The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (2007) – the American chapters

Alex Ross’s the Rest is Noise is by far the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the classical music of the long difficult twentieth century that I know of.

Born in 1968, Alex Ross studied classical composition, but was also a rock DJ at Harvard. He was just 28 when he was appointed classical music critic for New Yorker magazine, combining formidable technical and historical knowledge with a wonderfully clear and expressive prose style. He has a modern, unstuffy, relaxed approach to music of all sorts and sounds.

Having recently visited an exhibition of art from 1930s America and read the book of the exhibition, I decided to reread the relevant chapters of Ross’s masterwork to shed light on the musical highlights of the period. In the event this also requires reading one of the earlier chapters in the book, the one which describes the beginnings of 20th century American music.


Chapter 4 – Invisible men: American composers from Ives to Ellington

African American music

Slavery. Blacks. African Americans. The chapter opens by describing the way prescient critics and composers grasped that the one truly new and different element in American music was the black African element. It’s amazing to learn that when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák went to New York in 1892 to teach at the new National Conservatory, he met a black composer, Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced him to African American spirituals, prompting the European master to write an article on ‘the Real Value of Negro Melodies’ in 1893 and predict that:

the future music of this country must be founded upon  what are called the negro melodies.

The early part of the chapter lists black composers who struggled to reconcile the European tradition with their background, and coming up against prejudice, racism, the difficulty of getting a full classical training and, if they did, of writing in a foreign idiom and getting performed. Ragtime classic Scott Joplin wrote an opera which was never performed. Harry Lawrence freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company and wrote two tetralogies of operas in the Wagner tradition, but which were never performed. Maurice Arnold Strohotte who Dvořák thought the most gifted of his pupils had a piece titled American Plantation Dances performed at the National Conservatory in 1894, but then couldn’t get any subsequent works performed and languished in obscurity. Will Marion Cook managed to get into one of the few colleges which accepted blacks and became a world class violinist, moving to Germany where – surprisingly – he was respected and taken seriously. Back in America he found his career blocked, began work on a classical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but never completed it, and found himself driven to orchestrating and directing blackface musical revues, and then a bandleader founding the New York Syncopated Review, and hiring the young genius clarinettist Sidney Bechet as star soloist.

Cook’s career shows how the exclusion of black ‘serious’ composers from the mainstream pushed them again and again towards music halls, revues, popular music – and indirectly fuelled the creation of jazz. Once this had crystallised as a form, a completely new style of music, towards the end of the Great War, there was an explosion of long-suppressed talent. The Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein had predicted, back in 1893, that within 25 years Negro musicians would form ‘a new musical school’.

Neither he nor Dvořák nor many of the wannabe black classical composers could have anticipated just how revolutionary the advent of jazz would be. As Ross puts it, with characteristic eloquence:

The characteristic devices of African-American musicking – the bending and breaking of diatonic scales, the distortion of instrumental timbre, the layering of rhythms, the blurring of the distinction between verbal and nonverbal sound – opened new dimensions in musical space, a realm beyond the written notes. (p.122)

Just reeling off the names of some of the masters of jazz is dizzying – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman. As is the list of Broadway masters who came to fame in the 1920s – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. They invented rhythms, styles, timings, structures, tones and timbres, and wrote thousands of compositions which changed the nature of music all round the world.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Histories of modern American classical music generally begin with Ives. The son of a traditional marching bandmaster in New England, he grew up surrounded by the music of brass bands and church music but, after a successful university education, decided to work for an insurance company, composing in the evenings and weekends completely revolutionary works which experimented with novel musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. An immediate flavour is given when you learn that Three Places in New England requires the orchestra to play orchestrated versions of two popular Victorian songs at the same time. That said, compared with most of what follows, a lot of Ives still sounds reassuringly familiar.

Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965)

Whereas Ives was American through and through and incorporated snatches of hymn tunes, popular songs and classical references in works still titled Violin concerto and so on, Varèse was French and determinedly avant-garde. He travelled to New York during the Great War and pioneering a highly experimental sound, latterly involving tape recordings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of electronic music’.

Coming from the world of Dada and cubism, Varèse was keen to incorporate non-musical sounds in a futurist attempt to capture ‘the sound of the city’ – look out for the fire siren in Amériques. His key works are Amériques (1918–1921), Offrandes (1921), Hyperprism (1922–1923), Octandre (1923), Intégrales (1924–1925), Arcana (1925–1927), Ionisation (1929–1931), Ecuatorial (1932–1934), Density 21.5 (1936), Dance for Burgess (1949), Déserts (1950–1954) Poème électronique (1957–1958).

Varèse broke down language and form into a stream of sensations, but he offered few compensating spells of lyricism. His jagged thematic gestures, battering pulses, and brightly screaming chords have no emotional cords tied to them, no history, no future. (p.137)

I like the YouTube poster who describes Amériques as like The Rite of Spring on crack.

George Antheil (1900 – 1959)

Antheil was born American, to German immigrant parents, who went to Paris determined to be the most avant of the garde, wowed modernist writers with his Dadaist/Futurist ideas, caused a riot at one of his premiers in the approved avant-garde style and brought back to New York his notorious Ballet Mécanique. This was originally intended to accompany an experimental film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray and which you can see on YouTube. To the kind of fire siren sounds Varèse pioneered Antheil added the use of several airplane propellers onstage. Sadly these tended to blow the audience’s programmes around and wreck ladies’ hairdos. The critics were underwhelmed at his ‘bad boy’ antics, and his reputation went into decline. After a spell in decadent Berlin writing for the stage, by the 1930s he was back in the States, writing film scores in Hollywood. Although it’s loud with four pianos and plenty of percussion, it’s striking how prominent the three xylophones manage to be. Xylophones suddenly appear in modernist music and have never gone away.

The Wikipedia article has a musical analysis of Ballet Mécanique.

Carl Ruggles (1876 – 1971)

A difficult, obstreperous, loudly racist and self-taught composer, Ruggles devised his own form of atonal counterpoint, on a non-serial technique of avoiding repeating a pitch class until a generally fixed number such as eight pitch classes intervened. He wrote painstakingly slowly so his output is relatively small. His longest and best-known work is Sun-Treader (1926–31) for large orchestra, a weighty 16 minutes long. As Ross sums him up:

If Varèse is like early Stravinsky with the folk motifs removed, Ruggles is like Ives without the tunes. (p.138)

Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965)

Cowell was another  highly experimental; American composer. He was the centre of a circle which included Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Varèse and Ruth Crawford. In the 1920s he founded new music magazines and organisations, published much new music, and reached out to incorporate South American composers such as Villa-Lobos. Among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

The most glaring thing about Gershwin is how tragically young he died, aged 38 of a brain tumour. How much he had accomplished by then! A host of timeless songs, a pack of shows and revues, and then some immortal concert hall – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan, was intrigued by the music-making of some relatives, wangled piano lessons, got a job very young in Tin Pan Alley while the Great War was still on, churning out popular tunes and songs incorporating the latest sounds i.e. the arrival of jazz from the great mash-up of syncopated sounds which were in the air. His biggest money-spinner was the early song Swanee which Al Jolson heard him perform at a party and decided to make part of his black-face act.

