The Rest is Noise 1: Here comes the 20th century

21 and 22 January 2013

When Jude Kelly, artistic director of the South Bank, finished reading American critic’s history of classical music in the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise, she was so impressed she rang up the author. “Hey Alex. How’s about we put on a year long festival of music at London’s premiere art complex in celebration of your book? We should be able to rustle up nearly 100 concerts devoted entirely to 20th century music, plus loads of spinoff events. And let’s scatter through the year a series of 12 study weekends, where we invite leading historians, art critics and musicologists to explore the cultural milieu of pre-War Vienna, Paris in the 20s, Weimar Germany, music under the dictatorships and other key moments. Whaddya say?”

Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 saw the first in-depth weekend, titled The Big Bang, designed to explore the music of pre-War Vienna, dominated by the giants Strauss and Mahler, but with the new sounds of Arnold Schoenberg beginning to disturb the peace.

Saturday 21 January

Here Comes The Twentieth Century The Right Honourable The Baroness Williams of Crosby (Shirley Williams to you or me) belied her 82 years to present a sweeping overview of the 20th century. Necessarily a high level review it was striking for on the one hand retreading some overfamiliar terrain – Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen from the Great War – on the other completely omitting the Bolshevik Revolution and the chaos all across central Europe after the Great War. Why, I thought as I sat in the splendid Queen Elizabeth Hall, didn’t they invite a historian to do this? But towards the end she surprised me again by choosing to focus not on our ongoing anxieties, but on three great moments of hope: Martin Luther King’s Civil Right movement; Gorbachev letting the Berlin Wall come down; Nelson Mandela walking free to seal a peaceful transfer of power in South Africa. Her point was, Change can happen, political processes can improve the world. This fed back to her dwelling on the post-war founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time I thought it was light on historical detail, a week later I realise it was really about this positive, liberal vision.

Still, no denying the 20th century was the century of catastrophe; Leonard Bernstein called it the Century of Death. 20 million dead in the Great War. 60 million dead in the Second World War. 30 million killed by Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Without doubt the most catastrophic century in human history and also the most complex. Almost impossible to reconcile the billions of individual stories, achievements, discoveries and art works with the complex political and social movements all round the busy globe. It’s almost enough to make you ashamed to have been born into such a terrible century. Following Dame Shirley was…

Alex Ross, the man himself whose brilliant book started all this, Alex turns out to be a smart, suave, bullet-headed young American, personable, polite and dazzlingly knowledgeable. He delivered an hour and a quarter lecture which you can listen to on the South Bank website. I think he’s appearing four times over the year, so in each speech has to cover four of the twelve themed weekends, so this first address stretched long to cover Schoenberg, the nationalist and folk movements, and 1920s Paris. His key point is that listeners accept all the techniques of the supposedly difficult Second Viennese School, when it’s presented in film scores – but balk at them when presented in the concert hall, and then pondered why this should be. In this speech and the next day’s Q&A what emerged is the tremendous conservatism of the classical music world and its audience; as a rule of thumb classical music can be taken as about 60 years behind the times. Looking around at the grey-haired audience, and remembering the deep squareness of all the classical musicians I’ve ever known, I’m not surprised.

Alex mentioned the story about Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, leaving him to have an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl, but eventually returning at which point the distraught painter set fire to his paintings, stabbed himself and hanged himself in front of a full-length mirror in his studio. Schoenberg was finalising his Second String Quartet with its intense, angsty sound, so everyone can do some amateur psychology about this typical overwrought episode from the heart of Teutonic Expressionism.

After these two start-up lectures, we the audience had a choice of events to go to. For example, throughout the weekend they were screening the BBC’s new three-part series about 20th century music, The Sound and The Fury. I figured I can see this on  when it’s shown in February. There are ‘Sound bites’ – hour slots containing four x fifteen minute presentations about key figures of the (early) twentieth century eg the Wright brothers, Marie Curie etc. I chose:

The Birth of the Modern In a packed house in the Level 5 Function room in the Festival Hall for a presentation by art historian Tag Gronberg about art in prewar Vienna. This started with Gustav Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss and explored the tensions between Klimt and the Sezessionists, the Austrian wing of Art Nouveau known locally as the Jugendstil – and their opponents like the satirist Karl Krauss and the architect Adolf Loos, who rejected  Klimt’s fine decoration in favour of plain truth, Loos’s plain functional building anticipating the clarity of the Bauhaus and all 20th century Modernist architecture. The audience was old, as in most art galleries plenty of grey haired ladies looking at pictures of naked men and women and drinking in a lecture about sex, love and the decorative arts.

