Sublime Polish melodies @ Royal Festival Hall

To the Royal Festival Hall for one of the 12 landmark concerts they’ve scheduled as part of the Rest Is Noise festival, two major pieces by post-war Polish composers, the evening package marketed as Sublime Polish melodies.

Pieces
Krzysztof Penderecki: Violin Concerto No.1
—Interval—
Henryk Górecki: Symphony No.3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), Op.36

Performers
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Michal Dworzynski conductor
Barnabas Kelemen violin
Allison Bell soprano

Questions and Answers
The pre-concert conversation with conductor Michal Dworzynski was interesting:

  • Were the three great post-war Polish composers – Gorecki, Penderecki, Lutoslawski – part of movement, a generation, a common voice? No.
  • Was there a conscious reaction against the avant-garde, against Darmstadt Modernism, sometime in the mid 1970s? Not conscious, no.
  • So why did their styles change so strikingly, especially Penderecki, from the intense modernism of the famous Threnody? Dworzynski thinks it happened when Penderecki started conducting and realised how difficult the music he’d been composing was to actually play. (I question this, as I saw Pendercki himself conducting the Threnody last year and it was blisteringly together.)
  • Why is Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony so popular (it is the bestselling classical CD of all time)? Like everyone else Dworzynski  replies that, in our hectic times, it speaks of peace and serenity. Maybe: but I think it is also a piece of contemporary classical music you can listen to without hurting your ears. it is extremely easy to listen to, as Classic FM knew when they chose to launch their radio station with it.
  • Is Penderecki’s Violin concerto a return to Romanticism? In respect of the long lines of melody, maybe, but it is also very intense and fiendishly difficult for soloist and orchestra to play.

Review
I found the violin concerto stunningly old-fashioned, lots of effects throughout reminding me of Shostakovitch, with glimpses of Mahlerian lushness. Certainly it is in a harmonic, key-based language which throws back to the start of the 20th century. Sure there are spooky modernist glissandos but not many and nowhere near as dominating and bewildering as the effects in Gulbaidulina’s violin concerto (Offertorium). A quaffable half hour but there did seem to be the same idea of starting at the bottom of a scale and staggering up it, repeated many times. But it also seemed to be a deliberate tour around the orchestra trying out different sounds and sonorities. And the steady doom-doom-doom of the drums and percussion gave it a very accessible pulse.

Maybe the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is hard to do live but: it seemed to me the double basses which start it, deep down and mournful, were out of tune; the soloist Allison Bell lacked Dawn Upshaw’s smoothness (maybe that’s partly attributable to the sound recordists on the famous CD): and rather than lulling and inspiring, I found Dworzynski’s pacing of the insistent repetitive chords (variations on A, I believe) in the final section, as monotonous and eventually as headachey as a less successful Steve Reich piece. Instead of waves on the shore, the orchestra went quiet enough between pulses that each insistent chord seemed more like the throbbing of a headache.

Violin by MATANAO (Wikimedia Commons)

Violin by MATANAO (Wikimedia Commons)

The Russia House by John le Carré (1989)

It is the time of perestroika and glasnost. Poor ill-fated Mikhael Gorbachev is trying to modernise the great failed Soviet experiment. An Anglo-Polish emigré publisher is in Moscow for a trade fair. A strange woman approaches and asks him to take a package on behalf of the publisher whose stand is next door but who hasn’t shown up. He does. He smuggles it back to Britain. He presents it to the Security Services. And thus begins the plot of The Russia House, le Carré’s 12th novel.

Her indoors Most le Carré protagonists have sad, broken, jaded middle-aged man-of-the-world relationships with woman. Over the course of the Smiley trilogy I became weary of Smiley’s failed marriage to the absent-but-constantly-asked-about Anne. It became a tic, the tired man’s failed marriage a synecdoche – his failure in this respect, and her betrayals and infidelities in another respect, standing for the multiple betrayals and failures of the milieu, of the spying life as a whole.

There was little of this in A Perfect Spy – or rather Pym’s asides about betraying his wife Mary and the suicide of his father’s Jewish refugee mistress, Lippsie, though they recur like motifs, are swamped by the other highly coloured and varied material.

But in The Russia House with its relatively smaller cast, the periodic narrator – the Service lawyer who gives the false name of Harry – rarely reflects on the action without referring to his oh-so-doomed affair with Hannah, wife of the senior partner at his law firm, and oh the betrayals and oh her long-suffering and oh I wish he would shut up.

‘And, God help me, I think of Hannah again. He has woken the pain of her in me as if she were a brand new wound.’

This self-pitying stance, this attitude of the jaded man of the world sadly lamenting the little lady feels incredibly forced, dated and patronising:

‘Married, Harry?’
‘Not so you’d notice,’ I replied.
‘Hell does that mean.’
‘I have a wife in the country. I live in the town.’
‘Had her long?’
‘Couple of lifetimes,’ I replied. (page 134)

Posh Like all the many 20th century English writers who went to public school (how many of them didn’t?), le Carré can satirise the preposterousness of his class, but he can’t escape it. The tone strays into PG Wodehouse territory. The shabby but pukkah publisher, Barley, whom a Russian dissident has sent secret documents to, is the drunk, jaded owner of a feeble publishing house, in reality funded by his maiden aunts but he went to Harrow, dontcha know? In one scene Harry the narrator is sent to manage the aunts:

I had already squared the sainted aunts [comic reference to the dated exclamation]. Over luncheon at Rules [posh restaurant or club] I had wooed and won [Wodehouse comic hyperbole] the Lady Pandora Weir-Scott [posh], better known to Barley as the Sacred Cow [learnèd joke, geddit] on account of her High Anglican beliefs [who cares which strand of Anglicanism people belong to nowadays: the high Anglicanism is a pointer to class].

[Harry then tells her he’s authorised to award her a bursary for deserving publishers even though there are other contenders.]

‘Well I’m a bloody sight more deserving than anybody,’ [bathos of titled posh girl turning out to be rude and selfish…] Lady Pandora averred, [ironic use of high diction], spreading her elbows wide to get the last scrap out of her lobster […and comically greedy and graceless]. ‘You try running Ammerford [presumably her stately pile] on thirty thousand a year […and comically unself-aware, ignorant of her wealth and privilege].’ (p.136)

Le Carré’s narrators often satirise, in a fairly familiar way, the English upper classes. But they are part of it, they come from the same cloth, with the same assumptions, style, phraseology, in-jokes, public school fetish for games, its anti-intellectualism and, when it really matters, its well-known fondness for treachery and unreliability. In the Russia House an Old Harrovian ends up betraying his country and the surrounding posh boys Harry and Ned sympathise with him. Is anybody wonder the Americans mistrust them?