As success followed success Gershwin took to the party high life of New York like an elegant swan. And beneath the stylish surface there was an enquiring mind, always questing to improve his musical knowledge. He continued to take musical lessons throughout his life and made several trips to Europe where he sought out the masters. He was particularly impressed by the serialist composer Alban Berg in Vienna. In Paris he studied with Maurice Ravel, who ended their lessons, supposedly by telling him, ‘Why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’

Many commentators then and now have noticed how many of the popular ‘composers’ of 20s and 30s America were Jews – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and how thoroughly they co-opted and expressed the African American idiom. This allowed a field day to anti-Semites like some of the Regionalists and ruralists. Scholars have pointed to the similiarities, both were ‘outsider’ groups liable to harsh discrimination. In our own censorious judgmental times, how would they have avoided the block accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Ross is more relaxed and points to the notion of the Melting Pot – New York in particular was a massive mash-up of hundreds of influences, everyone – writers, poets, painters, composers, singers, comedians – was stealing from, remixing and contributing to a mass explosion of creativity. Also, as I read in a history of jazz decades ago, it is commonplace to say that jazz – and the vast ocean of sounds which come out of it, rock’n’roll, pop and the rest of it – is entirely due to African rhythms, syncopations and the blurring of voices and timbres Ross describes. But this history pointed out another truth so obvious nobody sees it – there isn’t a single African instrument anywhere in a jazz band. All of the instruments were invented by white Europeans as was the system of music notation used by all the big bands. Seen from this point of view, African American music ‘appropriated’ 500 years of European tradition – and gave it a good shake from which it’s never recovered.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

One of the prime shakers was Duke Ellington, the jazz big band leader who broadened its style and appeal into a large band capable of projecting a well-organised, full sound while still giving space to many of the greatest soloists of the day. With Ellington jazz moved out of low dives and bars and into the swellest of must-see nightclubs. His impeccable personal taste and style, his good manners and slyly intelligent way with reporters and interviewers made him a star, as did a steady stream of jazz standards. From the 1930s to the 1970s his band undertook wide-ranging tours of Europe and Latin America, helping to make him a household name around the world.


Chapter 8 – Music for All: Music in FDR’s America

A host of things led to decisive changes as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

1. The Depression wrecked the country, destroying middle class savings and crushing the rural population. Somehow, eerily, there continued to be a market, in fact the market grew, for shiny escapist Hollywood fantasies of the high life, starring a new generation of movie stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. As the country got poorer the Hollywood fantasies got shinier, the stars more glamorous.

2. Talkies And now they were in talking pictures. Sound completely transformed movies, in the obvious respect that you could hear the movie idols speak, but also because they could now carry extended soundtracks. Music. Short songs, extended show pieces or just background music. This music had to be accessible and comprehensible immediately. No place here for modernist experimentation – Varese, Ives, Ruggles, Virgil Thompson – no thank you. Opportunities opened for thousands of hack composers to mash up all the sounds they heard around them, jazz, swing, along with any useful bits of classical music, with a few geniuses standing above the crowd, most famously Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy who produced the scores for many of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers in the 30s, and Bernard Hermann (1911-65) who kicked off his career spectacularly scoring Citizen Kane (1941) before going on to score a host of famous movies, including a clutch of Hitchcocks, most famously the shower scene of Psycho (1960). Both the children of Jewish immigrants.

3. Politics Stalin’s Communist International issued the call for a Popular Front to be formed against the fascist powers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 but the whole of the 30s are sometimes seen as the Popular Front decade, when working men and women, some politicians, as well as the intelligentsia all became politicised, all asked themselves how such poverty and misery could come to the greatest country on earth and, not irrationally, concluded there was something very wrong with the system. More than one composer decided to reject the intellectual allure of modernism – indelibly associated with ‘abroad’, with the big city specially New York – and realised it was their ‘duty’ to write about their own country, about its sufferings, in music which would be understandable to all.

4. The Exodus Also Europe came to America. The advent to power of Hitler in 1933 drove a wave of European emigrants – Jews or socialists and communists, or just people the Nazis described as ‘degenerates’ – to flee to the Land of the Free. And so half the great composers of the day landed up in America – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, Eisler and many others. As Ross puts it, entire communities from Paris or Berlin settled en masse in New York or the Hollywood Hills (p.260). they were all welcomed into the bosom of Roosevelt’s New Deal America although, arguably, in pampered America none of them produced work of the intensity which brought them to fame in troubled Europe. But it had another impact: in the 1920s artists and composers went on pilgrimage to Europe to sit at the feet of the masters and bring their discoveries back to breathless audiences. But now the masters were here, living among us and regularly putting on concerts. The special role of the artist as privileged messenger from the other world evaporated. They had to find another role.

5. The Federal Music Project was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It created employment for a small army musicians, conductors and composers and led to the thousands of concerts, music classes, the establishment of a Composers Forum Laboratory, as well as scores of music festivals and the creation of 34 new orchestras! An estimated 95 million Americans attended presentations by one or other FMP body. A huge new audience was created for a type of accessible culture which increasingly came to be defined as ‘middle-brow’ (p.278).

6. Radio and records These new regional orchestras were able to reach beyond concert halls into the homes of many more people as radio stations were set up across America and mass production made radios available to even the poorest families (like television a generation later). Music (as well as news, drama, features and so on) now reached far beyond the big cities. Radio made stars of some of the big name conductors, namely Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini, whose regular radio broadcasts brought Beethoven and Brahms to huge numbers of new listeners. Simultaneously the plastic discs, 78 rpm records and then long players, were a whole new medium which could bring recordings of all sorts of music into people’s homes to be played again and again. A massive revolutionary switch from live to recorded music began to sweep the country in this decade.

How as the American composer, struggling to find a voice and a role, to respond to the clamour and confusion of this new world?

