Harrison Birtwistle @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall

24 May 2012

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an evening with (Sir) Harrison Birtwistle, each piece prefaced by an interview/explanation from the Grand Old Man himself (78) in conversation with Tom Service. The pieces being:

  • Cortege
  • Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum
  • 5 Distances for 5 Instruments
  • In Broken Images (UK premiere)

I think I learned to take this sort of music when studying Webern about ten years ago. This taught me to open my ears to music beyond the thousand varieties of McFlurry represented by pop, rock, jazz etc; to think about each note, each musical moment, as a potentially isolated event in an acoustic field with no boundaries and no limits.

Once you begin to do that – once you relinquish the childish hankering for a key, a beat,  a tune – you can begin to understand each musical event in its own right, and begin to sense or understand other kinds of ways in which they can be connected or disconnected. And that principle opens up the world of contemporary classical music, the world whose offputting sound has dominated the last hundred years of ‘serious’ music.

There’s no denying it’s hard to listen to, and easy to tune out of but, like parenting or gardening, what you get back directly correlates to the amount of effort you’re prepared to put in. Like learning a new sport or computer program, it’s challenging for a while, until you suddenly ‘get it’, crack it,  and begin to operate inside the game, not outside looking in.

In an era when pop music has been Cowellised within an inch of its life, or so technologically democratised that anyone can start a band and post on YouTube their tired copies of the look, sound and swagger of the three or four generations of bands which came before them, music like this is refreshingly difficult. Rebarbative. Not designed by computer and tested on focus groups to be aural ice cream, mass manufactured to touch as many pleasure points as possible, all the while maximising a record company’s ROI; or to satisfy some kids’ fantasy of being Mick and Keef.

It can’t be repackaged, resold, set to an advert, used in a film or TV show, or exploited in any of the other ways our culture has developed to push our buttons and make us endlessly shallowly consume, consume, consume. Difficult, sui generis, isolated, it speaks of another place, somewhere weird and unsettling, not at all designed for our listening comfort, not available as a download for our convenience, nor prepackaged for our advert-length attention spans.

As in all Birtwistle the element of ritual was strong. In ‘Cortege’ 10 of the 14 instrumentalists take it in turn to get up from their seats and come to the front to do a brief intense solo, before another one arrives beside them; then soloist A went and sat in soloist B’s seat, giving a solemn processional affect. At the end the flautist went round to each of the musicians bidding them play their last notes. ‘Harry’ explained beforehand that he imagined the musicians laying flowers, but what on and why, remained mysterious.

He was funny. For a man of 78 he had great comic timing, repeatedly upstaging the eloquent exuberance of the man asking the questions, chubby Tom Service, the Guardian’s music critic. The most illuminating thing he said was that he thought of himself as a 1910 Modernist, and compared himself to Braque and Picasso’s cubism, then explained how the Carmen is made of disparate blocks of music, sections or units, harshly juxtaposed with no bridging passages. A sort of musical cubism, but which also made me think of the 1960s ‘Brutalist’ architecture of the building we were sitting in, part of the South Bank Centre, its great chunks of concrete assembled without softness or compromise.

Tastes change, but the costiveness of this music doesn’t. Harry is, arguably, the greatest living English composer, the musical equivalent of David Hockney. Yet the QEH was half empty. 99% of the people in his own country have never heard of him and never will.

Harrison Birtwistle – Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum on YouTube

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: