Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence (1913)

Sons and Lovers was published in May 1913, making this its centenary year. It has become an antique. Experts can poke and prod it and speculate about its value. I wonder if anyone reads it for pleasure, as I just have. It is a wonderful, wonderful book. The pleasure comes in various forms and at different levels:

Subject matter There is not much plot. It is a coming-of-age novel, describing the childhood and young manhood of Paul Morel, the sensitive youngest of five children of Walter Morel, a rough coal miner in the Bestwood area north of Nottingham (a barely disguised description of the real townlet of Eastwood) and his more educated wife, Gertrude Morel. The first half of the book is everybody’s favourite, a wonderful evocation of childhood and adolescence in an innocent rural setting albeit in the shadow of the arguing parents; the second half is a little more familiar,describing how young man Paul’s unusual closeness to his mother hampers his (very naive) love affairs with two local women, his childhood sweetheart Miriam and an older married woman, Clara.

What makes it wonderful is the blunt poetic style which conveys the impassioned, heightened, intense perceptions of the author.

Attitude I think the key to Lawrence’s attitude and writing is he is fearless. In all sorts of ways he thought the English of his day were afraid – daunted by convention, good manners, politeness etc in life and in artistic forms (music, painting, literature). Shyness and embarrassment are the English watchwords to this day. But despite his frailty and illness Lawrence decided at an early age not to be afraid – to write what he felt and what he saw regardless of conventions, regardless of ‘good style’, of ‘solid construction’.

Abruptness and unpolishedness And so his short stories and this novel are made of vivid scenes describing people’s feelings and emotions with striking intensity; scenes which just start, with no polished introductions and just as abruptly end. From one point of view the text could almost be seen as a sequence of prose poems, moments of heightened intensity and perception:

When they got back to the house, Mr. Leivers and Edgar, the eldest son, were in the kitchen. Edgar was about eighteen. Then Geoffrey and Maurice, big lads of twelve and thirteen, were in from school. Mr. Leivers was a good-looking man in the prime of life, with a golden-brown moustache, and blue eyes screwed up against the weather. The boys were condescending, but Paul scarcely observed it. They went round for eggs, scrambling into all sorts of places. As they were feeding the fowls Miriam came out. The boys took no notice of her. One hen, with her yellow chickens, was in a coop. Maurice took his hand full of corn and let the hen peck from it.
“Durst you do it?” he asked of Paul.
“Let’s see,” said Paul.
He had a small hand, warm, and rather capable-looking. Miriam watched. He held the corn to the hen. The bird eyed it with her hard, bright eye, and suddenly made a peck into his hand. He started, and laughed. “Rap, rap, rap!” went the bird’s beak in his palm. He laughed again, and the other boys joined. (Chapter 6)

It’s a distinctive combination of plain vocabulary deployed in abrupt, stabbing sentences to convey a wonderful sense of heightened awareness of even the most banal, domestic moments.

Simple vocabulary DH achieves his affects, often very poetic in impact, with very simple vocabulary. He doesn’t have, for example, James Joyce’s phenomenal feel for language or deploy Henry James tortuous long sentences or Conrad’s verbose and opalescent lexicon. The impact doesn’t derive from the careful choice of sensual or stylised or onomatopoeic words. It derives from the driving forcefulness of the sensibility behind the words.

One evening in midsummer Miriam called at the house, warm from climbing. Paul was alone in the kitchen; his mother could be heard moving about upstairs.
“Come and look at the sweet-peas,” he said to the girl.
They went into the garden. The sky behind the townlet and the church was orange-red; the flower-garden was flooded with a strange warm light that lifted every leaf into significance. Paul passed along a fine row of sweet-peas, gathering a blossom here and there, all cream and pale blue. Miriam followed, breathing the fragrance. To her, flowers appealed with such strength she felt she must make them part of herself. When she bent and breathed a flower, it was as if she and the flower were loving each other. Paul hated her for it. There seemed a sort of exposure about the action, something too intimate. (Chapter 7)

It is a banal action – come and look at the flowers – but the nature description is breathtakingly confident – “The sky behind the townlet and the church was orange-red; the flower-garden was flooded with a strange warm light that lifted every leaf into significance.” – and it leads immediately, with no polite bridging passage or preparation, into statements of tremendous emotional intensity.