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Copland was another New York Jew who went to Europe to study music and composition for three years, returned and got only small audiences for his advanced pieces until, swayed by the changing social scene around him, and participating in communist meetings and agitation, he realised he needed to devote his talents to the common man, making his music as accessible, as uplifting, as optimistic as possible. His breakthrough came after a visit to Mexico (which often helps American writers, poets, composers, painters see their own country in a new light) and the syncopations of the Spanish tradition helped him escape from both the prison house of modernism but also the sounds of jazz and Broadway which dominated his native New York.

The result was the complex syncopations of El Salón México (1936) and there quickly followed the tide of his most popular works, which used big bold motifs, lots of brass and grandiose percussion, clear harmonies and slow-moving, stately themes which somehow convey the sense of space and openness – Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944).

(Although he’s associated with soft American landscapes, if you look closely you’ll see that his most programmatic music is actually about the desert and the prairie, a distinctly non-European landscape. For me this echoes the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings inspired by the deserts of New Mexico – for me – emerged as the most distinctive works in the recent exhibition of 1930s art, America after the Fall.)

Copland created a way of sounding big and brash and bold and confident, often poignant and moving, which somehow didn’t seem to owe anything to the stilted European tradition. To this day his sound lives on in the movie music of, for example, John Williams, the most successful Hollywood composer of our day. Copland is always mentioned in the company of other populist composers like:

Samuel Barber (1910-81) remembered for his haunting Adagio for strings (1936)

Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) From Wikipedia: “Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.” Harris wrote 18 symphonies in an accessible style and on grand patriotic subjects – Gettysburg Address, West Point, Abraham Lincoln. This passage from Ross gives a good sense of his easy confident often amused style:

The work that won Harris nationwide attention was his Third Symphony of 1938 – an all-American hymn and dance for orchestra in which strings declaim orations in broad, open-ended lines, brass chant and whoop like cowboys in the galleries, and timpani stamp out strong beats in the middle of the bar. Such a big-shouldered sound met everyone’s expectations of what a true-blue American symphony should be. (p.280).

Swing

To most of us the period was dominated by the form of jazz known as swing and the big band jazz of Duke Ellington (formed his band 1923) and Count Basie (formed his big band in 1935) alongside white bandleaders like Ted Lewis (1919), Paul Whiteman (1920) the rather tamer offerings of white band-leaders like Tommy Dorsey (1935), Benny Goodman and latterly Glenn Miller. It was an August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom by Benny Goodman which is sometimes hailed as the start of ‘the Swing Era’ and the band’s ‘s confident smooth big band sound earned Goodman the moniker ‘the King of Swing’, a status when his band went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in new York, previously the domain of the most high-toned classical concerts, and took  it by storm. After twenty years of hard work by black and white musicians across the country, it felt like their music was finally accepted.

The highbrows weren’t immune. Stravinsky, the great liberator of rhythm in classical music, had incorporated sort-of jazz syncopations right from the start and now, in exile in California, wrote a Scherzo a la Russe  for Paul Whiteman’s band (1944) and an Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s, Woody later commenting that the Maestro hadn’t made any concessions at all to the idiom of the big band – it was Stravinsky through and through.

But Stravinsky’s adventures in America belong to the next decade, the 1940s (he came from Paris to do a U.S. concert tour in 1940 and then the Germans invaded France, so he was stuck).

Imagine you were a student in 1938, what would you listen to? Copland’s serious but consciously patriotic and possibly left-leaning orchestra panoramas of the Big Country? Would you subscribe to Henry Cowell’s New Music and followed the ongoing experiments of Varese, Ruggles and Ives? Would you dismiss all that as European rubbish and tune into Toscanini’s Saturday night broadcasts of the old classics, dominated by Beethoven and Brahms? Would you know about the efforts of the Seegers and others like them to track down and record the folk songs of rural folk before they died out? Or would save your dollars to take your best girl to go see each swing band which came through your mid-Western city, and have an impressive collection of discs by the Duke, the Count, Benny, Tommy and Woody?

Another world, other tastes, other choices.


Related links

Reviews of books about America

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 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)

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)

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)

The Rest is Noise 6: The Art of Fear

To the South Bank for the latest study weekend in their year-long The Rest Is Noise festival; this weekend it’s The Art of Fear ie music and culture under the dictators Stalin and Hitler, and straightaway you have a dilemma. The history and culture of the Nazi rise-to-power and the Bolshevik revolution are substantially different: Germany was Europe’s most advanced industrial country, Russia its most backward: so do you flit between sessions on each or focus on one? After some thought I decided I know enough about Shostakovitch – I’ve listened to all the symphonies countless times, I’ve read testimony and seen the film several times, a year ago I was reading Orlando Figes’s history of the Bolshevik revolution, but about music under Hitler I know a lot less.

Breakfast with Shostakovitch: The Leningrad Symphony Very enjoyable hour led by enthusiastic Rachel Leach who got audience members to play the vibes, drums and bash a piano along with a cellist, violinist and percussionist from the LSO to explore the component parts of Shostakovitch’s most famous symphony. He wrote it in Leningrad during the murderous siege by the Nazis during the second world war when hundreds of thousands of Russians died of cold and starvation, it was smuggled out of the besieged city and played in the West to great acclaim. The first movement is dominated by a 12 minute long repeating drum pattern which begins quietly and builds to nightmareish proportions, generally taken to represent the advance of the German army into the Russian heartland. But like everything to do with Shostakovitch the story is muddied; he later claimed a lot of it was written before the war and was about the destruction of Russian life wrought by Stalin. It is one of the biggest, longest (90 minutes), loudest pieces of classical music ever written. Over-the-top bombast or triumph of the human spirit in face of terrible adversity: you takes your pick. They were investigating it in such detail because it was the big concert being given that evening by the City of Birmingham Orchestra.