Paucity of plot Not much happens. The Soviet physicist with his ludicrous talk of changing the world may or may not die a natural death. No-one else dies or is even threatened. British publisher is approached with Russian secrets. British Secret Service coach him to go back to Russia to make direct contact with dissident physicist and get more. Publisher falls in love with physicist’s former lover and turns himself in to the Soviet authorities on condition she is not harmed. She isn’t, he disappears for a while but then reappears in his Lisbon flat where Harry meets him for an all-night chat in which the events recounted in the novel are clarified.

Traitor or not There’s a built-in limitation to the outcome of these kind of books in that it is binary: either they’re a spy or they’re not; either a traitor or loyal. In Tinker Tailor is Haydon, Bland or Esterhase a traitor? In The Perfect Spy is Pym a traitor? In The Russia House will Barley be loyal or a traitor?

I didn’t feel the slightest shred of tension, possibly because the two previous novels had covered similar ground but with much greater psychological depth and variety. By page 300 I quite wanted it to hurry up and be over. Le Carré himself seems to lose interest at the end of the book: the last 20 pages or so are disconnected fragments. The interest, in other words, isn’t in the plot, it lies elsewhere.

World-view It is, I suggest, partly in the posh but jaded, the shabby English milieu of 50-something, public-school-educated white men drinking scotch and gin in embassies and clubs, in safe houses in Hampstead and secret meeting rooms in Whitehall, the world of their cynicism and mutual loathing and their failed marriages and ungrateful children. These are not young people’s books. It is a Daily Telegraph mind-set, of retired military men who think the modern world is going to the dogs.

Pen portraits But the interest is also in le Carré’s phenomenal ability as a writer. Sometimes he’s flat and factual, but sometimes he can turn on a sixpence and conjure magic out of the air. Many pages in his books contain vivid, leaping turns of phrase; a good example is his way with quick devastating portraits of minor characters:

A burly man came tripping down the crazy-paving path to greet us. He wore a blazer of British racing green and a tie with gold squash rackets on it, and a handkerchief shoved into his cuff.
‘You’re from the Firm. Well done. I’m O’Mara…’
O’Mara had grey-blond hair and an off-hand regimental voice cracked by alcohol.His neck was puffy and his athlete’s fingers were stained mahogany with nicotine. (page 222)

There was a knock at the door and Wintle came in, an eternal student of fifty-seven. He was tall but crooked, with a curly grey head that shot off at an angle, and an air of brilliance almost extinguished. He wore a sleeveless Fair Isle pullover, Oxford bags and moccasins. He sat with his knees together and held his sherry glass away from him like a chemical retort he wasn’t sure of. (page 223)

I had to Google Fair Isle pullover and Oxford bags to find out what they were. I suspect they were old-fashioned in the 1980s of loadsamoney and the Stock market Big Bang. Now they’re getting on for needing footnotes, like a lot else in the novels.

Anti-Americanism This is the first of his novels where Americans play a major part and le Carré’s characters pour various forms of scorn on them. They have money the Brits can’t dream of, technology we can’t afford, and it is no surprise when they pretty much take over our contact, our case and our man. And inevitable that they prompt snideness and awe and resentment in the British characters.

… the American interlopers… They wore navy blazers and short hair, and they had a Mormon cleanliness that I found slightly revolting… I looked again at the new Americans, so slight, so trim, so characterless… (page 218)

The implication being that we Brits are the opposite: scruffy, hairy, unshaven, ramshackle and stuffed full of character, which generally seems to mean knowing the rules of cricket and being a drunk. O’Mara and Wintle stand as good examples of the Brits; Bob, Cy, Sheriton and Brady standing for the can-do, gung-ho, over-confident Americans. But our Old Harrovian betrays them too.

Credit

The Russia House by John le Carré, published in 1989 by Hodder & Stoughton. All quotes from the 1990 Coronet paperback edition.

The movie

The novel was swiftly turned into a movie, directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer and released in 1990. Apparently it was one of the first movies to be shot on location in the newly ex-communist Russia.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré (1986)

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré is a marvellous, overflowing cornucopia of a novel, crammed with hilarious characters, wonderful insights and amazingly flexible, resourceful prose.

Plot The scaffold is a spy story, a thriller: Magnus Pym, model family man, good chap and manager of Eastern bloc agents from the decent safety of the British Embassy in Vienna, his father dies and so he returns to Blighty for the funeral. And disappears. Cue panic in Vienna, then London, spooks turning up to interview the distraught wife and the innocent son at boarding school, meanwhile the American cousins begin to suspect something’s up and maybe they’ve got yet another English traitor on their hands…

But in fact Pym hasn’t defected to Moscow; he has holed up in an out-of-season boarding house on the Devon coast where he sets to feverishly writing the story of his life, an autobiography which, as it proceeds, makes abundantly clear the psychological and personal experiences which led Pym into spying, a wandering text which is sometimes addressed to wife, Mary, sometimes to son, Tom, sometimes to colleague and recruiter Jack.

The outrageous father And central to these memoirs and to the whole book, and to the rip-roaring sense of ebullience which distinguishes it from his previous books, is the scandalously larger-than-life character of Pym’s father, the outrageous confidence trickster, con man, wide boy, devoted parent, lifelong bankrupt and king of a wandering court of hacks, cronies, spivs, dodgy lawyers and biddable ‘Lovelies’, Richard T Pym, universally known as Rick.

The Style is very confident – this is le Carré ‘s 11th novel and he has the skill and ability to turn sentences on sixpence, to move perspective or timezone in a few words, so that blocks of action interpenetrate or overlap creating a pleasurably dense fabric of multiple time frames. As a handful of days pass at Pym’s hideout, panic stricken interviews are taking place in Vienna, London and Washington, but at the same time Pym’s memoir is flashing back to events from his childhood onwards; and these multiple levels are woven with delicious skill.

Le Carré uses Thriller Standard, short, punchy sentences stripped of qualifiers:

The room is low and windowless and overlit. A uniformed guard mans the peephole. Spaced along the wall sit Frankel’s greying female assistants at their trestle desks. They have brought Thermos flasks and share each others’ cigarettes. They have done it all before, like a day at the races. Frankel is fat and ugly, a Latvian headwaiter. Brotherhood recruited him, Brotherhood promoted him, now he was taking over Brotherhood’s mess. So it goes. It is three in the morning. It is today, six hours ago. (page 215)

There are numerous pin-sharp pen profiles:

Syd Lemon was a tiny, thickset old man, these days, dressed all in brown like a rabbit. His brown hair, without a fleck of grey, was parted down the centre of his skull. His brown tie had horses heads looking doubtfully at his heart. He wore a trim brown cardigan and pressed brown trousers and his brown toecaps shone like conkers. From amid a maze of sun-baked wrinkles two bright animal eyes shone merrily, though his breath came hard to him. He carried a blackthorn stick with a rubber ferrule, and when he walked he swung his little hips like a skirt to get himself along. (page 505)

Surely as good as Dickens, as vivid, as perceptive, with just the right proportion of simile to lift and glow the crisp factuality. There is much more simile, metaphor and perceptive throwaway phrasing in this book than in his previous ones. He lets himself go more, to wonderful affect on page after page.