    Through the open door, stealthily, came the scent of madonna lilies, almost as if it were prowling abroad. Suddenly he got up and went out of doors.
The beauty of the night made him want to shout. A half-moon, dusky gold, was sinking behind the black sycamore at the end of the garden, making the sky dull purple with its glow. Nearer, a dim white fence of lilies went across the garden, and the air all round seemed to stir with scent, as if it were alive. He went across the bed of pinks, whose keen perfume came sharply across the rocking, heavy scent of the lilies, and stood alongside the white barrier of flowers. They flagged all loose, as if they were panting. The scent made him drunk. He went down to the field to watch the moon sink under. (Chapter 11)

Emotional intensity It is this fervour and earnestness which mark Lawrence out. Arguably in the first half of the book this intensity arises out of innocent and childish situations, and colours the predominantly rural settings, especially Paul’s frequent trips up to Willey Farm to see the Leivers family and slowly get closer to the youngest daughter, Miriam. Ie it is balanced with, and arises out of, natural description. Once Paul is a young man with a job in a stocking factory in Nottingham, the setting tends to be more urban and  lacks the rural context. I think it’s for this reason that most readers find the second half drier; there is more of the emotional intensity and it feels more unremitting:

    “You don’t want to love—your eternal and abnormal craving is to be loved. You aren’t positive, you’re negative. You absorb, absorb, as if you must fill yourself up with love, because you’ve got a shortage somewhere.”
She was stunned by his cruelty, and did not hear. He had not the faintest notion of what he was saying. It was as if his fretted, tortured soul, run hot by thwarted passion, jetted off these sayings like sparks from electricity. She did not grasp anything he said. She only sat crouched beneath his cruelty and his hatred of her. She never realised in a flash. Over everything she brooded and brooded. (Chapter 9)

Although he has a marvellous facility for writing wonderful natural descriptions at will, for Lawrence Nature is always embedded in human relations; or the Nature descriptions are never in their own right or a passive background; they are always intimately involved with the humans in the foreground, humans who are generally troubled. Miriam and Paul are arguing:

    “Let us sit here a minute,” said Miriam.
He sat down against his will, resting his back against the hard wall of hay. They faced the amphitheatre of round hills that glowed with sunset, tiny white farms standing out, the meadows golden, the woods dark and yet luminous, tree-tops folded over tree-tops, distinct in the distance. The evening had cleared, and the east was tender with a magenta flush under which the land lay still and rich.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she pleaded.
But he only scowled. He would rather have had it ugly just then. (Chapter 9)

Sex The second half of the book is pressed forward by young man Paul’s growing urge to have sex and sex he duly proceeds to have, first with Miriam then with Clara. In both places there is build up and then abruptly the afterglow. Presumably the scenes themselves were cut by Lawrence’s mentor and patron in the London literary world, Edward Garnett, who cut 10% of the text before it was published. Would be interesting to read the full, unexpurgated text…

Working class I read that subsequent English working class writers are in Lawrence’s debt, though this is a big subject: Did he affect genuine proletarian authors like Robert Tressell, Walter Greenwood, James Hanley and Lewis Grassic Gibbon – did he influence the kitchen sink dramatists of the 1950s and 60s – Osborne and Wesker and Delaney – did he influence the novelists of working class life –  of Stan Barstow, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe? Certainly the first half of the book is a sustained description of life in a mining family and that family obviously remains Paul’s homeland but a) it is never really a proletarian household since Gertrude Morel always has higher aspirations for her children and b) they go on to fulfil them: none of the Morel children remain in the working class ie work with their hands: the eldest son, William, goes on to make a very good living in an office in London.

Nostalgia This is a good text to teach because it is overflowing with definable and teachable “issues”: working class life, the growth of an artist, gender and feminism, the creation of personality etc etc. Beneath it all I think, for the reader in 2013, the most powerful aspect of the novel is one of nostalgia. The whole world of this book is lost forever. The cameraderie of men engaged in hard physical labour has gone; the closeness of town and country has gone; the untouched beauty of Nature has gone, ruined by cars and motorways – nobody would think of walking 12 miles from Nottingham city centre to an outlying village, and that the walk would be pleasant and scenic! – In a culture saturated by cars and screens and consumerist fantasies, the care and attention which all of Lawrence’s characters pay to the natural world, to flowers and birds, and to each others’ transient evanescent feelings and perceptions, is long long gone, as distant as ancient Rome.