Anne Applebaum: Opening lecture The phenomenally intelligent and successful Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, author of a terrifying book about the Russian gulags, did the impossible and delivered a half hour overview of both Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Lenin’s USSR which covered the main points and offered me, at least, thought-provoking new ideas. She said the word ‘totalitarian’ was coined by a speechwriter for Mussolini, and it was defined as “Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, everything for the State”. What Hitler and Lenin-Stalin had in common was a contempt for the ‘softness’ of bourgeois politics, for democracy. Both shared a completely new theory of Power. The completeness of the vision, the ambition, is unprecedented in human history: to remould human beings; to create a new race of humans (pure Aryan Germans or communist Man); to completely re-engineer Society from top to bottom leaving no quarter, no inch untouched. And to change the Mind, to change the way human beings think, both dictators realised the importance of art and culture in the broadest sense, as the field where humans learn about their society and express their feelings and ideas. if you want to completely re-engineer these thoughts and feelings into approved channels then, it follows logically, every aspect of art and culture must be meticulously controlled and regulated. Art must be realistic and comprehensible by everyone; any art which retreats from the social challenge, which obsesses with purely personal subject matter, with obscure symbolism or sets itself up into petty cliques, such art is obviously anti-social and, in effect, sabotaging the Great Plan. Any artist who is gifted with the means of helping the people towards the Promised Land but wilfully refuses the task and prefers agonising about their own petty personal problems or tinkering with obscure “formalist” theories is clearly a traitor…

A quick sandwich out on the Festival Hall balcony, and then have to choose one of the five events all happening simultaneously at 1pm: I decide not to go to Noise Bites 4×15 minute whistle-stop tours through the key artists, social movements and scientific breakthroughs of the era ie Leni Riefenstahl, Picasso’s Guernica and Nazi Architecture; not to go to a talk on Propaganda Posters presented by John Milner from the Courtauld Institute; not to see Christopher Nupen’s award-winning film “We Want The Light” which explores the relationship between the Jews and German music. My feeling from previous weekends is that films can be seen on dvd or YouTube – what is unrepeatable is lecturers talking and answering questions (and, sure enough, We Want The Light is available on YouTube.)

Erik Levi: Music and the Nazis This was a really good lecture. Erik is Reader in Music and Director of Performance at Royal Holloway. He has made a really detailed study of the documents of music in Weimar and Nazi Germany, the magazines and associations and concert programmes, and come up with fascinating findings.

  • Number one, it is astonishing how central culture is to Mein Kampf. Hitler is obsessed with the centrality of culture in promoting a pure strong Aryan Germany; to be strong again Germany must think itself proud and strong. Looking around he saw George Grosz and a host of contemporary artists and composers revelling in German’s defeat and poverty and humiliation: this would be changed!
  • Two: we all think about the cool revolutionaries in the Weimar Republic, but there was a deep fund of “conservative bitterness”, a large number of composers and musicians who disliked the new music and thought it was betraying the nobility of what is, after all, the greatest musical tradition in Europe – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Wagner. As early as 1920 Hans Pfitzner wrote a pamphlet attacking the new music (presumably of Stravinsky) and identifying the Jews with controlling music establishment and ruining German music. (Levi points out that in fact Jews did hold positions of power, running various symphony orchestra and operas and figuring heavily among the controversial new composers – Weill, Eissler). The Nazis, ostensibly a political party, thought it worth their time and energy organising protests against the (hugely popular) Threepenny Opera and the jazz opera, Jonny Spielt Auf.
  • It is striking that Goebbels, shrewdly, is contributing to the conservative and reactionary music periodicals, infiltrating and conscripting conservative musical discourse for the Party’s goals. Levi quotes a passage of Goebbels calling for a “steely Romanticism” which faces reality without flinching.
  • The Wall Street Crash and the arrival of talkies had the joint affect of throwing thousands of musicians out of work. Through the twenties each town had a cinema (Germany had a massive film industry) which employed a full orchestra. With talkies and then musicals all these musicians were sacked, joining the ranks of the unemployed which Hitler offered work.
  • Hitler comes to power and does give them work. The Nazis invest a huge amount in music. they save the Berlin Philharmonic and the Bayreuth Festival from bankruptcy. They fund concerts of good German music in every city, they sponsor festivals celebrating anniversaries of Bach, Wagner etc. The flight of so many eminent Jews creates vacancies in numerous institutions. In music as in economics the Nazis institute protectionism: German music by German musicians. The most eminent German composer, Richard Strauss, notoriously writes: “Thank God we have a new regime which takes music seriously” and is made President of the Reichskammer.
  • Levi discussed the fate of six iconic pieces from the period:
    • Berg’s Lulu is banned, for both its corrupt subject matter (a prostitute) and its twelve tone experimentalism
    • Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes is, surprisingly, welcomed and widely played. Stravinsky was a big fan of Mussolini’s fascism and wanted (and needed) his music to be played in Germany so he was careful not to offend the authorities. They ignored his revolutionary ballets and played his easier neoclassical stuff.
    • Bartok was vehemently anti-fascist but his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste was widely played. Why? Because Bartok could be portrayed as a nationalist, devoted to folk art, to blood and soil (in contrast to the stereotype of the rootless, urban, decadent Jewish influence which the Nazis saw as the key enemy)
    • Hindemith was banned and left.
    • Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana was probably closest to Goebbels’ idea of steely Romanticism; it is full of modernist, post-Stravinsky rhythms, but harnessed to colossally simple tunes and harmonies.
    • Richard Strauss: poster boy for the regime who secretly despised the top Nazis but was happy to take all the awards and positions they offered him.

At 2.30 another set of difficult choices: I decide not to go see Phil Walker from the University of Surrey discuss the origins of The Nuclear Era; the Noise Bites whistle-stop tour through Mass Observation, Orwell and David Gascoyne, or Irish actor Jack Healy performing his one-man show about Shostakovich.

Instead queue to see BBC History Commissioning editor Martin Davidson give an enthusiastic talk titled The Vile and The Sublime: Hitler and Art. I think this was meant to be about Leni Riefenstahl and her notorious documentary film about the 1934 Nurenberg rally, Triumph of the Will. Martin has made various documentaries about Nazi Germany including one on this very subject. But it was his swift overview of the cultural trends which led up to Nazism which I found riveting: the Romantic movement posited that there is more to the world than the prosaic reality we face day to day; there are higher levels, numinous realms of the imagination accessible to poets and artists and imaginative heroes who can show us the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age: Arnold and Ruskin and Morris told us that only Art can save us from the mundane and the philistine and encourage idolisation of the great Poets who shape and transmit these precious spiritual values to us masses. It is Thomas Carlisle who takes the fateful step of carrying this Romantic adulation into the realm of Politics, with his series of essays and books delineating the political Hero, the Cromwell and Napoleon, the Strong Man who bends the destinies of nations to his will. Meanwhile, in another strand, Richard Wagner writes his pamphlet, Das Judenthum in der Musik (1850), stereotyping the rootless, cosmopolitan Jew as the enemy of pure nationalist music, by extension the underminer of the Modern Nation. And elsewhere Charles Darwin’s epigones spin the idea of natural selection into theories of spiritual or physical or political evolution,  whereby nations are engaged in a life or death competition to survive and any elements or aspects of society which are backward or diseased risk jeopardising the survival of the entire nation, of everyone.