McGuffin Rick with his endless escapades, ever more outrageous scams, floating population of willing Lovelies and regular court of rogues and reprobates, is the Falstaff who brings the novel alive. There is a very basic level of suspense while we read Pym’s memoirs as he details his life in chronological order and wait to find out whether he truly is the spy London and Washington fear… The answer only comes around page 500 of this 600-page book and, in one way, didn’t matter much at all: I just wanted the Rick’s larger-than-life personality, and Pym’s strange mystification at his own odd life to continue.

Autobiography The short biography le Carré uses in his books cheerfully describes his education at private school, in Berne and Oxford, before going on to work for the Foreign Service and this exactly the career of the fictional Pym. In addition, his Wikipedia entry openly describes his rapscallion father who moved in various criminal milieux exactly as Rick does in the novel. It seems fair to think this is a very autobiographical text though obviously filtered and reversioned for the purposes of fiction.

The Implied Author is the point of view or character or mindset or mental and verbal habits which such a long text creates, or which we the readers create form the text. A few points are worth noting:

  • Public school Pym/le Carré ‘s public school upbringing makes him most confident dealing with this stratum of England’s jolly class system: in previous books Smily, obviously, and the clubland he moves in; Jerry Westerby the ‘honourable schoolboy’; even Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl, all the protagonists come from the 5% of the population which was privately educated and can’t help looking down on the poor unfortunate 95% who didn’t.
  • Foreign But le Carré Pym’s significant spell studying abroad, learning German to a high level, allows him to see the ridiculousness of the very class he belongs to: its primness, narrow-mindedness, prudishness, and the bumbling amateurishness which runs through all the books. le Carré effortlessly places Britishness in a wider international context which gives us readers the sense that, yes, we too are at home in foreign capitals, swanky hotels, speaking various languages, knowing about fancy wines and women.
  • Sex And Pym/le Carré are more explicit about sex than the average public school author tends to be. As Sabina says, “You are English, you are hommsexual,” and upper-class homosexuality was for the Victorian period and well into the 20th century the caricature of the stiff, repressed, sexually clumsy Englishman abroad. At the start of the novel his wife Mary, starts to fondly Pym through his trousers immediately after they’ve hosted a dinner party; and then Mary’s character changes after Pym disappears and his boss Jack Brotherhood shows up and we realise Mary was Brotherhood’s mistress until Pym arrived: and at various further points she fantasises about propositioning other men; all in a way I found a) unlikely, based on the  posh, very tightly-wrapped upper class women I’ve met; b) foreign. le Carré writes about English women as if they are free and easy in the Continental way, and in an unabashed way about sex which is not English, certainly not the pukkah public school English of the class he mostly, but not always, inhabits.

This wavering between (maybe an academic would call it ‘exploration of’) countries and cultures, loyalties, affections, classes and styles, is what lifts le Carré above the thriller or spy genre, into something richer and more interesting.

This is a really good book. If you only read one le Carré novel, this is the one.

Credit

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré, published 1986 by Hodder & Stoughton. All quotes from the 1987 Penguin paperback edition.

The TV series

The book was swiftly turned into a BBC TV adaptation starring Peter Egan.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

The Rest Is Noise 11: Superpower

Last weekend it was composers in Russia and the Soviet bloc; this weekend The Rest Is Noise festival focused on composers in 1970s and 80s America – which meant overwhelmingly the minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass who were both in town to perform live with their ensembles, one on Saturday, one on Sunday night. As usual, each day was crammed with lectures, presentations, discussion panels, free concerts and film screenings and it’s the work of several hours just to decide which one to go to and which ones, therefore, to miss.

Saturday 9 November 2013

10.30-11.30 Robert Spitzer: Superpower? Robert Spitzer, Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York, dapper in his pressed brown trousers, blue blazer and poppy, gave a learned, even-handed overview of the main themes in US politics between 1960 and the 1980s:

  • Nuclear war The most amazing fact of the 20th century is that we’re still here and alive, despite the fact that two military giants armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons faced each other in hostility for 45 years. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 is where it came closest to the brink and JFK deserves huge credit for rejecting the ‘first strike’ recommendation of his military and demanding a third way, the face-saving climbdown which was finally adopted.
  • Civil rights Following Martin Luther King’ speech in Washington 1963, black civil rights became a dominant political issue in the 60s, the subject of numerous Constitutional amendments and state laws to free Afro-Americans from discrimination. 50 years later, in 1912, the number of black votes for the first time exceeded the number of whites, and America had a black President.
  • Women’s Liberation Through the 1970s the Women’s Movement campaigned for change and, through the ’80s and ’90s a series of legislation was passed to give women full equal rights. Politically the tipping point is 1980 when for the first time more women voted than men and with a detectably distinct agenda: suspicion of foreign wars and support of social welfare programmes. Despite all this the gender pay gap remains obstinately stuck at women earning an average 80% of men’s average earnings.
  • Vietnam 1969 represented the peak of US commitment to the Vietnam War, with some 550,000 troops in theatre. Spitzer says part of the problem was President Lyndon Johnson lacked confidence, unsure what to do next but certain that he didn’t want to go down in history as the first US president to lose a war. The war cast a huge shadow; socially it divided the country and spawned a generation of radicalism. The social radicalism may all be long gone now, but the shadow still influences the US military who want to avoid putting boots on the ground if possible and want to have a clear exit strategy from foreign entanglements.
  • Richard Nixon without doubt the strangest man to occupy the presidency: credit to him for his policy of Détente with the Soviet Union and to the breakthrough discussions with up-till-then dangerously isolationist China. However, the Watergate break-in in 1972 led through a long series of court proceedings to the threat of impeachment at which point he was forced to resign in August 1974.
  • Fiscal crisis The mid-70s saw America experience a new type of financial crisis, Stagflation: economic depression combined with inflation (presumably in part caused by the oil crisis) with widespread unemployment and a sense of urban decay and pessimism (see Luc Sante’s talk, below).
  • Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 with a remit to restore Americas pride, battered by Vietnam, and to sort out the economy. He succeeded in both which is why he remains an icon to many Americans to this day.
    • Trickle down economics Reagan was influenced by the economist Arthur Laffer who said if you cut taxes to a bare minimum you will increase government revenue because entrepreneurs and business will keep more money, circulate it to their shareholders and employees who will earn more and spend more and generate more tax. So Reagan slashed taxes. History has proved him wrong. In fact government revenue declined and what happened was the richest 1% of the US became steadily richer until nowadays the US is entrenched as the most unequal society on earth, with no sign of that changing.
    • Star wars But at the same time Reagan embarked on a vast refunding of the US military, including ambitious plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative, a space-based defence against missile attack. In part the scale of the US commitment to its military helped decide the new Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev that an arms race against the Americans was unwinnable. In the conservative view it was Reagan’s staunch standing up for the West that led the USSR to crumble and fall.
    • The deficit From 1789 to 1980 the US racked up $1 trillion in government debt: Reagan’s vast spending on the military combined with his tax cutting meant that by 1984 the US deficit was $2 trillion, and by 1988 $3 trillion. And so the US was set on the course it has followed up to the present day of trying to cut taxes to please conservatives but continue paying for the biggest military in the world and its evergrowing welfare bill. Result: the largest government deficit in history and recurrent political crises as the political classes fail to untie this knot. In this respect all US fiscal policy has been footnotes to the fundamental change of mindset inaugurated by Reagan.