And I think it’s for its wonderful depiction of a lost pre-lapsarian world that Sons and lovers remains so popular and so well-loved.

Eastwood now A DH Lawrence website by a local gives a useful sense of what the locale of Lawrence’s early years and the settings of ‘Sons and Lovers’ look like now and it looks pretty horrible, Not because of poverty or rundown but because it has been cleansed and destroyed by traffic, roads, roadsigns, kerbs and double yellow lines and street lights, all the clutter of 20th century life which Lawrence hated because it destroyed the sensuous experiences of sight and touch and smell.

Where there was a valley across which the Morel children could stare across at the Derbyshire hills by day, or over a deep bowl of darkness at night, now runs the busy A610, permanently illuminating the countryside for miles around with the dead orange glow which has destroyed so much of England; and in the other direction, off to the east runs the M1 raping the landscape. As he wrote in his 1928 essay, ‘Nottingham and the Mining Country’:

“The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely: the man-made England is so vile.”

Nothing in the English attitude has changed since 1928. But the condition of the condition of the landscape has got a lot lot worse. Where are the wild flowers? And what are we doing to the birds?

Full text of ‘Sons and Lovers’ on the University of Adelaide website

John Bayley review of the unexpurgated Sons and Lovers

David Herbert Lawrence about the time of Sons and Lovers

David Herbert Lawrence about the time of Sons and Lovers

Britten’s War Requiem @ the Royal Festival Hall

To the Royal Festival hall to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski with Evelina Dobraceva soprano, Ian Bostridge tenor, Matthias Goerne baritone and Neville Creed conducting the chamber orchestra. along with the London Philharmonic Choir and Trinity Boys Choir perform Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

It was premiered in 1962 at the opening of the new cathedral in Coventry, built on the ruins of the old one, demolished like half the city in a catastrophic German air raid.

Among requiems it is notable because Britten intersperses the texts of the Latin requiem (the Missa pro Defunctis) – the ones set by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and numerous other composers – with poems by the greatest poet of the Great War, Wilfred Owen. Thus it harks back to, or can be seen as a summation of, Britten’s lifelong interest in creating song cycles.

What struck me in performance was:

  • The size of the chorus – I counted 145 choristers – when they sang forte in unison as during the Dies irae and the climax, before Strange Meeting, I was pushed back in my seat by the power, and the power of Britten’s intentions to overwhelm us.
  • By striking contrast, the smallness of the chamber orchestra of about 8 players who accompanied the tenor and baritone when they sang the poems. And the way, throughout the requiem, Britten used tics and habits which I associate with Peter Grimes and Billy Budd – the use of little trills on trumpet or horn to punctuate phrases, of a snare drum to accompany phrasing – both these and other tics have the affect of distancing and alienating the music so it is not lush and orchestral and comforting. There’s something of Stravinsky’s ‘Histoire du Soldat’ or Weill’s Weimar songs in their deliberately patchy, scratchy orchestration.
  • I am not sure this was a great production. Despite myriad high points (including the piercing soprano voice in the Lacrymosa and the swaying orchestration of the final Let us sleep) the offstage voices of the boys choir (which I take to be intended as a heavenly choir) were so offstage that at moments it became inaudible; I found the deep notes of the baritone in the Abraham poem so low that I wouldn’t have been able to understand it if I hadn’t had the text in front of me.

There was a minute’s silence after the last notes died away. Maybe that is traditional and it was certainly well observed here. And as the applause started I felt a tear well up in my eye. My great uncle fought at the Somme. “Such a waste, a bloody waste,” he said on the only occasion he was ever known to swear. But I wasn’t as moved as I have been listening to the CD in the privacy of my home. As soon as the clapping died away the usual audience chit-chat started up and I felt we hadn’t been as traumatised as we should have been.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the North German Symphony Orchestra in Britten’s War Requiem on Youtube

Three years after the War Requiem‘s premiere, in 1965, Gyorgi Ligeti published his Requiem. Innovative though Britten’s introduction of Owen’s poetry might have been, comparison with Ligeti makes it clear that it is an innovation by moving backwards, towards 50-year old (and very traditional) English poetry and using the small-scale orchestration which appears throughout the operas. It is an innovation from Britten’s roots, a recapitulation: whereas Ligeti has invented a dazzling new way for music to exist altogether and, arguably, a more appropriate sonic response to the horror of 20th century war.

