Farewell to an era

There’s a line in Robert Altman’s movie “A Prairie Home Companion” where Virginia Madsen – playing the angel Asphodel dressed in a white trench-coat – comforts a bereaved woman by reminding her that the death of an old man is not a tragedy.

I had to remind myself of those words last week with the death of Harrison Birtwistle. He was 87 and after a rich and fulfilling life his death was not a tragedy, and yet it seemed one to me. I felt as if a huge figure in my life had gone. His music was amongst the first that I came to know when I started exploring the world of contemporary music back in the late 1970s early 80s: Verses for Ensembles, Punch & Judy, The Triumph of Time and perhaps above all The Mask of Orpheus (how I adore that opera and how I hated the 2019 ENO production). Others can express better than I can the combination of intellectual rigour coupled with a physicality, a visceral quality that was all his own and yet with a lyrical aspect that was all too often overlooked.

But perhaps what hits home the most is that his death in many ways feels like the end of an era. Norman Lebrecht referred to “the death of Britain’s last great composer”, and while I am sure he was as usual being deliberately provocative, and I hope that he is wrong, there is a glimmer of truth in this and it’s not just in the UK. Birtwistle was of the generation that gave us Boulez, Ligeti, Xenakis and Berio, all now gone. I love the likes of Glass, Reich, Adams and Pärt, but let’s face it, they’re no spring chickens. I hope that it’s not just my advancing years speaking when I say that I don’t find their counterparts among today’s composers, talented though they may be. There are plenty of people writing fluent, enjoyable music, but few with any strong sense of identity and with such a strong personal voice.

I worry. I worry that this is a reflection of today’s world where there seems to be a reaction against high art, where elite is a dirty concept and shallow ideas rule over depth and intellect. So, I worry, but in the meantime all I can do is to enjoy the legacy that Birtwistle left for us.

Sleep. Perchance to listen.

Sleep. Perchance to dream.

There are of course plenty of pieces of music where sleep is an unintended, unwanted consequence, and let’s be honest it’s happened to all of us at one time or another, but with Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep it is the objective. Described as an eight-hour lullaby when it was premiered in 2015 at the Wellcome Collection library in London – as part of an exhibition devoted to the science of sleep I recall – the audience had beds and sleeping bags. The recording of that premiere was broadcast again on BBC Radio 3 the night of Saturday into Easter Sunday morning, in response to lockdown-anxiety, and broadcast in many other countries over the same weekend. I knew more or less what to expect from the one hour extracts available on the from Sleep disc but I had never heard the whole piece, so that night I decamped to the spare bedroom (for the sake of marital harmony) with a Bluetooth speaker.

It is possible to read about how Max Richter worked with neuroscientist David Eagleman, to learn about how the music references sleep patterns, about how the pitch spectrum was chosen to bring the listener into a womb-like state, but that all falls away in the face of the sheer sensual beauty of the music. The subtle interplay between the live musicians (piano and keyboards, five string players, and the ethereal soprano of Grace Davidson) and electronics was such that at times I wasn’t even sure which I was listening to, and the transitions as one section segued into the next…blissful.

I didn’t want to fall asleep, so gorgeous was the music I wanted to keep listening, but after an hour or two I inevitably did and the music worked its way into my dreams. I woke a couple of times during the night and when I did I felt a sense of extreme contentment, lying in bed bathed in this magical sound world and knowing that other people across the country were doing just the same.

Sleep. Perchance to listen.

On Bruckner, Writing, and Self-Confidence

I never expected there to be a connection between the music of Anton Bruckner and my writing, but somehow the two have come together in the last few days.

I hated Bruckner in my youth, but in my mid-years he has become more and more important to me. I might even go as far as to say that he is a composer I really couldn’t live without. But this isn’t going to be about his music, wonderful though it is, but about artistic self-confidence – something he famously lacked.

In addition to the canon of nine symphonies that I love, there are two others that until recently I hadn’t heard at all. Bizarrely, they are known as the Symphony No.00 and Symphony No.0. The “00” is a student work – though Bruckner was such a late-starter that in this case “student” means 39 years old, which is another story – it’s enjoyable and interesting for Bruckner lovers, but it’s the background to the “0” that struck a chord with me (pun intended).

It should really have been his second symphony, completed in its final form after his first, but he was so disheartened by a single negative comment from the conductor Otto Dessoff that he withdrew the symphony completely. Bruckner scratched out the “No.2” in the score replacing it with the German “annulirt”, cancelled. These days it’s known as the “Nullte” – the Zero.

Bruckner was so lacking in self-confidence, so doubtful of his own talent, that all it took was one negative comment. Just one comment, that was enough. But he never destroyed the score and the symphony was finally played in 1924. And it’s terrific music, not perhaps in the same league as his later mature symphonies but well worth playing and hearing.

So, what has this to do with my writing? Well, the day after failing to win a competition I had high hopes with, it’s a reminder that critics and judges are not always right, and that to have belief in your own writing is one of the most important things any writer (or artist) must have.

I don’t want any of my stories to be published decades after my death under the title “The Cancelled Stories”.

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.

Avoiding ossification

A first post in my new blog. Sometimes I will be talking about music, sometimes writing, sometimes…who knows? This one though is definitely music.

This year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has just come to an end. The 39th Festival no less. I first went to HCMF back in the mid-1980s when it was run by Richard Steinitz. One year there was a memorable visit by John Cage, another time a young John Adams. The likes of Xenakis, Berio and Birtwistle featured prominently, and I remember showing Arne Nordheim the way to the Town Hall one night when he was lost. Composers who I think of as being absolute masters of the late twentieth century. Then in 1993 I moved abroad not to return until 2010 and when I started going back to Huddersfield I found that it had changed. Or at least so it seemed.

Instead of the Big Names of contemporary music, composers likely to be featured by the BBC at the Proms for example, there was more of an emphasis on the extreme fringes of the avant-garde. Composers I had never even heard of such as Rebecca Saunders and Georg Friedrich Haas. Music that often lived in the space where contemporary classical music (for want of a better term) met experimental jazz and improvisation. And I have to admit that at first I was disappointed: Where were the heroes of my youth? And then, even more alarmingly, I started to worry that as I was growing older my tastes were starting to ossify. Although my wife thinks that I listen to “strange music”, it seemed to me that too many of the concerts were too strange even for me.

So, realising that perhaps the fault lay with me and not the music, I went to a lunchtime concert featuring the Australian group Elision and composers I didn’t know, and where I was (almost literally – it was very loud) blown away by Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries for 2 trumpets with clarinet, saxophone, trombone, contrabass, lap-steel guitar and multi-channel electronics. A composer who I had never heard of writing music of visceral power, played with stunning virtuosity by the two solo trumpets. Highly dissonant, and yet the spirit of free jazz (Ornette Coleman an influence on the music) never seemed too far away.

In short it was wonderful (as was Rebecca Saunders’ Skin in another concert) and it reminded me of the importance of taking a chance on things, and keeping open ears and an open mind. No matter how old you are.