12-1pm Keith Potter: The Birth of Minimalism Goldsmiths University lecturer Keith Potter has written widely about minimalism and edited academic books on the subject. His talk was dense and allusive and a little hard to follow at times. Highlights seemed to be: there is a well-acknowledged Big Four of minimalism – La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass of whom the first two have remained in underground, experimental cult status and the latter two have gone on to global superstardom. Predictably, of all The Rest is Noise’s 100 concerts the Glass one and the Reich one sold out immediately. They are pop stars.

The Big Four were all born between 1935 and 1937 ie are now well into their 70s. La Monte Young comes from an avant-garde background in which there was an influence of drugs, mystic states, Eastern religion, meditation, happenings and performance art. He developed an interest in drones, notes sustained for a long time, sometimes hours, sometimes in experimental pieces for days or even months. Terry Riley’s In C calls for the repetition of small cells or fragments, a performance lasts well over an hour. Reich’s early tape pieces It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) have been studied to death but Potter points out that they aren’t the slow steady phase shift which Reich himself claims, more a kind of stuck-record affect. But Reich then applies the phasing insight to Clapping Music (1972) and Four Organs (1970) and the rest is history as he explores the impact of minute additive processes ie various instruments playing the same thing but going very slightly out of sync, something which had never been tried before in classical music and is difficult to notate. From this insight comes his extraordinarily successful career producing numerous works of clean, bright, repetitive, pulsing music.

Reich and Glass knew each other, worked with each other, put on performances in 60s art galleries and Potter referred to the well-known connection with the parallel movement of minimalism in Art associated with Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra and Robert Morris. Back to basic, clearly laid out, distinct elements of art: blocks, fabrics, big bits of metal. Glass, as everybody knows, developed a more lucid, poppy, instantly accessible version of the style based on repetitive arpeggios and simple harmonic progressions, which as made his style immediately recognisable and easily applied in adverts and any TV documentary about cities.

think Potter said the breakthrough year is variously ascribed to 1974 or 1976, the latter year seeing Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, both of which feature a return to complete tonality especially in the closing sections ie the definitive ending of serialism and the whole atonal experiment. A return to music everyone can understand and relate to. Hence their popularity. Potter namechecked Robert Fink who has, apparently, situated the rise of minimalist music in the wider US culture of soundbites, clips and excerpts, particularly of short repetitive television themes and stings, and in a wider culture based on the repetitive, semi-automated nature of industrial processes.

1-2.30pm Koyaanisqatsi The famous 1983 film was shown in the Clore Ballroom, ie the open space opposite the bar. I sat with the crowd and watched as I ate my sandwich. It certainly endorses Fink’s theory that minimalist music is particularly apt at describing the widespread repetitivity of late industrial society.

2-3pm Elliott Carter: An American Pioneer The four young wind players who make up Notus Winds played solo pieces by Carter interspersed with percussion:

I went to this concert in the Purcell Room see if I’d ‘get’ Elliott Carter this time, but I still didn’t. Whereas I’ve learned to like Boulez and love Ligeti and give Stockhausen a chance, Carter just seems like Modernism for its own sake. Brief virtuoso pieces on each instrument, which are there, force you to be alert and hear each unrepeated sequence of notes or squawks – and is forgotten as soon as experienced. It made me think there’s something wrong if ‘serious’ music forces you to choose between two equal extremes: between squawks and squalls of unrepeated sounds like Carter or barrages of insistent repetition in Reich and Glass. No wonder most of us are happy with our traditional classics and particular favourites in rock and popular music.

3.30-4.30 Luc Sante A noted writer, apparently, with a specialism in the history of New York (see his Amazon page and this interview in The Believer magazine), Luc read out a highly mannered essay (“The phrase du jour was ‘bad vibes’… weasels like us had the freedom of the city… the 1960s with their promise of effortless glamour and eternal youth….”) designed to give a sense of how rundown and rancid New York was in the 1970s, how all sorts of creative people could live among its urban ruins in poverty, and how it was all swept away by Reagan’s Yuppies and property developers in the 1980s. He was joined by American writer Sarah Schulman who suggested that the post-war GI Bill which helped returning soldiers buy homes in the newly laid-out suburbs triggered the well-known ‘White Flight‘ to the suburbs, hollowing out the city centres, which itself left them wonderfully cheap and easy for an army of developers to move in and bulldoze and refurbish and sell to the Yuppies and bankers of the 1980s. And thus the kind of cool poor Bohemia Sante and many others enjoyed was swept away, and forever, and from every major city: Paris and London are just the same, the colourful neighbourhoods made up of mixed races, social types, mixed housing arrangements, families, singletons, artists etc. All gone.

Eminent and authoritative about ‘the scene’ as Luc was, I now wish I’d gone to see the conductor Richard Bernas playing and explaining excerpts from composers of the 70s and 80s. But this is the kind of painful choice between multiple attractive events on at the same time which The Rest Is Noise forces you to make.

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Sunday 10 November

10.30-11.30am Breakfast with Glass and Reich The disturbingly young and enthusiastic composer John Barber had us all on our feet performing the opening of Reich’s Clapping Music (1972). He repeated Reich’s well-known assertion that there was no point pretending 1960s New York was 1900 Vienna or 1945 Berlin. On Broadway were glamorous shows, round the corner John Coltrane was playing. Reich felt he had to make music appropriate to his country and time.

Glass went to study in India, learning about ragas, music of great circularity and, ultimately, timelessness; Reich went to Ghana to learn about drumming and pulse. Barber said that, in his view, Glass’s music is about Being, Reich’s about Becoming. Reich’s music is very Western: it takes you on a journey from A to B, very slowly, carefully showing you everything that happens in the music. Glass’s music is higher, with its shimmer of arpeggios; Reich’s is deeper, embedded in the same groove or pulse.

Barber used the same early tape piece, It’s Gonna Rain (1965), as Professor Potter yesterday, to demonstrate the discovery of phasing, which was a bit boring. He mentioned the other phase pieces – Piano Phase (1967), Violin Phase (1967) – but then made the new (to me) point that after Steve’s trip to Ghana (1970) he came back and the phasing stopped: the new pieces just jump from one sequence to the next. And by the time of Music for 18 Musicians (1976) there is much more harmonic and dynamic variation.

