably explain why Mozart has a different voice from Haydn, Schubert from Schumann, Shostakovich from Prokofiev, but from years of listening I think that I have a good ear for identifying the composer when it is a piece that I don’t know. Sometimes of course you get other clues. Once when driving I turned on the radio and found myself in the middle of a violin concerto that was clearly mid-twentieth century and probably Russian (or Soviet anyway) but wasn’t one that I knew and therefore I could rule out Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The soloist was evidently brilliant but the recording quality less so and perhaps dated from the late 50s early 60s. Adding those facts together surely it had to be David Oistrakh? So, I asked myself, what other composers were there that Oistrakh championed? Khatchachurian? Correct on both accounts as it turned out, though I think I might have been lucky.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with John Cage, seen by many as the ultimate avant-garde crazy composer of silent pieces, chance operations and general wackiness? I have listened to a lot of Cage over the years, both on CD and in concert, and what has struck me is that he is an example of a composer with a unique voice (or perhaps several different voices) even though in some of his music – particularly the music that involves chance elements – his stated aim has been to remove the composer from the music and to allow the sounds to exist independently from the composer’s ego. That is the mystery for me. Even when Cage uses the most extreme aleatoric elements, such as using the I Ching, star maps, or even flaws in manuscript paper to derive the notes, it still ends up sounding like John Cage. How can that be?

One of my favourite Cage discs is a CD of vocal works performed by Paul Hillier and his Theatre of Voices. The main work is the haunting Litany for the Whale which gives the disc its title and which could be enjoyed by anybody who likes the music of Arvo Pärt or John Tavener. The track I enjoy the most though is Experiences #2 which is one of the more misleading titles in music, giving the impression of a difficult obscure over-complicated piece when the reality is very different. Experiences #2 is an exquisite setting for solo voice of an e.e. cummings poem, highly modal, sung with very little vibrato, and with an almost folk-like melody. So why does it sound like Cage and nobody else? I don’t know though perhaps it is the extended silences between the musical phrases that gives it away.

The Value of Persistence (Again)

I’ve written before about the importance of persistence and never giving up, and yet I still sometimes forget about it.

Last year I put in an enormous amount of effort into writing a story that needed to be set on the North West coast of England. Not a part of the world I knew particularly, but the setting was a requirement for submission to a planned anthology. It took me quite some time to come up with a story idea, set in Morecambe, one that I could latch onto and thought that I could do justice. A first draft appeared and a friend read it and said: “It’s very good Graeme, but it reads as if you have never been to Morecambe.”

It was a salutary reminder that you can’t learn everything about a place from Google Images. So I took myself off to Morecambe, walked the back streets, poked my head down alleyways, and the second draft was so much better. Thrilled with it I submitted the story, quietly confident of acceptance. Well, reasonably hopeful anyway – so much so that the subsequent rejection was more than a little disheartening.

But once that initial despair had died down, I didn’t give up and thanks to the wonderful people at Litro Online “A Love of Numbers” found a home. Enjoy it here if you’d like to read it and tell me what you think. Was I right to persevere?

A Love of Numbers

Anne-Sophie Mutter

Listening to Anne-Sophie Mutter play Penderecki’s second violin concerto – Metamorphosen – with the LPO at Bridgewater Hall last night caused me to reflect on issues of change and consistency.

Let’s deal with the change first: the shift in Penderecki’s music from the mid-1970s and in turn my own reaction to his later music. I loved Penderecki’s early pieces from works like Threnody, and De Natura Sonoris to the first Symphony, and the excitement of those thrilling scores. I couldn’t understand – felt betrayed almost – by his shift to a kind of hyper late romantic post-Shostakovich style, more or less from around the first violin concerto of 1976-1977. It just seemed dark and boring. But over the years, perhaps with greater familiarity, perhaps just my getting older and (hopefully) more mature, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of these pieces, and the wonderful handling of the orchestra, especially in Metamorphosen and particularly when played as well as it was by the LPO. If anything, it is now the earlier works that seem a little superficial.