And then the whole world exploded in the unprecedented disaster of the Great War, an unparalleled catastrophe, murder on an industrial scale, which ushered in the 20th century and all its immeasurable evil, vileness and horror. The War leaves the defeated utterly bereft of hope, amid the wreckage of ruined empires, all illusions destroyed. It was a war of the entire nation coming together on an unprecedented scale and when Germany lost, it wasn’t some remote army, it was the entire society from top to bottom which failed. From all of these strands Hitler concocted what Davidson quotes Hugh Trevor-Roper as describing as “bestial Nordic nonsense”. But to the majority of people who voted for Hitler in 1933 it made sense:

Germany had been comprehensively betrayed: the Weimar democrats and socialists and Jews had stabbed this mighty nation in the back and betrayed her noble army to the Jews on Wall street and the Bolshevik Jews and the Jews within, the degenerate, rootless intellectuals. The noble German worker and soldier needed to be saved from unemployment and humiliation by a strong Leader who could unite the nation, and defeat its enemies within and abroad.

Speer built the gleaming modernist Zeppelin stadium outside the quaint traditional volkish town of Nurenberg, Goebbels staged the rally, Leni Riefenstahl filmed it.

4pm more difficult decisions. I chose not to attend Frank Whitford on the Nazi exhibition of Degenerate Art; or to join the enormous queue for novelist Helen Dunmore talking about The Long Shadows Of War, what society chooses to memorialise and what to forget; more Noise Bites whistle-stop tours through Picture Post, Orwell and the Paris International Exhibition; nor to go watch three British Wartime Propaganda Films, tempting as this was, on the principle that you can always see these things on dvd or YouTube; ditto Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

Instead I went to see A listening guide to the weekend’s music presented by very English music professor, critic and broadcaster David Fanning and the excruciatingly giggly, girlish Iranian pianist and musicologist Michelle Assay. Half way through one balding guy in front of me turned to the balding guy next to him and stage whispered ‘This is rubbish’. They had decided David would be the teacher and Michelle the cheeky pupil who needed to answer questions about Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch correctly to pass her test. Which led to excruciating ‘jokes’ in an uncomfortably kinky atmosphere, and didn’t very well convey the Wikipedia-level trot through the careers of the three composers. Didn’t learn anything: Stravinsky the chameleon modernist who unleashed wild pagan rhythm for everyone else to explore; Prokofiev the optimistic futurist associated with urban, sporting, energetic music who somehow never created the big masterpieces; Shostakovitch who started off as a jokey satirist but was chastened into the morbidly grandiose symphonist of popular memory. I should have kept to to my Nazi theme and gone to the talk on Degenerate Art.

There was more. I didn’t go to see the Southbank Sinfonia play Music from Terezin concentration camp; Will Self deliver a lecture about Kafka’s influence on totalitarian music; another opportunity to see Jack Healy be Shostakovich; the pre-concert talk about Shostakovich, Prokofiev & Stalin by music journalist and radio presenter Stephen Johnson; a screening of Tony Palmer’s film about Carl Orff, “O, Fortuna!”; or the evening’s big concert, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra performing Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, preceded by an introductory talk by historian Orlando Figes.

You can have too much of a good thing…

The bad guys

Steve Reich: Radio Rewrite @ the Royal Festival Hall

Setting the scene The Royal Festival Hall is sold out. My son and I have remaindered seats in the Choir ie along the side of the stage which is close enough to the performers to read the sheet music. Amid the rustling and coughing and scraping of programmes two old guys dressed in black trousers and shirts walk onstage and over to a music stand. Everyone applauds. The guys focus for a moment, nod at each other, then start clapping in unison quite a complicated rhythm. After 30 seconds the one wearing the baseball cap nods to the other and one of them starts clapping a different pattern. In fact the initial simplicity begins to change into a shifting complex of overlapping rhythms, phasing in and out of unison. On an instrumental level, this is primitive music. All you need is hands. Yet it is ultra-sophisticated. You need to be trained to a high level to learn the patterns and then implement their slow mutations while someone else is clapping something completely different right next to you.

The piece is Clapping Music (1972), an early classic from New York composer Steve Reich, founding father and grand old man of musical minimalism and Steve is here, tonight, wearing his trademark baseball cap, and performing it in person.

Steve (the Reich is pronounced with a soft -sh sound at the end, as I discovered at a day of Reish events last year – and everyone calls him Steve) will turn 77 this year but he’s still very active, both composing and performing. He’s a frequent visitor to England, with concerts of his work every year at the Barbican or South Bank.

Photo of Steve Reich against the New York skyline

Steve Reich (photo credit: Jeffrey Herman)

The concert But this concert wasn’t looking back to those early days when his pieces were created for minimal instruments because that’s all he could afford; instead it had a much more modern, rocky feel, dominated by the electric guitar, bass and drums used in all the other 4 pieces. At this concert the London Sinfonietta, well-known for its performance and commissioning of contemporary classical music, performed two pieces from the past few years as well as the World Premiere of ‘Radio Rewrite’, a co-commission by the London Sinfonietta along with New York’s Alarm Will Sound. Eyebrows were raised when people learned that ‘Radio Rewrite’ is based on two songs by the rock band Radiohead, see the Q&A, below.

The concert was taped by BBC Radio 3 and was available for 7 days, but now only the Radio rewrite section seems to be available. I link to it below and to YouTube versions of the other tracks.

Part One

Clapping Music (1972)
Electric Counterpoint (1987)
2×5 (2008)

Part Two

Radio Rewrite (2012) (after an interview with Radio 3’s Andrew McGregor)
Double Sextet (2007)

A review If you listen to a piece like 2×5 (written six years ago for New York bass ensemble, Bang On A Can) you can hear why Reich is so popular with a wide “crossover” audience. With its drums, bass and guitar, it is in effect a piece of experimental rock music. It reminds me of the early 70s King Crimson I’ve been listening to recently in its unrelentingness, its singlemindedness. The interest isn’t in melody or harmony – what most people want from their classical or pop music. It’s in the phasing or overlapping changing of rhythmic fragments – it’s in the piling on of instrumentation to create layers of sound – it’s in shifting rhythms and textures.

(Speaking of textures and prog rock, the rumbly bass sound of a bass playing picky, non-swining ostinati, set against lattices of filigree guitar notes, reminded me a lot of the rumbly bass in some passages of Tubular Bells.)

I confess I find some Reich works hard to listen to. I’ve got the Nonesuch box set and the obsessively tight repetition of tones and rhythms of some of the pieces – or of too many pieces listened together – can give you a headache. But I found all the pieces tonight very listenable and none too long.