11.45-12.45 Steve Reich in conversation with South Bank’s Head of Classical Music, Gillian Moore Impossible not to warm to this great, relaxed, open guy with his unstoppable enthusiasm and who just happens to be the most important composer of the late twentieth century. He described himself as “a fast talking New Yorker with a fast metabolism” and over the course of more than an hour it was hard to keep up with the flood of stories, jokes, questions, explanations and insights:

  • became a composer because he loved Bach, Stravinsky and bebop
  • people don’t pay composers till they’re old but they do pay musicians: hence he set up his own ensemble in 1966, also because he kept hearing tapes of friends’ compositions played by badly rehearsed musicians not in sympathy with the work: determined his own stuff would be performed by enthusiasts determined to play it to the highest standard.
  • he referenced John Coltrane and Africa Brass for being played on the one chord for 15 minutes and asked if people in the audience knew it and I appeared to be almost the only one, owning as a I do the disc with alternative versions of this awesome piece.
  • the Tyranny of Modernism: from 66 to 76 you HAD to compose in the International Style policed by Boulez and Stockhausen: even Stravinsky bent to it int he last works, Copeland tried and couldn’t do it; young composers had to but he didn’t want to. The thaw set in around 1976 through the 90s.
  • Can Music help us understand the Times (a premise of the entire festival)? “Not in the slightest.” If you’re writing pure music, No. If you’re writing music with a text, or opera then you choose a text which interests you and that may reflect a bit on the times. Maybe not.
  • He said loud and clear that Clapping Music (1972) was the end of phasing. He didn’t want to end up limited to being the guy who plays with tapes.
  • always liked the rhythm of the human voice, like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge for that reason and Berio (his teacher)’s Visages. Sang the praises of Berio’s wife Cathy Berberian.
  • led to an account of the origin of Different Trains (1988): was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet and initially thought of something based round recordings of Bartok in New York, but then realised writing a quartet invoking the shade of Bartok was a bad idea (laughter); then wondered if there were tapes of Wittgenstein talking, but no. Then drawn to the train journeys he took across America from one divorced parent to another and the voice of his nanny. Interviewed and taped her, then discovered other voices, notably of the conductor on those 1930s trains. And of course thought of the other trains criss-crossing Europe in the late 30s which led him to search out voices of survivors of the Holocaust. So is it his Holocaust piece? No. It’s about voices and rhythms and the rhythms of voices. But it has the Holocaust in it.
  • 1976 a breakthrough year, with Pärt’s Cantus for Benjamin Britten, Ligeti’s Self-portrait with Reich and Reich’s own Music for 18 Musicians.

Andrew Zolinsky: America’s Great Originals A concert of piano music by some late twentieth century American experimental composers, played by virtuoso pianist Andrew Zolinsky. He insisted on playing all the pieces through, with no breaks for applause. Afterwards, in conversation with BBC Radio 3’s Sarah Mohr-Pietsch, he explained they’d been chosen to create an aural journey.

Unlike the Elliott Carter yesterday, I enjoyed this, I ‘got’ the music from Meredith Monk’s very accessible jazz-inspired pieces, through the gaps and absences of Cage, to the cool, soft, melancholy fragments of the long, wonderful Feldman piece. This inspired me to seek out more works by all the composers and to keep my eyes open for future recitals by Zolinsky.

Which I guess is one of the points of the festival – to inspire and enthuse.

Milano, Teatro degli Arcimboldi. Philip Glass - Book of Longing. Immagini di Leonard Cohen ©Lelli e Masotti (Wikimedia Commons)

Milano, Teatro degli Arcimboldi. Philip Glass – Book of Longing. Immagini di Leonard Cohen ©Lelli e Masotti (Wikimedia Commons)

The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré (1983)

This is a brilliant novel. In some of le Carré’s early novels – The Looking Glass War and A Small Town In Germany and even in The Honourable Schoolboy – there’s a sense of mounting hysteria at the climax which I found forced and strident. But here the sense of delirium is really justified by the mind-boggling events of the previous 500 pages; they’ve only covered the events of a few days but seem to have lasted a gruelling lifetime.

Background The Little Drummer Girl was John le Carré’s 10th novel, a deliberate departure from the English setting and characters of the Smiley trilogy. It is set on the Continent (Germany, Greece) and the Middle East (Lebanon, Israel). But more of a radical break than the settings are the dramatis personae – the lead characters are Israeli intelligence operatives and Palestinian terrorists.

The book is absolutely drenched in all aspects of the highly contentious Arab-Israeli conflict and displays a breath-taking confidence at describing the intimate thoughts and speech patterns of characters far removed from the stuffy clubland or Anglo journalists of the Smiley books. It demonstrates a boggling level of familiarity with the methods of the Israeli secret service and a terrifying portrait of the complexities and suffering of the Palestinian rebels.

Plot After an opening section describing the terrorist bombing of a diplomatic quarter of Bonn, the scene moves to a Greek island where a troupe of ‘radical’ actors is resting between tours, and describes the character of Charlie, an attractive middle class ‘gel’ who’s been to various boarding schools but whose parents split up and who has drifted into ‘radical’ politics.

Turning Charlie The central part of this long (522 pages) book is a minutely detailed and convincing description of how Charlie is picked up by an Israeli agent then abducted to a safe house where she undergoes an immensely thorough breaking-down of her personality and building up again as a double agent for the Israeli security service.

Detailed brainwashing At first it seems ludicrous that every word of every exchange between the head of the Israeli group, an old timer named Kurtz, and innocent young Charlie, are described in such detail. But as 20 pages turns to 50, turns to 100, turns to 150, the reading experience becomes more like a gruelling movie, as you find yourself living every moment of Charlie’s brainwashing, becoming persuaded that this rootless, but clever and directionless actress could be turned into a spy in 24 hours because you yourself are experiencing the conversion process in real time.

It is exhausting and thorough and Le Carré triumphs over initial scepticism. By the time Charlie is ready for her double agent mission, to be picked up by the Palestinian terrorist group and trained as one of them, you are prepared to believe she can do it.

Palestinian terrorists The last 100 pages or so describe Charlie’s transportation through the hands of various Palestinian middle men to a training base amid a squalid refugee camp in Lebanon. Here she experiences with shocking immediacy the squalor and suffering of camp life made all the more terrifying by the repeated air raids of Israeli planes indiscriminately killing women and children. If the middle section of the book dwells at length on the Israeli perspective with heavy reliance on the Holocaust and the Israelis’ unwillingness to be victims ever again, this final section is a no-holds-barred depiction of the terrible injustice to which the exiled Palestinians have been subjected.

Schizophrenia It is here that the really elaborate preparations the Israelis have made to create Charlie’s identity as the lover of the playboy agent who was co-ordinating the terrorist attacks in Europe pay off; but it is not just an act: what she has seen and experienced in the camps gives her a genuine burning hatred of Israeli injustice which she uses to convince her Palestinian abductors of her sincerity but which at the same time she is using to hide the fact that she is working to the Israeli plan and that plan involves the betrayal and execution of all the Palestinians she is vowing sisterhood with.