Related links

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Rest Is Noise 8: Post-War World

To the South Bank for the eighth study weekend in their year-long The Rest Is Noise festival; this weekend it’s the Post-War World ie the radical avant-garde music created in Europe immediately after World War II, focusing on composers from the Darmstadt School and especially on Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. As usual Saturday and Sunday kicked off at 10am and each day was packed with lectures, workshops, film screenings leading up to an evening performance of key works.

Saturday 5 October

Breakfast with Stockhausen Enthusiastic animateur Fraser Trainer gave us a thorough backgrounding in the birth of electronic music. In 1945 music was a vacuum in Europe. Key composers had fled to America – Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith. Strauss was old and discredited. From the gap emerged an angry young generation determined to turn their back on the traditions of Romanticism and nationalism which had brought Europe to destruction. Stockhausen was drafted, aged 16, to ambulance duty where he saw horrors. The electronic manipulation of sound was just beginning, pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer in Paris. Radio was improving its technology. Long playing records were introduced in 1948. Stockhausen in particular took to this brave new technological environment and immersed himself in the physics of sound, using the new devices to investigate the properties of frequency, phase and amplitude, as well as the overtones created by the human voice – analysing the colour components of every noise the human voice can make, defining every element and then cunningly combining them in new and completely abstract ways. An early result was Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), which took over a year to create note by note, phrase by phrase, effect by effect. He recorded a 12 year old choir boy singing phrases from the book of Daniel, then manipulated them to be broadcast through 5 loudspeakers.

Fraser’s assistant got a volunteer from the audience to say a few words and then used her laptop music editing program to quickly create the kind of sound affects it took Stockhausen and his engineers weeks to create 60 years ago.

Donald Sassoon – from the War to the Wall Despite his name Donald turned out to be Italian, smooth, witty, charming, he took us on an entertaining tour of post war popular culture (top grossing films, James Bond novels etc), comparing Western with Eastern cultural products: his conclusion was that, whatever politicians and newspapers blared about the Cold War, on the level of popular culture both Eastern and Western popular culture largely ignored the Cold War; in fact popular narratives often shared the same shapes of lone heroes overcoming either i) the Nazis (everyone’s favourite baddies) ii) the bureaucracy; fighting the system. Suggestive thought that at bottom both sides of the iron Curtain were experiencing the same Rise of Managerial Bureaucracy.

Robert Worby – the Birth of Electronic Music By far the best presentation of the day, composer, writer and Radio 3 broadcaster Worby went back to basics: he showed just one slide which listed the physical characteristics of sound: Pitch (described by physicists as sine waves). Duration. Volume (described by physicists as amplitude). Timbre (also known in music jargon as ‘colour’). Location. Stockhausen et al set out to investigate the physical properties and combinatorial possibilities of each of these elements.

Worby explained there is a lack of vocabulary to describe these scientific elements of music; the old Italian words derive from the Renaissance; Romantic critics added vague impressionist terms; the terminology of physics is hard to manage without being an actual physicist. Anyway, sounds are not things; all sounds are processes over time.

In Paris Pierre Schaefer went out and recorded trains and street noise then manipulated them in a primitive studio, creating Musique concrète. In Germany, in the studios of Cologne Radio, Stockhausen experimented with isolating pure sine waves and then treating, combining, distorting them etc.

At this abstract level, melody is pitch mediated by duration. Stockhausen himself told Worby that, of course, you can make a ‘melody’ by varying location, as you can by varying all the other 4 elements of noise. At a stroke this explains the thinking behind Gruppen, where three orchestras play from different locations around the auditorium.

Worby did a great job of easing his audience into the world of music as seen by physicists and scientists and making us realise that, suddenly seen from this perspective, the possibilities for experimentation are endless.

Jonathan Meades – Le Corbusier and Niemayer Typifying the arrogance of most of the architects I’ve met, interviewed or read about, this lecture wasn’t at all about Le Corbusier but seemed to be Meades’ defence of Brutalist architecture made from concrete. I learned that a lot of the design and aesthetic went back to the Nazi defences along coastal France against Allied invasion. Meades referred to lots of buildings and housing estates and so on but didn’t explain the history or background of any of them and didn’t show pictures of any of them, so I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about until after he’d finished speaking and opened it up to questions from the floor when suddenly we were shown a loop of a dozen or so buildings on a screen but, typically, still with no explanation of what they were. As he proceeded Meades began to criticise more and more things, English Heritage for failing to save Brutalist buildings which have been demolished, modern architecture for its infantile colours, spineless developers, the childishness of our entire culture where adults read Harry Potter.