I think I agree with my son that ‘Electric Counterpoint’ stood out because of the clarity of the textures. Pat Metheny recorded 10 guitars and 2 basses performing complicated tessalations of sound onto a backing tape, and then an electric guitarist – tonight Swedish guitarist Mats Bergstrom – performs an 11th part live, against the tape. A tracery of fine and precise notes are set against insistent and complex dotted rhythms which themselves grow louder and softer according to a much larger, slower pulse – like fine lace floating on an advancing and receding wave.

‘Radio Rewrite’, like so many of Reich’s pieces is divided into sections named simply slow or fast, in this case fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, the fast sections based on the song Jigsaw, the slows ones on Everything. It has the lightness of his later, rockier work, a sense of the instruments dancing daintily – but countering that is the distinctively edgy timbre created by combining violin and clarinet, almost screechy at time – then again given a strange luminosity of sound by the twinned vibraphones glowing around them. I don’t think I know anything by Reich as slow and thoughtful as the slow movements of this new piece. We loved it!

Q&A Nice surprise after the gig was a 10 minute Q&A with the great man. When asked why he was working with songs written by a rock band,

  • Steve explained why the specific chord structures of the two songs in question (Everything In its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place) piqued his interest and set his juices flowing (he also admitted there was not much of the songs left once he’d finished with them. I listened very closely and I didn’t recognise a single aural reference to either); but then…
  • Steve went on to give a potted history of Western music from medieval times to the present day, pointing out that all the great composers enjoyed a two-way relationship with the popular and folk music of their times right up until the 1950s and the dominance of the International Serialist music effectively banned melody, harmony and anything the ear could latch onto – and that this one, exceptionally ivory-tower period just happened to be when he was studying music 😦 This got a big laugh, all the more so for being true. The way he sees it, he and Philip Glass and a few others were consciously overthrowing the International Style and restoring a much more open relationship with the music they heard all around them in New York – jazz and rock and film music. Creating composed music from the pop music of the day? – he’s only returning to the practice of almost all classical composers.

Steve Reich’s website

Alex Petridis interviews Steve Reich in the Guardian

The Rest is Noise 4: Berlin in the 20s and 30s

The South Bank Centre is hosting a year long festival of 20th century music based on the book, The Rest Is Noise, by American critic Alex Ross. Part of the festival is a series of 12 weekends each focusing on an important time and place. This weekend the focus was on Berlin in the 20s and 30s, with big concerts on Friday (Liza Minnelli, the Berliner Philharmoniker doing cabaret), Saturday (‘The Threepenny Opera’), and Sunday (Berg’s ‘Violin Concerto’ in the afternoon, Weill’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ in the evening). During Saturday and Sunday there was a series of lectures, presentations and film showings, 20 on Saturday, 19 on Sunday. I attended the following:

Saturday 2nd March

Breakfast with Kurt Weill: ‘The Threepenny Opera’ – interactive workshop led by composer John Browne and voice coach Mary King, enthusiastically explaining, demonstrating and singing elements of Brecht and Weill’s 1928 smash hit, the centrepiece of the weekend. I learned:

  • The 20s a period of tremendous criss-crossing currents but the main trend towards Simplicity and Order: neoclassicism, Neue Sachlichkeit etc Schoenberg’s 12 tone method was a variation on the quest for Order. All of it disgusted by the bloated self indulgence of late Romanticism, associated with the windy rhetoric which led to the cataclysm of the Great War.
  • The two musical giants of between the wars are Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Stravinsky is about rhythm and the dance. Both incorporate unprecedented amounts of dissonance in their music; Stravinsky uses dissonance to release energy, to reconnect with the Primitive; Schoenberg uses dissonance to reveal new mystical landscapes.
  • One of Stravinsky’s less-known works, ‘The Soldier’s Tale‘, turns out to be crucial for between the wars music. Composed in 1918 for a small travelling ensemble resembling a stripped-down dance orchestra means you can hear the seven instruments very clearly, with all their individual roughnesses. (Having a big bank of strings as in a symphony orchestra smooths out the sound.) Weill uses just seven instrumentalists in the Threepenny Opera to create a deliberately rusty, ragged sound. Clarity. Honesty.
  • In vocal terms, Brecht-Weill pieces show the influence of Pierrot Lunaire (1912), Schoenberg’s far-out experiment with Sprechstimme or speech-singing. Mary explains that in speechsinging you speak – but on the pitch. You’re speaking to a note.
  • Weill is often categorised as a ‘crossover’ artist because he incorporated elements of popular music, from instrumentation (guitar, harmonium, mandolin, banjo), to length (mostly songs and song cycles), to rhythm (jaunty, bouncy and repetitive rhythms, to emphasise the melody) and mood – sentimental.
  • The abandonment of a “home key” – atonality, the liberation of dissonance – in so much 20th century music, especially avant-garde music, is cognate with the decline of other forms of certainty, moral, religious, social etc. Weill is poppy because he very much does use home keys to root his tunes in – but he often uses more than one, and there are no smooth transitions from one to another as in the symphonic tradition. Instead the whole tune just jumps to another key. Then jumps back again. John compares this with Montage, Eistenstein etc. Jerky unexpected cuts. And with the techniques Brecht uses in his plays to jerk his audiences out of their bourgeois trance – lights on, captions, addressing the audience, characters carrying captions.
Photo of Kurt Weill

Kurt Weill. Copyright The Kurt Weill Foundation for Music

Germany between the wars – lecture by Frederick Taylor. The Germans lost the First World War in part because their society collapsed. The Kaiser abdicated, the government resigned, there were would-be communist revolutions. Taylor goes through the history of events from 1918 to 1933 in detail, the sorry sequence of attempted coups and putsches, the devastation of the economy by ruinous reparations to the Allies, the collapse of the currency in the early 20s after France reoccupied the industrial Ruhr, a period of stability by 1924 which lasted until the Wall Street Crash when the American bankers wanted their money back, and the Germans couldn’t pay. Collapse of the economy. Massive unemployment. 1930 collapse of the coalition government. Revival of the street fighting of the early 20s. Everyone who lost out on the past 15 years looking for a saviour – Rise of the Nazis. I learned:

  • Berlin by 1914 was the centre of German industry, home to AEG, Siemens etc, with a population of 3 million the third largest city in the world after London and New York, with a notoriously stroppy industrial proletariat of 600,000. With a population of 3 million it was the third largest city in the world after London and New York.At Alexanderplatz began the vast Hinterhofer, enormous council blocks of apartments in which teeming thousands lived in squalor.
  • New Labour laws passed by the liberal Weimar government guaranteed workers an 8 hour day which led to a (relative) explosion of hobbies and activities and spectator events, such as sports – bicycle racing, boxing – and theatre and cabaret.