It is here that the book really transcends anything I’ve read in this area, as it paints an increasingly powerful and disturbing portrait of a double-minded human being, simultaneously an impassioned agent for the Israelis and an increasingly outraged convert to the cause of the Palestinian refugees.

Shattering When the climax of the book comes Charlie is left absolutely shattered, turned inside out, devastated, obliterated as a human being and we are left just as upset, confused, devastated by what we have seen and heard and known. I felt shaken, really upset and tearful and confused, as few books have made me feel.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent to his pointless death after murdering an East German border guard then blundering round the countryside before being captured. Smiley makes peripheral appearances.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990)
  • The Night Manager (1993)
  • Our Game (1995)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)

A Timeless Beauty @ Royal Festival Hall

To the Royal Festival Hall for a concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra titled ‘A Timeless Beauty‘, part of the year-long The Rest Is Noise festival of 20th century music. This evening was part of the theme of ‘Politics and Spirituality’ which looks at composers behind the Iron Curtain in the 70s and 80s.

1. Before the evening event, at 6pm, there was a free concert in the Festival Hall given by the London Philharmonic Foyles Future Firsts, ie promising young music students, and I found this much better than the evening concert. The informality of being able to wander in and sit wherever you fancied created a relaxed atmosphere, much more open and receptive than the formal evening event. The players were young and relaxed, they made a few mistakes, no one cared, because:-

Oh the wonderfulness of Ustvolskaya! Symphony 4 goes right through me like a knife, its bareness, like trees in winter, its emptiness, its strident repetitiveness, breaking into gaps of complete silence… This seems to me completely new, Samuel Becket in music, extraordinary wonderful bleak sounds. Whereas the words for symph 4 were sung in Russian, in symphony 5 young Rhys Cook spoke fragments of the Lord’s Prayer in English. His stricken, spastic iterations of ‘Our Father’ over the broken, chamber sounds captured the terror, the impossible-to-repair, horror of the 20th century, hair-raisingly. After that Gubaidulina’s Concordanza seemed clever but superficial.

Galina Ustvolskaya: Symphony No.4 (Prayer) for trumpet, tam-tam, piano & orchestra
Galina Ustvolskaya: Symphony No.5 (Amen) for reciter, violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba & percussion
Sofia Gubaidulina: Concordanza

Performers
London Philharmonic Orchestra Foyle Future Firsts
Ben Gernon conductor
Georgia Bishop contralto
Rhys Cook speaker

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2. The 7.30 evening concert was by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Tõnu Kaljuste with Sergej Krylov on violin and the London Philharmonic Choir.

Sofia Gubaidulina: Offertorium (Violin Concerto)
—Interval
Arvo Pärt: Magnificat
Arvo Pärt: Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Arvo Pärt: Berliner Messe

The Offertorium is a violin concerto, quite long, felt about 40 minutes. There is no discernible melody, for many stretches it felt like Standard Modernism, a wide variety of instruments, quite  a lot of percussion, some fearful crescendos and fffs. But it is lifted above the average by two things:

  • it demands real virtuoso performing from the violinist, in this case Tõnu Kaljuste who staggered and attacked his instrument very dramatically in a piece which seemed to demand endless swoops and stabs
  • Gubaidulina’s consistent discovery of new sonorities, new sounds, new affects. I was led on from one interesting new combination of sound to the next, intrigued and wondering where she would take us next. The 82 year old composer is in town for these performances and took a bow after the Future Firsts concert and again here. That did feel very special. Boy, the things she’s seen, the people she’s known and the music she’s written!

I’m guessing most people had come for the Pärt. The Magnificat was about 5 minutes long, the Cantus the same, and the Berlin Mass only about 20 minutes, so it was a minimal amount of Pärt. Two things:

  • After the Ustvolskaya and Gubaidulina, the Pärt sounded very very tame. Anything would.
  • Having bought and listened to quite a lot of Pärt in chronological order it’s clear to me that the so-called tintinnabulation period in the 70s, when he used bell sounds and overtones, is his Greatest Hits period. He hit on a new combination of simplicity, with interesting overtones and partials to create stunning short pieces like Spiegel Im Spiegel, the Cantus and Fratres and Tabula Rasa. Later, in the 80s and 90s, his works become more overtly religious – are given traditional religious titles, masses, passions – and somehow lose the freshness. And so it was here: the Berlin Mass was sweet and light, reminiscent of the medieval and Renaissance music Pärt famously immersed himself in the 60s – but after the avant-gardeism of Gubaidulina and the other planet bleakness of Ustvolskaya, the Berlin mass sounded like Christmas carols, like nursery rhymes. Without knowing the score, it sounded like it doesn’t contained a Dies irae, symptomatic of Pärt’s positive and beatific disposition. Fine, but as the choir sang Alleliua and Agnes Dei I was overcome with boredom. The world has hundreds of Masses, many of them among the greatest music ever written: hearing yet again the threadbare Latin phrases about this marvellous God I grew impatient.

I thought I liked Pärt until I heard him on the same evening as Ustvolskaya and realised one of them takes you to a completely different place, unlike anything I’ve heard in a concert hall before, somewhere off-world, intense and extreme and it ain’t Pärt.

Sofia Gubaidulina (Wikimedia Commons)

Sofia Gubaidulina (Wikimedia Commons)

The Rest Is Noise 10: Politics and Spirituality

To the South Bank for the tenth study weekend in their year-long The Rest Is Noise festival based on the fabulous book about twentieth century classical music by Alex Ross. This weekend it investigated the widespread revival of religious or ‘spiritual’ compositions by composers behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ ie in Russia and East Europe, in the 1970s and 80s.

Full disclosure

I was aware of the most famous of these composers – the Estonian Arvo Pärt, the Poles Penderecki and Gorécki – and came to learn more. But I had several reservations before I even arrived:

a) To adapt a quote – when I hear the word ‘spirituality’ I reach for my Luger. Most of the people I’ve ever heard talking about spirituality lack the moral discipline and intellectual consistency which one can at least admire in practising Christians, let alone practising Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus etc – and instead are sappy, post-religious Westerners describing their own vague feelings of uplift and wonderfulness. The phrase “I’m a very spiritual person” usually boils down to”I’m a very special person – my feelings are finer, my sensibility is nobler, my soul is superior, to the ordinary unthinking masses”. As one speaker said, this vague sense of reverence for something bigger than us, Nature, the Universe, God, whatever, was some time ago labelled New Age religion.

b) The rise of ‘spiritual’ music among Eastern composers is often described as a special and unique phenomenon which I find odd because most composers in history have been Christian and written religious music. Until the end of the 19th century this was taken for granted. But even in the twentieth century, Mahler is deeply religious, so is Schoenberg, so is Stravinsky. Even in supposedly atheist Britain, in the supposedly atheist 20th century, Vaughan Williams writes Christian-ish music, Benjamin Britten is an Anglican, John Tavener, James MacMillan, John Rutter write devout religious music. Even Stockhausen became dottily mystical in later life, Ligeti wrote his Requiem etc.