Lisa Appignanesi: Freud and the Modern Age Ms Appignanesi was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to literature. She has written widely on Freud and gender. A vivacious, laughing lady with big auburn hair like Rula Lenska, Ms Appignanesi gave a rather disappointingly basic introduction to Freud, skimming over the early publications and basic ideas, while recommending her books which were on bookstands located around the foyer.

Main points were that, though Freud prided himself on his ability in language and his works are often thought of as being more literary than scientific – he was musically null. He liked the obvious greats of the day but had little or nothing to say about music. If Ms Appignanesi had referenced any psychoanalyst who has applied Freud to music, or developed her own thoughts about psychoanalysis and music, it would have been useful. Instead we learned that prewar Vienna was awash with artistic movements, that Freud’s ideas have shaped the century, that he spent a few hours psychoanalysing Mahler on a famous walk, and learned that Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, left him during the composition of the Second String Quartet and, you’ll never guess what happened!!

Resisting the lure of a Sound Bites session including the Birth of Radio, I stayed in the foyer of the QEH for –

Listen to this – a listening guide to the weekend’s music presented by Head of Music at the South Bank, Gillian Moore. Either playing chords herself on the grand piano or introducing clips from CD, Gillian explained in detail the music of Salome (Richard Strauss’s radical opera which was being performed later that evening), its deliberate use of barbarism, atonal chords etc, before moving on to explain the hyperchromaticism which was turning into atonality in Schoenberg.

5.30 and I was full, and so didn’t go on to the evening concert, a concert performance of Strauss’s opera ‘Salome’, centrepiece of the first chapter of Alex’s book – let alone to the interesting-looking Ida Barr’s Music Hall Night Club which followed through till midnight. What a varied and interesting day, and all for £10!

Sunday 22 January

Breakfast with Schoenberg – Focus on Schoenberg’s 2nd String Quartet Back in the foyer at 10.15 for a very interesting hour-long explanation of the structure and technique of this transitional work. Presented by Fraser Trainer with an actual string quartet (musicians from Aurora Orchestra) on stage who played short fragments illustrating Fraser’s points. The cellist, Oliver, also added points of his own, including the interesting facts that Schoenberg’s music carries the most detailed instructions for the player; instructions to play notes in novel positions ie at the bridge on string instruments thus creating an eerie sound with strange overtones. Fraser’s enthusiasm was infectious. This was great!

Except. For some reason he and Gillian Moore from yesterday both tended to apologise for talking about keys and chords and scales; and when they demonstrated them tended to do so in a hurry, as if ashamed or embarrassed. Why? Who do you think is attending this weekend? It smacked of a very British philistinism and embarrassment, fear of being even a teeny bit intellectual or demanding. In fact both presentations would have benefited from a relaxed ten minute introduction explaining how basic triadic harmony works in classical music or pop songs, with a few easy examples. Once this is established it’s easier to show how the chording of Wagner, Strauss et al becomes more and more complicated – extended tonality, as it’s called – until it starts to compromise harmonic language and you begin to lose the sense of a tonal centre ie it’s hard for your ear to hear which key the music is in, where’s it’s meant to return ‘home’ to give the sense of completeness as in a Mozart piece. It’s this tonal drift which creates unease and anxiety, the predominant emotions of the broader cultural Expressionism of these years, and the angsty sound which the average listener associates with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern to this day.

Of course Fraser told us the story about Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, leaving him to have an affair with the painter, Richard Gerstl – and did you hear what happened when she finally returnd to composer? You’ll never guess!!!

Alex Ross in conversation with Jude Kelly Back in the sumptuous Queen Elizabeth Hall head of the Southbank, Jude, asked Alex a number of questions before questions from the floor. Among many points I remember:

  • the tragedy of America rejecting its black heritage, jazz – there was a crossover moment in the 20s and 30s but it was rejected, and America’s greatest folk tradition was fatefully barred from its classical composers
  • what is it about classical music that is so offputting?  Both discussed the offputtingness of the Concert Hall with its nineteenth century architecture, its intimidating dress codes etc. Jude asked if there were any black people in the audience? There was one Asian guy, no one of African descent. I didn’t see any black people all weekend apart from a few security guards and assistants.

You can hear the full conversation here.

Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire Back in the performance space behind the Royal Festival Hall bar, students from the Royal Northern College of Music performed Schoenberg’s half hour masterpiece, 21 poems spoken by the folk character Pierrot, divided into three thematic groups, set to music. Three different young ladies sang, wearing black outfits with white facepainting and makeup – Natasha Best, Rosie Middleton and Emma Stannard. The distinguishing thing about the music is Schoenberg’s deployment of Sprechstimme ie a style half way between singing and speaking where the voice swoops and dives between notes, creating a strange otherworldy affect, which matches the strange words of the deluded Pierrot looking up at the imaginary moon.