By the end I knew nothing whatsoever more about Le Corbu. In Lily Allen’s words, Meades was having “a little whine and a moan”. I wish I’d gone to see Tom Service playing and discussing extracts from Stockhausen, Nono, Xenakis et al which was on at the same time slot.

Meades was promoting his new book, Museum Without Walls, which this talk comprehensively put me off reading. Jeremy Clarkson for arty types. Meades’ “talk” was introduced by young Owen Hatherley whose made a name with his architecture criticism, which is collected into several recent books including A New Kind of Bleak. His “chairing” of the talk left a bit to be desired. His idea of starting the audience Q&A was to mutter, “You lot”. I’ve toyed with buying his books but, flicking through the opening chapters in Foyles, I realised his texts also amount to one long moan. Why become an architecture critic if you think so much modern architecture is ****?

Fear of Music: Why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen My heart always sinks when I see ‘panel discussion’. People in the arts are all pretty much the same, middle class, middle aged, white and polite so they tend to end up agreeing and being nice about everything and this panel was a good example. It was based on a recent book (as so many of these sessions are) by David Stubbs, Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen. Every time he was getting into his stride he was interrupted by the moderator who went to another speaker. Maybe it would have been better as a one-man presentation with musical examples.

But some ideas struggled through:

a) Pop versus the avant-garde music

  • Accessibility: people consume pop music in a million ways, via TV shows, adverts, in films, on TV, their ipods, the internet etc. Stockhausen is hard to access. Not least because it is
  • Expensive: Stockhausen’s CDs are published by his own company and generally cost £15. Not much is on YouTube. Let alone Maderna, Nono, Xenakis.
  • Ubiquity: and you can listen to pop music in the car, at home, in the kitchen, in clubs and pubs and cinemas, almost everywhere (whether you want to or not). Modernist music – Stockhausen, Boulez – is best heard live, but it is very rarely performed anywhere. You have to really search it out to find it. It is expensive to attend. And it is in forbidding and offputting concert halls.

b) Rothko versus Stockhausen

  • Convenience: you can go to Tate Modern any day of the week, at any time that suits you, with anyone you fancy eg with kids, stroll around and wander into the Rothko room and spend as little or as long as you like, ie a few seconds, a minute if you want to. But these concert pieces can only be seen extremely rarely, in a concert hall setting, and at a time and place and date not of your choosing.
  • Ubiquity of the image: images bombard us all day long, on TV, on billboards and hoardings, in magazines and newspapers and on the internet. We are used to assimilating all kinds of weird and wonderful images in split seconds. But this music is a process which takes time. In our day and age not many people are prepared or able to invest the time required.

Electronic Music Hub Concert In a small dingy concrete room underneath the Purcell Rooms there was a concert by Royal College of Music students. This was very, very good:

  • Nono – La Fabbrica Illuminata – performed by soprano Josephine Goddard
  • Alvarez – Temazcal – maracas performed by Alun McNeil-Watson
  • Reich – New York Countrpoint – clarinet performed by Benjamin Mellfont

Evening Concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall:


Sunday 6 October

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, Helmut Lachenmann and Christopher Fox in conversation. Smooth, polite, urbane Mr Fox gave a very good introduction to the Darmstadt International School of Music. (Odd that there wasn’t a simple lecture/presentation on this central subject all weekend.) Maderna and Nono go in 1950, Stockhausen in 1951, Boulez in 1952. Only in 1957 does Nono refer to there being a ‘Darmstadt school’ as a style or movement. A landmark concert in 1956 of Stockhausen’s Gesang and Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso. 1958 John Cage visited.

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono is a central figure. She is Schoenberg’s daughter and she married Luigi Nono one of the central figures of the 1950s avant-garde. Brought up in her father’s Los Angeles exile she was relaxed and American and funny. Two things she said struck me: 1. it would be nice if people booed for once at a music concert; nowadays everyone is so polite and open-minded and there is no edge, no controversy, no vision or excitement. 2. The music of her father and Berg and Webern was about passion and emotion. At Darmstadt and beyond it was treated as if it was physics. Only in recent years, she said, as orchestras have become completely familiar with it, has some of the emotion and expressiveness come out which was always meant to be there.