Ie classical music composers writing religious music is the norm not the exception. Therefore what makes this group stand out must be the type of religious music they create, and I think it is the return of Gorécki and Pärt in particular to very simple, repetitive, harmonic music which makes their music so very palatable and acceptable to a music-hungry, serious music audience which, for a generation, had been offered only the very challenging sounds of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Berio, Ligeti, Xenakis et al and, at home, the perplexities of Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle et al.

Example: Gorécki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Some speakers speculated that the soulful, mournful music of Pärt and Gorécki speaks to deep longings in the human soul etc, and a great deal of speculative discourse can be and has been generated on this premise. But I believe their popularity stems from a different cause. As one speaker pointed out, Gorécki’s third symphony became a surprise bestseller in the early 1990s giving fuel to the ‘Westerners need religion’ argument – but then undermined it by explaining that the bestselling Dawn Upshaw recording (1992) had been produced and packaged by the commercially savvy Elektra-Nonesuch label and heavily promoted by the new Classic FM radio station (launched in September 1992 and looking for sounds and names to associate with its new brand).

“The recording climbed to number 6 on the mainstream UK album charts, stayed at the top of the US classical charts for 38 weeks, and in the chart as a whole for 138 weeks. The Zinman/Upshaw recording has sold over a million copies and probably counts as the best selling contemporary classical record of all time.”

When asked why it was so phenomenally popular, Gorécki speculated: “Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music… Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something, somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed.” (Wikipedia)

He, and the many, many commentators on this music, this period and these composers, like to think that what they needed was more religion in their lives, that what the people who bought the CD were missing was a bit of Polish Catholicism or – to be a bit more sympathetic – a sense of something larger than our petty worldly concerns, something transcendent, something to feed our longing for the numinous, the lasting and meaningful etc etc.

I take the jaundiced view that, if the million-plus purchasers of the Dawn Upshaw were looking for anything, it was a fashionable piece of music on the cool new CD format which could be played safely in the background of a hundred thousand dinner parties. What they were missing was not a new devotion to the Virgin Mary; they were looking for something new and fashionable which you could actually listen to with pleasure, that you could play in the car and the kitchen.

The 1990s were not an era of notable spiritual revival in Britain; they were a further step in the post-Thatcher rise of a narcissistic consumerist culture and it is no coincidence that the tremendously simplified, slow and repetitive music of Pärt, Gorécki and John Tavener could be easily packaged and sold to the Classic FM classes (cf the popularity of Tavener’s Song to Athene after it was played at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997). My point is: the buyers and listeners aren’t hungering after religion; they are hungering after accessible music with more depth and seriousness than the pap provided by X Factor and Beyoncé.

This service is provided by the wonderful new music of Gorécki et al but to say composers writing religious music is unusual ignores the history of Western classical music; to say it is special in the Eastern bloc is to overlook the deepseated religious traditions of Poland and Russia; to say it was unusual under Communism is obviously untrue, since this whole weekend is devoted to the fact that the 70s and 80s in the communist bloc are entirely characterised by religious music – what is unusual is to find a decent atheist composer: were there any? Schnittke?

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As usual Saturday and Sunday were packed with lectures, workshops and film screenings on all aspects of the dominant theme, all leading up to an evening performance of key works from the topic or era. I only went to Saturday as Sunday’s events seemed to be mainly about the political background in Britain, which I lived through and don’t need reminding of.

Timetable for the Politics and Spirituality weekend

Saturday 2 November

1. Opening Lecture: Catherine Merridale

Like many if not most of the speakers at these events, Catherine, Professor of Contemporary History at University of London, author of Ivan’s War, was plugging a new book, in her case Red Fortress. She gave an elegant and insightful talk, packed with information and anecdote, and making one overriding point: The twentieth century was one of mind-boggling violence for Russia. At least 27 million Russians died in the Great Patriotic War, maybe 60 million Russians in all died in the Great War, Revolution, Civil War, various famines, Stalin’s pogroms and Terrors, then the Nazi war, then more terror until well into the 50s and the Gulags still overflowing in the 60s and 70s. Merridale’s point is that all the grief and guilt at these horrors was swept under the carpet. the populace had to smile and smile. In 1964 Brezhnev came to power determined to make Russia the most successful nation in the world, happy, smiling faces, Tchaikovsky’s ballet music on every radio. After the initial efforts to destroy it the communists came to an uneasy truce with the Orthodox church and then, later, came to be proud of its Russian-ness, and so the churches with their gold and icons and incense remained one of the few places Russians experienced a genuine, not staged, sense of community and where they could express their deep feelings of loss and tragedy. In this context, for a composer to write religious music was a daring act of rebellion against the State authorities, to risk the loss of his income and career, but at the same time an opportunity to connect with the great subterranean feelings of the people.

Only casually, at the end of the talk, did Merridale mention that the special conditions which gave rise to the dissidents and the samizdat press and the impulse to write religious music have all gone now. The USSR ceased to exist at the end of 1991. We have had 21 years of the jolly Russian Federation. Church attendance in Russia is now the lowest of any European country. 4% compared to 41% of American citizens, 15% of French citizens, 10% of UK citizens. (Source: Wikipedia). So much for the Russians having something to show the decadent west about religion and spirituality.

Merriday said now when she goes back to Moscow, the people she discussed Dostoyevsky and spirituality with as a student are now millionaire property developers or selling armoured cars to mafia bosses.

And so, talking about the special ‘spiritual’ quality, character or culture of Eastern Europe is itself a nostalgic exercise, it is already looking back at a long-vanished era. They are more atheistically materialistic than we are.

2. Gubaidulina: String Quartets 3 & 4

In the Purcell Room, Sofia Gubaidulina was presented and sat onstage to be interviewed: I didn’t pick up on the religious motivation for her work but heard her talk about specific technical problems to do with trying to create contrasting sounds – plucking versus bowing in the third quartet – and the challenge of using a pre-recorded tape of the material for the players to play against in the 4th quartet and of working with film projection which led to comparisons with Skriabin who also requested that colour projections be played at concerts as part of the work. But the programme note and the Wikipedia entry are very eloquent about her deliberate religious intentions for her music, its association with transcendence and spiritual values etc.

I didn’t have the slightest religious feeling while listening to it, I was impressed by the way she’d manage to get new sounds, new sonorities and combinations, out of a very old format. I liked.