More importantly though, what struck me most was Anne-Sophie herself. The brilliance of her playing was never going to be in doubt, that was a given. She followed the concerto with a Bach encore so exquisite that it had me not wanting to breathe lest I disturb her, and I can think of few musicians of her calibre who have been so committed to the cause of contemporary music, but it was the consistency of her approach to music that registered most strongly. I was a student when I first saw her play as a teenager, when Karajan brought the Berlin Phil to Oxford, and because she started so young I almost feel like she’s been around forever (when in fact she’s two years younger than me). There’s no shortage these days of brilliant young violinists, but that connection to Karajan links her to a different age. An age before the mediocrity of the present day; a time before the obsession with diversity and inclusivity, and the false god of cultural relativism. A world before talent shows designed for the curse of attention deficit, and before BBC arts and culture descended to the level of ‘journeys’ and soundbites.

With Anne-Sophie Mutter you know that what matters above all is the music and that everything else should be subservient to the art itself. A seriousness of purpose so often missing in the shallow waters of the quotidian inanities of life.

The Perfect Combination

What is it about the string quartet? Why is a form that is so intimately linked to the history of music, so tied to the greats of the past, still so popular with composers today? The symphony is now a rare beast, even the concerto is often written almost apologetically, and yet the string quartet – which for the general public may represent almost the quintessence of classical form – seems to go from strength to strength.

I’ve wondered about this before, but the question came back to me the other night after hearing a performance of Jörg Widmann’s Fourth Quartet (out of five), but also having seen that James Dillon’s Eighth had just been premiered, as had Rebecca Saunders’ “Unbreathed” to great acclaim. Nor do you have to look far to find other examples: the ten quartets of Peter Maxwell Davies, Wolfgang Rihm’s thirteen and counting (I’m writing this listening to his Third Quartet), and it doesn’t make much difference what particular style or aesthetic the composer comes from, Philip Glass and Brian Ferneyhough don’t have much in common except for fine string quartets.

Part of the answer must lie in practicalities, in cost and economy. A string quartet is more likely to be played than something written for a hundred-strong symphony orchestra; it’s more easily transportable, more easily fitted in to a regular concert programme (the Widmann I heard was sandwiched between Haydn and Tchaikovsky). Another reason surely is the commitment to new music by many quartets, especially younger quartets who have followed the example set by the indefatigable Ardittis (the Kronos having in my view taken the wrong path with their move into world music): Quatour Diotima, Minguet Quartett, and the Heath Quartet are just the first names to come to mind.

But there must be more to it than that. Perhaps it’s linked to another question: Why the string quartet and not the string trio? The trio is too simple and the difference that the second violin makes is remarkable, leading to the perfect combination and balance allowing for complexity and clarity, add a second viola or cello and the balance is lost again.

Unless of course your name is Mozart or Schubert.

The Value of Persistence (or Taking the Hint)

It is such a cliché: If at first you don’t succeed… We’ve all been given the same advice – don’t give up, keep trying, persevere, and so on. Easy to say when you’re the one giving the advice, not so easy when you’re on the receiving end of repeated rejections.

Twice I entered the Ilkley Literature Festival Short Story Competition and was excited to be short-listed only to have my hopes dashed with not so much as a Highly Commended. How could the judge be so blind to my obvious talents? So, come 2017 and I am in two minds – do I either give it one last go or abandon my efforts completely? Well, you can guess the answer, I don’t just give it a go, I decide to go in all guns blazing and enter three stories, taking the view that the more tickets you buy the better your chances of winning the lottery. And I did, sort of anyway. Two of the three were short-listed, and one of those two pieces (though not the one that I liked the most!) ended up with third prize.

