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.

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.