Brecht’s composers – presentation by composer Dominic Muldowney who has set over 200 Brecht poems to music. Dominic emphasises that Brecht was a poet first, playwright second and idealogue third (exactly the opposite to how he became known to British audiences.) Informal and informative Dominic read out his favourite Brecht poems, played musical settings of Brecht poems by his main collaborators – Hans Eisler, Kurt Weill – and performances by a wide range of artists (including David Bowie and Sting).

Photo of Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht (Photo: Jörg Kolbe. CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons)

I learned that:

  • Brecht came from a strict religious background; early poems are titled psalm, hymn etc, and his work is fuelled by a deeply religious moralism, reversioned into fierce communism.
  • Brecht served as an ambulance orderly in the great War (like Vaughan Williams).
  • When he made a radio documentary about it, Dominic identified 158 versions of ‘Mack the Knife’ and played us the comedy version by Liberace
  • Hans Eisler started as a devout pupil of Schoenberg (Sunday lunchtime I heard Karim Said play Eisler’s thoroughly twelve-tone 4 Pieces, opus 3). But Eisler abandoned his teacher, adopted the cabaret style of the era, worked closely with Brecht and became a prolific writer of songs (over 500 songs, nearly as many as Schubert!).
  • Dominic characterises the power of Brecht’s poetry in its extreme simplicity of diction which nearly always leads to a sudden twist or insight.
  • Compare the settings of Brecht’s Nannaslied by Eisler and Weill.

Dominic makes the profoundest comment of the weekend: this music and this period are Nostalgic; it is safe, neutralised. In films and lectures throughout the weekend I sit completely surrounded by really old people, a sea of greyhaired old ladies. They listen to songs about sex and prostitution and murder and the overthrow of the system with a smile on their lips and a twinkle in their eyes. The savage satire on greed, power and corruption, Threepenny Opera, sold out almost immediately.

It is accessible and brilliant popular music, after all.

Why and how did music become so politicised lecture by Alex Ross, the man whose brilliant book started all this. Alex spends an hour taking us through composers of the era, moving beyond Weill and Schoenberg to play Hindemith, Krenek’s Jonny Spielt Auf, Kurt Schwitters’ Dada UrSymphonie, a 1930 setting of the Communist Manifesto, the Russian piece about an iron foundry and Popov’s big symphony which he thinks influenced Shostakovitch. I thought wandering into Soviet territory was a bit outside the scope of this weekend. There’ll be a separate weekend about music under Stalin. What Ross gives you is a really confident overview of a period with choice examples, many of them refreshingly off the beaten track.

Listen to this – South Bank’s Head of Classical Music, Gillian Moore played numerous samples of 20s and 30s music, explaining and commenting.

  • Berlin had over 30 studios and produced hits like Pandora’s Box, Nosferatu, The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich. Of course, many luminaries of the industry emigrated to Hollywood after the Nazis came to power.
  • Schoenberg was attracted by the film industry and wrote a ten minute piece, Accompaniment to a Film Scene, convincingly portraying the familiar Expressionist emotions of Anxiety and Fear. As Gillian pointed out this wouldn’t be out of place in a Bernard Herrmann soundtrack to a Hitchcock film.
  • If film was one new technology which was impacting on composers, radio was another. Brecht and Weill collaborated on a 1929 radio broadcast of their cantata ‘Lindbergh’s Flight’ (Der Lindberghflug).
  • Gillian ended with the harrowing Song of a German Mother.

Nazism and the myth of progress – lecture by philosopher John Gray. Gray was promoting his as yet unpublished book on the writings of Central European intellectuals Arthur Koestler, Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig. He spoke for half an hour then took questions.

  • His main point is that whereas science shows real progress (remove four fifths of the scientists from the world and we wouldn’t go back to alchemy; the basics of evolution, modern medicine, astronomy, string theory, are established and written) politics and ethics don’t. ‘Civilisation’, if we mean the highest standards of morality and respect for human dignity, can easily slip, collapse, erode.
  • Gray singled out the disastrous impact of nationalism in Central Europe after the collapse of the multinational Empires in the Great War, which led intellectuals and political parties to identify essential members of the ‘nation’, and to marginalise and victimise all groups who didn’t belong for one reason or another, to the resulting narrow definitions of nationhood and citizenship: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals.

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Sunday 3rd March

A Beginners Guide to Serialism – lecture by Jonathan Cross. Best explanation of Schoenberg’s twelve tone method I’ve ever heard, starting with detailed analysis of examples from Bach to show that the key techniques of creating a tone row then manipulating it through transposition, inversion and retrogression, existed in the 1740s and could produce extremely palatable music. I learned:

  • The 1920s quest for Order: Schoenberg unveiled the twelve tone method in 1923 as a solution to the draining challenge of wrestling with the emotional content of Expressionism within the unstructured soundworld he created when he began to abandon traditional tonality around 1907. Serialism tries to impose mathematical order on the chaos which the Austro-German tradition had become.
  • By showing us the scores and playing us fragments by each composer Cross demonstrated how
    • Schoenberg chose tone rows which involvedlarge moves up and down the scale between notes (ie something like melody)and could incorporate tritone gaps and elements of repetition
    • Webern chose tone rows where there is very little space between contiguous notes, giving a costive, tightly wrapped feel of his pieces
    • Berg had a much more open attitude to quotes and influences from the tradition; hence he was able to structure pieces as big as his two operas

Karim Said: Twelve Tone Piano The young wunderkind piano player Karim Said sat at the joanna and explained aspects of the twelve tone system to Sara Mohr-Pietsch of BBC Radio 3. Fascinating to hear him play a baroque gigue – and immediately play part of the gigue movement from Schoenberg – and explain the difference. He played Schoenberg’s Five pieces, opus 23, two tiny Webern pieces, Eisler’s Four Pieces, opus 3, from his Schoenberg period, and then the work in which Schoenberg fully introduced serialism, the piano Suite, opus 25.

  • With Jonathan Cross’s contrasting of Schoenberg and Webern fresh in my mind, along with Karim’s explanations, I was able to detect quite a difference between Schoenberg, Eisler and Webern which was good – but found the Schoenberg pieces did go on a bit, which was bad.
  • For a start the piano is one instrument and so its tonal and dynamic range is obviously smaller than a small ensemble. Listening to unaccompanied piano music by anyone for 25 minutes is challenging. 
  • But there comes a point in atonal music where the initial pleasure, the novelty of the sound organisation, palls. At which point, maybe having it better explained, maybe even having a score, would help you continue your pleasure…

The festival fills its days by programming multiple events at the same time. You have to choose. I now faced the hardest choices I’ve encountered so far: at 3pm an hour of readings and singing of Brecht poems; a discussion of Christopher Isherwood’s classic novel, ‘Goodbye to Berlin’; or, the one I went for…

Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis an experimental black and white silent film from 1927. Although I suspected I could buy this or watch it on YouTube, I argued I’d never be able to see it on the big screen and with full sound. In the event the Spirit Level downstairs at the Royal festival Hall is quite a small room and it was quite a small screen. I regretted not going to the Brecht poetry, but it was a fascinating film.