So I was thrilled right? Perhaps. A bit. But then the nagging doubts crept in again. Third-place? After all that effort is that the best I can do? And if it is, then what’s the point of continuing? Another rejection came in for a project I’d worked very hard on. Perhaps I’ve reached the summit of my ability, I’m not going to go any further and I’d be better off spending my time watching daytime TV. I don’t know, I’m still in the same two minds. I can hear my father’s voice telling me not to be so stupid and to keep trying, but taking the hint from multiple rejections is very tempting.

André Cluytens: In memoriam

We all know how unreliable childhood memories can be. Those remembered long hot summers when in fact it rained all the time; those happy family holidays when we have wiped from our memory the arguments and bickering. And the books, music and TV programmes of our youth? How often do they live up to our recollection of them? Hardly ever.

Starting to grow my record collection as a schoolboy in the 1970s, I was constrained by the limitations of pocket money that over a few years ranged from £1 per month to £3 – partly depending on a highly complex algorithm designed by my father that linked financial rewards to school grades. I used to get the money on a Friday evening, and then by Saturday lunchtime it had been spent in the local record shop (remember those?). This meant one LP a month that had to be chosen carefully to get the most out of my limited resources; make a bad choice and I was stuck with a lemon and a whole month to wait before I could buy anything else. And they weren’t cheap, not in real terms compared with today. With a new full-price LP costing around £2.99 – going up to £3.25 for a Deutsche Grammophon release (you had to pay extra for that smart yellow label with the tulip crown) – I needed really kind teachers to afford anything other than the budget labels such as EMI’s Classics for Pleasure, which is where I discovered André Cluytens’ Beethoven. Not that I knew or cared who André Cluytens was, I just wanted to buy some Beethoven symphonies.

With the original LPs long lost, I can’t say with certainty which I bought, but they definitely included the Eroica, Pastoral and the Seventh – all from his Berlin Philharmonic cycle recorded in the late 50s right at the beginning of the stereo era (and interestingly that means it’s the Berlin Phil pre-Karajan). A warm memory of those recordings has stayed with me over the last 40 years, recordings that first enabled me to really get to know Beethoven. So it was with a little trepidation that I recently bought the symphonies again on CD (about £10 for the set – how times have changed), and with no little joy to discover that in this case my memory was correct. They still give enormous pleasure all these years later, even with a CD collection that includes complete cycles by the likes of Furtwängler, Brüggen, Rattle, Gardiner, Abbado, and Böhm, as well as countless individual recordings. They are immensely civilised performances, no suggestion of a Cluytens style or sound, he simply lets the music be itself, and even the recorded sound is better than many later recordings.

André Cluytens died fifty years ago this month. The teenage me didn’t know him from Adam, and he’s still not really remembered in the same way as someone like, say, Fritz Reiner, but he should be.

On the embarrassment of being late to the party

Discovering a new writer or artist, or at least someone new to you, can be a wonderful experience. This is particularly enjoyable when they are starting out on their career. For me this happened with the music of John Adams. This led to a period of discovery, travelling whenever I could to wherever a piece of his was being played. What made it more special still was that at that time John Adams was known to only a few of us; a secret pleasure shared only by a few initiates.

The other side of the coin is when you “discover” someone who is already famous. Recently I’ve been asking myself: How on earth have I never before read anything by Penelope Lively? Even then my discovery came by accident, I intended to read something by Penelope Fitzgerald. Instead, getting my Penelopes confused, I took out from the library Penelope Lively’s How it All Began. But what joy did I find. What wonderful, unforced eloquence. What deep sympathy, empathy with her characters; even for those who on the face it don’t deserve it. How can a hand on a knee be imbued with such an emotional charge? If you’ve read the book, you’ll know whose hand and whose knee I mean. If you haven’t read it, then go and get a copy.

I really am embarrassed. I consider myself reasonably well-read, and yet here is someone who was scarcely a name to me before, writing with such humanity. The only consolation I have is that instead of having to wait two years for another book to come out, I can straight away start to read all her earlier work.