The Air of Other Planets: Understanding Schoenberg’s Journey into Atonality presented by Julian Johnson, Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. Suave and posh Professor Johnson once again told the story of Schoenberg’s wife running off, then returning and the distraught painter setting fire to his paintings then hanging himself. Fourth time I’ve heard this story. Is it really the only thing to say about Schoenberg?.

The professor assumed this great offputtingness in Schoenberg as the premise of his presentation before leading off into an exploration of the issues. To be honest I was full up and don’t remember much. the best moment was a question from the audience at the end: a youngish man said he’s no great musical expert but he doesn’t see what’s so difficult about Schoenberg!. To him Schoenberg sounds like the soundtrack to any number of horror movies, thrillers or psycho films; jazz incorporated atonality in the 60s, rock bands did it in the 70s. If you approach him like that you can swallow him whole without blinking. What Schoenberg problem?

It’s true. You have to approach the Second Viennese School from the extremely conservative, ears-closed, up-tight bourgeois classical position to be daunted by them. In other words, you have to be the typical classical music audience as described by Alex and Jude this morning. If, like me, you were brought  up on the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, the Clash as well as The Exorcist, The Omen, Alien and so on, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg sound either pretty familiar or fairly easy to swallow. It’s only putting them into the antiseptic and reverential concert hall that their music begins to sound out of place.

You have to have lived a very sheltered musical life, in other words, to find these guys ‘difficult’. Much more difficult to listen to is something like Les Noces’ by Stravinsky. And hardest of all is something like the orchestral works of Bruckner or Nielsen or Sibelius at his worst. Incredibly long and awesomely boring, I’ve never made my way to the end of one. Whereas Webern with a whole suite in 5 minutes, was made for the ipod age.

Schoenberg’s daughter A major reason for attending Day 2 of this weekend was to see Ms Moore and Professor Johnson in conversation with Nuria Schoenberg Nono, 80 years old this year and not only daughter to the great Arnold but wife to the Italian Modernist composer Luigi Nono. Unfortunately she was too ill to attend. Maybe she would have told us the story about Mathilde running off with the painter Richard Gerstl but then abandoning him whereupon he… oh, but I don’t want to spoil the story for you…

Conclusions Ross is an amazing man who wears his encyclopedic knowledge with grace and elegance. The festival is an epic and unprecedented project. Why, in a year dedicated to embedding 20th century music into its historical context – are there no historians? The art lecture was so-so. The Freud one was disappointing. The musical analysis was riveting and I wanted it to be more confident and genuinely didactic, teaching me slowly and thoroughly how this music is made and how to appreciate it.

But for organising these and all the other events coming up during 2013 – Well done, South Bank!

The festival continues for the rest of the year.

Of course, an enterprise like this runs the risk of being accused of dumbing down or glossing over complexities. That’s certainly what I felt about the Freud lecture, and felt was being demonstrated in the repetition of the same tired stories about Schoenberg. See the comments on this Guardian page for quite fierce accusations of dumbing down.

Mahler, Schoenberg and Webern @ the Royal Festival Hall

23 January 2013

To the Royal Festival Hall to see ‘Extreme Expression‘, one of the 92 concerts featured in their fabulous year-long festival of 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise. Far from being extreme these three pieces represent the lush last years of Germanic Romanticism before Schoenberg and his acolytes opened the door to atonality and then to Serialism.

Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind – idyll for orchestra
Arnold Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Interval
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

The Webern is a very early (1904) ten-minute piece of late Romanticism inspired by stays in the country, and suppressed by the later, wildly radical composer, until rediscovered in the 1960s. It shows what Webern might have been, a pasticheur of the Tradition, of the dominant musical Austrian, Richard Strauss – full of jaunty tunes and lush orchestration. Lovely, but dead.

The Schoenberg (1909) comprises five short pieces which experiment with atonality, timbre, unusual dynamics and sounds ie moving beyond the rich chromaticism of Mahler and Strauss. Their first audiences were outraged by Schoenberg’s deliberate rejection of melody, harmony, smooth orchestration in favour of impenetrable logic, abrupt changes of timbre and assonance, sudden eruptions of loudness, pieces ending on half finished phrases. But to the listener in 2013 it seems full of special affects which will be plundered by composers of film and TV music for countless thrillers and sci fi movies.

‘The Song of the Earth’ by Mahler is the name he gave to a symphonic setting of six songs. It follows his Eighth Symphony, though Mahler was superstitious about calling it his 9th. (All Germanic composers lived in the long shadow of Beethoven and his unsurpassable Ninth Symphony.)

Despite some shorter, jovial drinking songs among the first five, the piece is dominated by the half-hour long final song, ‘Das Abschied’, or ‘The Farewell’, the last of Mahler’s mournful meditations on death. The whole was premiered in November 1911, after the composer’s death in May of that year.