Similarly, I really wanted to go and see a talk by Ruth Remus about the role of Germany artists in the Dada movement; but also really wanted to see Kuhle Wampe, a communist propaganda film written by Brecht with music by Hans Eisler, and again figured I’m never going to get the chance to see this on a big screen.

Kuhle Wampe turned out to be a talkie and so we had to stop the film to find the English subtitles! But it was also a deeply puzzling experience, the characters made of paste, behaving like robots, with almost no touches of kindness or feeling anywhere in it, and the final 10 minute orgy of healthy outdoor sports followed by singing from a communist agitprop group could, with a few tweaks, have come from the kind of Nazi propaganda film that was being churned out just a few years later.

A fascinating and informative weekend. Thank you very much to Jude Kelly, Gillian Moore and everyone else who made it possible.

Toru Takemitsu @ the Barbican

2 February 2013

To a BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion day of concerts, films, talks and workshops at the Barbican focusing on the music of Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), generally thought of as Japan’s first major western style-classical composer, but also featuring works by contemporary Japanese composers.

In the military dictatorship of the 1930s the government prevented any experimentation in music. After the war Takemitsu was among the first to import modern Western techniques and try to marry them with traditional Japanese instruments. His style is Modernist but clear and spacious, elegant and refined, with unusual instrumentation. There’s little or no melody, everything is in the leisurely sequence of rather mysterious musical events. No surprise to learn that  his favourite Western composer was Debussy with whom he shares an interest in colour and tone, impressions.

By the 1960s Takemitsu had absorbed the avant-garde techniques prevalent in Europe and had evolved a style of his own which could use full orchestra, traditional Japanese instruments or any combination freely and confidently. A film addict (he admitted to seeing about 35o films a year) Takemitsu developed a brilliant career in writing music for films and in Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary many famous Japanese directors about working with Takemitsu.

But he was just as successful in the concert hall, writing numerous works, from small chamber pieces to full blown orchestral works. Famous works include his breakthrough piece November Steps (1967) and  A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden (1977).

Toru Takemitsu (1930-96)

Toru Takemitsu (1930-96)

You can listen to highlights from the day’s concerts in a BBC radio programme – ‘New Music from Japan‘ – on BBC iPlayer.

I learned

  • that ma is Japanese for space or emptiness. A blank sheet of paper isn’t empty until a mark has been made to it. Then its emptiness is defined. Japanese art is full of emptiness. Takemitsu’s music has plenty of empty spaces.
  • in a related way, Takemitsu thought that only 80% is expressed, 20% is always implied.
  • that Western music is overprecise – each note must be correct, in the right place at the right time – but Japanese music is radically different. The ma before the note, the pluck of the note, the note itself, the sound the string makes buzzing against the fretboard, the reverberation and fade of the note, and the ma after the note has faded, all have aesthetic importance, are part of the experience and pleasure. Closer to jazz and rock, in that respect.
  • that whereas Western music is strongly linear, Japanese music is peripatetic, meandering, circling on itself. Takemitsu said his music is like a Japanese garden, a welcoming place to wander among exquisite arranged objects.
  • what a sho, koto, sanshin and shakuhachi look and sound like. Very Japanese.
  • and, as to the peformances themselves, that
    • Takemitsu’s music, a little difficult though it initially may seem, was noticably ‘better’ – more spacious and intriguing and pleasing – than the five other Japanese composers on show
    • a day is along time to listen to live and rather demanding music. Not only were we tired by 7.30 when the evening concert began, but by definition of being in the big Barbican Hall, the evening’s pieces – UK or European premiers though they all were, by leading Japanese composers – were nonetheless big affairs featuring vast orchestras (I counted over 80 musicians onstage) and very loud! It’s the delicacy and intimacy of Takemitsu’s work which I value, and that came over wonderfully in the concert in the small space at St Luke’s church where we also liked Dai Fujikura’s Secret Forest. But all five pieces in the Barbican Hall were to grandiose and bludgeoning for my taste. No ma.

The day’s events

Talk An introduction to music in Japan today by Dr. Paul Newland, Senior Professor in Composition, Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Dr Newland told stories about his time studying in Japan. He explained ma and the Japanese philosophy of music and experience of time. He gave a lengthy example of a cup made by craftsmen deliberately anonymous, imperfect and unfinished. over time, as you drink tea, it absorbs the tea and cracks. This is deliberate the so formalised that there are 7 definitions of cracks. As you use it the nature of the material is revealed, slowly, over time. Japanese aesthetics.

Films

1. Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu (1994) directed by Charlotte Zwerin. Takemitsu composed the scores for almost 100 films, including Kurosawa’s epic Ran, based on King Lear. Interviews with many Japanese film directors, Takemitsu himself, and clips from classic films.

2. Thirteen Steps Around Takemitsu A portrait of Takemitsu (1996) directed by Barrie Gavin who introduced it and told some stories about Takemitsu. Filmed at his country home and in Tokyo, divided into 13 brisk sections, and featuring the composer in conversation, explaining his musical tastes, his procedures, his film work, the importance of the Garden, of natural elements.

Concerts

1 – LSO St. Luke’s – Guildhall Chamber Ensemble conducted by Sian Edwards:

2 – Barbican Hall – 

  • Traditional Japanese music performed by Robin Thompson sho, Melissa Holding koto, Clive Bell shakuhachi
  • Movements from Okeanos cycle byDai Fujikura, performed by Musicians from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
  • New improvised work created by musicians from the BBC SO, Okeanos, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and composer Dai Fujikura

– Barbican Hall – BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kazushi Ono conductor, Kifu Mitsuhashi playing shakuhachi, Kumiko Shuto playing biwa.

  • Akira Nishimura – Bird Heterophony (UK premiere)
  • Misato Mochizuki – Musubi (UK premiere)
  • Takemitsu –  (UK premiere)
  • Dai Fujikura – Atom (European premiere)
  • Toshio Hosokawa – Woven Dreams (UK premiere)
  • Akira Miyoshi – Litania pour Fuji (London premiere)
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