Helmut Lachenmann is a composer from that period, a little younger the the Big Names. His German accent was thick so it was hard to hear a lot of what he said, but he a) really doesn’t like the book, the Rest Is Noise, which he thought was superficial and inaccurate – he was angry that Maderna isn’t even mentioned in it; b) he’s unhappy at the generally negative image of Darmstadt in the UK aUS, the Anglo-Saxon world: he emphasises that it wasn’t a monolithic dictatorship, there was all kinds of experimentation going on; and that all of them were united in wanting to escape from Magic Music. he recalled being a boy at the end of the War and listening to a broadcast by Goebels frothing with Nazi lies which was rounded off by a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. For them, the entire tradition was contaminated and they were trying to create a genuinely new world.

Lachenmann’s positive vision was rather dented by a comment from the floor by someone who had attended new music festivals in Scandinavia in the 50s and compared the open, relaxed atmosphere of these with arriving at Darmstadt to find an atmosphere of tension, competition and criticism, backstabbing and rivalry. Ho hum.

Ian Buruma: Year Zero Also promoting his new book, Year Zero: A History of 1945, Buruma was brilliant. A mild-mannered, urbane man who radiated intelligence and knowledge, he chose a few themes from the book to expand:

  • People rarely study what happens after wars end. Peace in 1945 really meant chaos and confusion. It led to brutal civil war in Greece which could also easily have broken out in Italy or France. In each country the right wing had sided with the Nazis, the resistance tended to be left wing, and neither side forgot. France was saved by de Gaulle who combined right wing politics with impeccable resistance credentials, thus squaring the circle. In one sense civil wars never really go away and that explains the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece.
  • Very widespread violence against women who had collaborated. Buruma sees this as a way  for guilty men who failed to resist, taking out their resentment, and also restoring the status quo ante.
  • We can now see the end of the USSR in 1989 leading to the death of Social Democracy across Europe, the triumph of neo-Liberal economics and cultural worldview, the unravelling of the post-war consensus and the end of the optimism which fueled the avant garde.

Lunchtime Concert: Music of Change by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble

  • Cage – Second Construction
  • Xenakis – Okho
  • Xenakis – Psappha
  • Cage – Credo in US

Lots of drumming.

Black Mountain College: by Alyce Mahon, scholar Peter Jaeger and poet Tim Atkins. This was a very good panel: Alyce gave a good history of the idealist and utopian Black Mountain college, set up in 1933 to educate without the traditional gap between teachers and students, no hierarchy, minimal fees, no payment to the tutors who got room and board, an experiment in arts education which was forced to close in 1957, set up as a kind of Bauhaus for the States. Cage and Cunningham arrived in 1948. In 1951 there was the first ever ‘happening’. In the same month Cage’s 4’33” was a homage to the influence of Rauschenberg with his all-white paintings. Cage’s music, Cunningham’s dance, Rauschenberg and de Kooning painting, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley poetry.

Jaeger was promoting  his book, John Cage and Buddhist Ecopoetics, and was wonderfully calm, lucid, intelligent and informative. He compared some of Cage’s works and saying with Zen teachings and koans. Cage said 1950s avant garde was a reincarnation of 1910s Dada; that new music was about Time not melody and that Beethoven had dulled music by obsessing about Melody and harmony, taking German music down a dead end. A very informative and civilised and well-organised session.

When asked about the influence of Olsen and Creeley’s Open or open Notation verse on English poetry, enthusiastic and tremendously knowledgeable poet Tim Atkins said, well it hasn’t really arrived here yet. Like so much 20th century art, it has just passed by an England dominated by its public school elite who continue to like traditional games, traditional values and traditional art.

Introduction to Adorno: Elise ? and Nick Lezard At university back in the 80s, because I had studied German, I sought out and read Benjamin and Adorno (and Bloch and Lukaczs) who weren’t on my English syllabus and weren’t taught. For a season Minima Moralia was my constant companion. Theodor Adorno is immersed in the German philosophical tradition whose colossus is Hegel and after Hegel, Marx. Only if you have a feel for this tradition as well as the phenomenology of the 30s and 40s, for the bitter infighting between post-Hegelians and Marxists in those stricken decades, can you get a sense of how embattled Adorno felt when he fled Germany and settled in California.