It was pretty much the last symphony in the great German tradition which stretched back to Haydn. After Mahler, Schoenberg and his disciples Berg and Webern were to take German music to completely new places, while composers like Eissler and Weill concentrated on songs and Paul Hindemith did his own thing. Then it’s Stockhausen!

So this concert was about the peak, the acme, the zenith of the German symphonic tradition – and the moment of its dissolution and abrupt, mysterious disappearance. The last words of The Farewell (which Mahler himself wrote) take on a biographical resonance for the dead composer, but also for the entire tradition:

“The beloved Earth blooms forth everywhere in Spring, and becomes green anew! Everywhere and endlessly blue shines the horizon! Endless… endless…”

The three pieces were performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder, joined by mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi and tenor Paul Groves for Das Lied. The Webern was pretty; the Schoenberg was fascinating but not radical enough; the first five songs of Das Lied I’ve always thought trivial and non-descript, full of Mahler mannerisms but without the melodies or big themes which make his earlier songs and symphonies. But Der Abschied was absolutely tremendous. Lilli Paasikivi was just fabulous, moving and trembling with the music, and there was special applause for key instruments the flute, clarinet and horn, all of whom played delicately and wonderfully during the quiet, almost silent passages of this marvellous piece.

The concert was broadcast by BBC Radio 3, so you should be able to hear it here.

Harrison Birtwistle @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall

24 May 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harrison Birtwistle – Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum on YouTube

Conlon Nancarrow weekend @ the South Bank

22 April 2012

To the South Bank for part one of their Conlon Nancarrow weekend. An American ‘maverick’, Nancarrow (b1912), became a communist, fought in the Spanish Civil War, was invalided home where he was harassed for his beliefs and found no taste for his difficult music, and so exiled himself to Mexico, where he lived and worked till his death in 1997.

Nancarrow pioneered a revolutionary approach to combining tempos, ie having multiple ‘melodies’ or sequences of notes playing simultaneously, creating works so fiendishly complex no human being could play them; instead, he laboriously punched out the music, by hand, hole by hole, into paper rolls for player pianos. Each piece typically took a year to create and lasts 2 or 3 minutes. 50 pieces in all. Even among the avant-garde his work only became known in the 1980s.

This weekend of events has been two years in the making, most of which involved tracking down the kind of player piano he used, restoring it and his tattered piano rolls, standing it on the stage of the Purcell Room, and having two player piano experts take turns loading each roll and briefly introducing each piece. Plus an opening lecture by people who knew and championed his work, an hour-long biographical film, and an evening concert in the QEH of orchestrated versions.

There’s no doubt it’s a hard listen, but sometimes you can make out the structure; other times enjoy the ‘Nancarrow Lick’, the mad glissandi playing swoops of notes impossible for the human hand; or the ‘swarm’ effect of hundreds of notes being played nearly simultaneously. Junior noticed that many of them end with a cheeky flourish. Speakers on the film testified he was a warm and charming man, and the jokiness of some of the pieces reflected his sense of humour. But he wanted to avoid warmth or sentiment; he adapted his player pianos to give them a brighter, harsher sound.

Canon X (Study 21) is relatively easy to understand: the ‘right hand’ starts playing a series of notes very fast, the ‘left hand’ a series very slow; and then they take about 3 minutes to reverse their speeds, thus crossing over half way through, hence Canon X.

Conlon Nancarrow, Study for Player Piano No. 21 (Canon X) on YouTube

Music by Jonny Greenwood and Krzysztof Penderecki @ the Barbican

23 March 2012

To the Barbican for a fabulous concert of pieces by Grand Old Man of European Modernism, Krzysztof Penderecki [pron: Penderexki] (b. 1933) and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood [pron: Green-wood] (b.1971).

I hadn’t realised Mr P would be there himself, portly, suave and owl-like, to conduct his 1961 classic, ‘Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima’. It was way better live than on disc, as the bowing, scraping, plucking, hitting and furious sawing that he requires of the string players made them look like demented ballet dancers.

‘Polymorphia’ was even better. The stage lit brilliant red, with 40 or so performers writhing and bashing their instruments, it looked and sounded like a scene from hell. I hadn’t realised from disc the way these pieces are divided into distinct sections which explore different aspects of the basic, mind-bending soundscape. Brave, floppy-haired Mr Greenwood had composed both his pieces as replies to Mr P, and they stood up very creditably – though why a composer in 2012 is writing pieces pastiching the style of 1961 is something my neighbour and I discussed for a while afterwards in the bar.

Music by Jonny Greenwood and Krzysztof Penderecki

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