Sofia Gubaidulina – String Quartet number 3

Sofia Gubaidulina – String Quartet number 4

3. Listen To This Professor Jonathan Cross played clips from half a dozen pieces which are featuring in this part of the festival:

  • Henri Gorécki Third Symphony: the listener relaxes in an aural bubble bath of long, slow, repeated and hushed phrases. Religious it may be intended to be – that 90% of Poland’s Jews were exterminated, that 6 million Poles died in WWII, we may learn – that the extended grief over these holocausts required deeper outlet than the communist authorities permitted in their workers’ paradise we may be told – and that this work includes the prayer of an 18 year old woman on the wall of her Gestapo prison cell we may shudder to read – but a reassuringly accessible aural comfort blanket is what this music actually provides.
  • Arvo Pärt In Memoriam Benjamin Britten from his most popular period, the 1970s the period of tintinabulation ie experiments with bells and bell-like sonorities encountered in church rituals. Professor Cross explained how three sets of strings – violas, violins, double basses – played the same descending scale of A minor but at different speeds to create the overlapping patters, recreating the overtones and partial notes of a ringing bell.
  • Shostakovitch’s Fifteenth Symphony his final symphony and a very puzzling use of motifs from other composers including Wagner and the William Tell overture. But it ends on strange syncopated fade out.
  • Galina Ustvolskaya A pupil of Shostakovitch and, I learn from Wikipedia, very close to him; he proposed marriage to her at least once, and asked her opinion of  his later scores. She developed her own unique sound characterised by percussion.
  • Cornelius Cardew was an English radical composer who rejected the entire concept of bourgeois music and composition and founded the Scratch orchestra where nobody could play particularly well and there was no hierarchy or leadership. He set the works of Confucius in an open-ended score called the Great Learning.
  • Louis Andriessen was also a political radical. His work De Staat sets words of Plato about an ideal society.
  • Stockhausen’s Tierkreis is based on the numerology of the Zodiac and can be performed by a wide variety of instrumentations. Prof Cross played a version recorded by the composer’s son, the trumpeter Marcus Stockhausen.

4. Music and Spirituality in Eastern Europe Professor Adrian Thomas gave an academic and authoritative review of mostly Polish composers. He took from Robert Scholl a grid comparing and contrasting Modernity versus The Spiritual, with modernity having attributes like rational, worldly, monetary, calculating and The Spiritual ones like supernatural, transcendent, timeless etc. But in a tough-minded way he concluded that the Spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean religious, the sacred, the holy: it can just mean NOT worldly. It is anything which escapes us from the mundane.

He pointed out the deepness of religion, of Catholicism, to the Poles and the tremendous impact the election of Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, in 1978. All Polish composers have written at least on religious work. Also the Poles were among the earliest of the Soviet satellites to cast off the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’, as early as the 1950s.

  • Lutoslawski said his cello concerto dramatises the fight of the individual (the cello) against the oppressive collective state (the orchestra); it is designed to end in an other worldly transcendence.
  • Gorécki Thomas played the early work ‘Elementi’ (1963), an abrasive early piece. On YouTube there’s a tape of Professor Thomas introducing ‘Elementi’.
  • Wojciech Kilar – I had never heard of him before.
  • Penderecki – I was interested to learn that P has been criticised for not really being spiritual, but writing about politics and remembrance. I heard the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima back in school 30 years ago. I learned along the way that it was originally a purely experimental piece with the title 8’37” but renaming it after Hiroshima helped make it and Penderecki famous and, according to some critics, he has been living off that reputation ever since. I was lucky enough to see it earlier this year conducted by the composer and it really was one of the few genuinely hair-raisingly dramatic experiences I’ve had in the concert hall.

Prof Thomas took some time to explain the lives and aims of the two Russian women composers I’ve learned about today:

  • Galina Ustvolskaya She wrote only 20 or so pieces including four symphonies, number 4 being as short as 6 minutes.
  • Gubaidulina is Russian and unshamedly spiritual in intent: “there is no more serious purpose in writing music than the spiritual”.

Prof Thomas then mentioned two younger Polish composers of whom I have never heard and played some intriguing excerpts. Must find out more about them…

5. Alain de Botton – consumerism and spirituality

Popular philosopher of everyday life, bestselling author (see his dedicated Amazon page), radio and TV presenter, de Botton is fearsomely clever and articulate. speaks in captivating paradoxes, bristling with counter-intuitive insights. As the author of Religion for Atheists he disbelieves that this supposedly ‘spiritual’ music is playing to religious impulses in us.

De Botton started by saying our modern society is very odd in historical terms: we have narrowed the meaning of our lives down to just two concerns: Love and Work. We must succeed in both but rarely do, giving rise to permanent anxiety and envy, the invention of the Self Help culture. With the decline of religion there is no-one to turn to with our deeper concerns and worries, isolating us, destroying community, setting us against each other leading to an atomised society of alienated consumers always hoping that the next purchase will make us happy and content, failing to understand that the entire system is designed to make us feel restless and buy more books, more dvds, bigger TVs, more clothes, go on expensive holidays etc. The TV and media bombard us with ‘news’ which keeps us anxious and depressed and cynical, rendering us incapable of the kind of peaceful deep reflection into our own lives which is psychologically required and which is available in all pre-technological societies.

Therefore he sees the music we’ve been learning about and listening to as fulfilling not a religious but a deep psychological need in human nature, a need to feel something bigger than us, transcendent, enduring, lasting. This music – which at its most calm in Gorécki and Pärt is a kind of pastiche of medieval music Gregorian chant, but with modern twists and tics – provides an immediately obvious calm and clear and accepting environment in which to be more calm and contemplative.

There was then a question and answer session with the audience and, as so often, the Q&As made things simpler and clearer: AdB returned to the idea of art being therapy, art offering us the consolations previously offered by religion, artists as the new priests etc. This struck me as very old – AdB had mentioned that the notion that Culture could replace dying Christian belief was first floated by Matthew Arnold in the 1870s; the Symbolists and other fin-de-siecle movements took it for granted that art was the new religion in the 1890s; Yeats talks about it freely, all before the First World War.

But it’s just not true. Most 20th century Art hasn’t been very consoling, especially the music, but neither the visual arts or architecture. If something terrible happened to me I wouldn’t go to a Damien Hirst exhibition to help me cope. And if I needed some music it would probably be the reassuring pop and rock music of my youth to cheer me up.

A theory of reception

What the weekend lacked, for me, was a Marxist view of the way this product is produced and consumed; how it is packaged and sold, to who, and how, and why. No doubt Pärt and Gorécki and Tavener are very devout religious believers. But almost none of their fans and listeners are. We are something else and we like and listen to this music for completely non-religious reasons and simply attributing their popularity to suppressed religious feelings isn’t enough.

It is the unspiritual aspect of this spiritual music, how it has been produced, packaged and sold in the godless West, which I would have liked to see analysed and explained a bit more deeply.

Thanks to the South Bank

Still – an enormous Thank You to Jude Kelly and the many staff at the South Bank who have organised and administrated this superb year-long festival – hopefully thousands of other people have found it as stimulating and informative as I have and have come away bristling with questions and ideas and criticisms and compliments about subjects and musics and composers we didn’t even know existed beforehand.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin (Wikimedia Commons)

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