In his native land the battle for Culture was literal – degenerate artists were being executed, banned, exiled – and the Great German Musical Tradition  had undergone the sweeping revolution of Schoenberg’s twelve tone system. For Adorno the High Culture of his childhood, the Seriousness of Art which led to Schoenberg in music and Kandinsky in Art, all this was under threat, was a matter of life and death. Only by committing to the highest standards, to the most difficult and recondite Literature and Music, could artists and those who love Art possibly escape the flood of totalitarian propaganda, military marches, the dreck of jazz and pop music which was flooding the world.

Coming to California then was a profound shock. People were cruising round in big cars, having barbeques, surfing, making brainless movies about love and big musicals. America represented the death of High Culture because it provided consumers with vast floods of brainless pap. Hence Adorno’s fierce abreaction in books like Minima Moralia (a collection of aphorisms and short essays) and The Culture Industry. Typical quote: “Already for many people it is an impertinence to say ‘I'” by which he means that most people are just robots, their brains filled with the mindless newsprint, cartoons, pop music and rubbish movies churned out by the Culture Industry which is itself just an aspect of the complete triumph of consumer capitalism.

Unfortunately, none of the power, the depth, the totality of Adorno’s critique of the way consumer capitalism has curdled and corrupted our most fundamental being came over in this presentation. Adorno isn’t an author you read. He is a complete reassessment of the culture we live in and our own personal values. Nick Lezard said he thought we could still really use Adorno as a mirror to our times, and he cited the X Factor as an example. This is vastly too shallow and obvious. Adorno is saying that to the depths of our souls all of us are slaves to the shallow lying garbage of the Culture Industry. Almost none of us can have an original thought, can escape our slavery and that escape is only possible via the most severe, intense, difficult and demanding Art, which for him was Schoenberg’s Serialism. For Adorno, in the 1940s, it was all over, the Soul of the West was corrupted beyond redemption. In which case, here and now in 2013, it must be even more all over.

But it isn’t. The fundamental flaw in Adorno’s position is his False Model of Culture: it is based entirely on the strict High Art of his childhood: Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, it is the German tradition or nothing.

But of course there are thousands of traditions. At the same time Offenbach was writing his comedies and Gilbert & Sullivan theirs. As well as Schoenberg the world contained Poulenc and Vaughan Williams and Satie. My break with Adorno came when I read his criticism of Jazz which he thought embodied and continued negro slavery with its limited rhythms, its limited instrumentation and the soloist trapped within hackneyed chord sequences.

Putting down Adorno’s book, you walk away into a world full of beauty, of blue skies and flowers and the joyful sounds of all kinds of pop and rock and disco music, of musicals and world music and jazz and Burt Bacharach, let alone the thousands of types of art which blend and merge into advertising or magazine design, posters and internet layouts or apps or games.

The world is wonderfully big and rich and strange and so are the thousands of artistic and musical traditions which we can now experience more than any previous generations in human history. Adorno’s work is an intellectual and emotional and aesthetic dead end, a document from a terrible period of history shaped and constricted by the very totalitarianism impulses he was trying to escape.

Evening Concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Martyn Brabbins, the London Sinfonietta & Royal Academy of Music musicians

  • Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gruppen
  • Luigi Nono: Canti per 13
  • Interval
  • Luigi Nono: Polifonica – monodia – ritmica
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen: Gruppen

Stockhausen said the concert halls hadn’t been built to properly perform his music and this was sadly true as the three orchestras performing Gruppen were located on the stage along the flanks of the hall under the boxes ie only those in the expensive Stalls seats got the full ‘in-the-round’ experience. The rest of us, the majority, in the auditorium heard the music all coming from in front of us. Ho hum. Deploying such large forces for a piece which is only twenty minutes has led to the tradition of always performing it twice in concerts, at the beginning and end.

All of these pieces benefit hugely from being heard live where you can see the effort it takes to create and co ordinate the music and where you get the full aural impact.

You can listen to almost all the sessions I list here as South Bank podcasts and make your own mind up.

Karlheinz Stockhausen en surimpression de la partition d'une de ses composition, Strasbourg, 1980 (Wikimedia Commons)

Karlheinz Stockhausen en surimpression de la partition d’une de ses composition, Strasbourg, 1980 (Wikimedia Commons)

%d bloggers like this: