The Rest Is Noise 12: New World Order

To the South Bank for the twelfth and final weekend of the year-long festival about 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise 12: New World Order, designed to bring the story up to date, covering classical music from the 1990s to the present, and beyond.

As usual each day was stuffed with lectures and workshops and chamber concerts and film screenings so that at any one point you had half a dozen items to choose from, forcing you to make some pretty hard choices. I went to see:

Saturday 7 December

10-11am Breakfast with Adams Good-humoured Irish composer John Browne spent an hour explaining the background to, and musical structure of, John Adams’ opera-oratorio El Niño. JA is, apparently, very political, into issues of social justice, as referenced in his big operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer (which I went to see last year), Dr Atomic etc. El Niño is an opera-oratorio on the Christmas story, using classic Bible, but also Spanish and south American, texts, many by women, favouring the woman’s point of view.

Adams has joked that he is a ‘recovering minimalist’ and, on first hearing, sounds like a more adaptable version of Steve Reich, with the same highly repetitive ostinatos. His music tends to stay on one chord for a long time, underlain by a single repetitive pulse, but with constantly changing time signatures. He has openly stated that he wants to reconnect with popular music and the street, and so his music tends to be harmonic, the chords are simple triads and, when they do change, it’s often by simply changing one note in the chord. Happy to use pop rhythms.

Brown quotes Brian Eno who described the shift to musical minimalism as a shift from Narrative to Landscape, from arcs and lines of melody, to static, repetitive sounds. This echoes what we heard a few weeks ago about Philip Glass, his study of Indian music, the hypnotic affect of endless repetition. For the now traditional audience participation in these sessions Browne got half a dozen volunteers onstage to each play a different simple motif on a xylophone and then do it together to create our very own piece of minimalist music. My son did the same at school when he was 14. It was great fun, and really explained how this type of sound is created.

At the very end he got the pianist to play a minute of Schoenberg, partly to make the point that Adams wrote a riposte to Schoenberg’s 1911 Modernist treatise, Harmonielehre, also called Hamonielehre. To be honest I preferred the space and delicacy of the Schoenberg to any of the minimalism I’ve heard over the past few weeks.

11.15-12.15 Keynote lecture: Pankaj Mishra ‘One of the world’s leading intellectuals’, Mishra was young, relaxed and phenomenally wideranging, effortlessly using examples from the economics, politics, arts and media of just about every nation on earth, but tending to focus particularly on America, Europe, India, China, Russia and Latin America. His message: The Decline of the West has been much exaggerated (isn’t it always?); the West still leads the world on countless fronts. But western arrogance at ‘winning’ the Cold War led to hubris and arrogance and delusions. Only very slowly have we realised what the invaded countries of Iraq and Afghanistan really thought of us; meanwhile hundreds of thousands died in our crusades. The End of History rhetoric after the collapse of the Soviet Union was childishly naïve. (Yup.) In the twenty years since:

  • The liberal capitalist model of economics and society which American ideologues thought had triumphed has in fact been thoroughly rejected by China, Russia and left-leaning Latin America.
  • The widespread failure of the growth model, in fact the realisation that Globalisation leads to growing inequality and to the gutting of entire cities, regions or even countries (eg Greece), has led to a widespread sense of helplessness, powerlessness and disillusion.

Globalisation doesn’t lead to Utopia; a crowded world leads to greater repression, loss of freedoms. But what, asked voices from the audience, is the alternative to Vampire Capitalism? Well, in part, the reassertion of localism and for communities to take their destinies into their own hands. Ah, but then our politicians would have to want to help us…

12.30-1.30 Best of British Concert given by the Royal College of Music’s New Perspective ensemble conducted by Timothy Lines.

  • Mark-Anthony Turnage Two memorials for solo soprano saxaphone
  • Oliver Knussen Two Organa
  • George Benjamin Viola, Viola[unrelenting to begin with, this ended with quiet plucked strings]
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage On All Fours [chaotic, with jazz rhythms sort of emerging in the middle]
  • Oliver Knussen Elegiac Arabesques
  • Simon Holt Lilith

2.15-3.15 Alex Ross The man himself, author of The Rest Is Noise, the book which inspired this festival, gave the fourth of his keynote lectures, covering from the 1990s to the present day. In fact the simple message is there’s too much. No one person can encompass all the music the human race is making. No one person can even know about all the ‘classical’ and crossover music being made in the West, where anyone with a laptop can now write a concerto. Instead Ross gave us four individuals who strike him, told a little about them and played extended clips:

In an era when every piece of music has been bought up and turned into searchable databases, maybe contemporary classical music’s very exclusion from the mainstream guarantees that it is still a place with some kind of authenticity, some kind of ‘soul’. (You certainly can’t find some of the music he and other today mentioned (or played) anywhere on the internet, not on YouTube, no on Spotify; so if impossible to find or listen to, accessible only to the tiny numbers of people who go to see it live, means ‘authentic’, lots of this stuff has it in spades.)

3.30-4.30 Listen to This Oxford professor Jonathan Cross kicked off with a track from J Lo, music unmistakably for the body with cover art selling her hot body and alluring looks. Cut to Stockhausen or K Sto, as Cross wittily called him. Classic Modernist: a man, an intellectual, isolated, heroic, at the cutting edge, regardless of audience, a high priest, of a new religion whose work is to be performed in reverential silence in buildings created for the purpose by orchestras dressed in black. Compare Birtwistle whose Pan so upset the Proms audience back in 1995. Same set-up: an intellectual man, no compromises to the audience, in the setting of the patriarchal Albert Hall, dressed in centuries-old outfits, with a heroic male conductor at the helm.

Cross contrasted this with the growing situation since 1990, post-Modernism. Where there had been one master narrative, now there are countless stories. Where white western men dominated, now there are more women composers, and from all round the world. Globalisation.

Further – Digital technology enables anonymous, collaborative and vast outpourings of amateur music, as with the all-women collective Lappetites. Further still, modern technology puts the listener in charge. The ipod leads us to the edge of the ‘death of the composer’, as the listener chooses how where and when to consume music. No more Albert Hall except for die-hard traditionalists!

In the 50s Milton Babbitt published an article with the notorious title Who cares if you listen. Cross postulates a spectrum from Babbitt at one end representing the ne plus ultra of avant-garde extremism, the intellectual sound scientist trying to remove the audience from music; and at the other extreme John Cage who, with his techniques of indeterminacy, sought to remove the composer from the process and liberate sounds to be themselves.

5-6pm I should have gone to see a concert of Knussen and Weir but I needed a break so went to hear Professor Susan Greenfield deliver a high-speed version of the case she has presented in articles and letters, that the digital age presents real threats to the brains of the young. Environment stimulates brain growth, which is why even identical twins aren’t identical. Brains continue growing and making connections up to the age of 16 and beyond. These connections build up associations between thoughts, experiences, feelings, it is these associations which create meaning and significance. All this is threatened by flat screens which promote addictive, game-playing, immediately rewarded behaviour with no depth or significance, which prioritise information processing without finding depth of meaning. Information, not wisdom.

Read more on her website, which includes a long reading list of the scientific research.

6-7pm London Philharmonic Orchestra Foyle Future Firsts conduced by Paul Hoskins performed:

7.30-10pm London Philharmonic Orchestra: Classic Britannia Four classic compositions from the 1990s:

I liked the Turnage most because it was quiet. The other three were dominated by percussion, lots of banging, lots of glockenspiel, xylophone, wood blocks and tubular bells. The apparently random use of thin, weedy plinks and plonks is a cliche of modern classical music and, rather than be awed by the modernity of these pieces, I was dismayed by how much they embodied the worst cliches of the tradition, the reason so few people like this music.

Conclusion

A long and exhausting day but bursting with ideas and sounds which will take weeks if not months to digest. Sonically, the most obvious thing was the distinction between the British composers whose work we heard live, and the clips played by Cross and Ross. The clips were interesting and immediately attractive. I’m going to listen to more Haas and JL Adams.

The Rest Is Noise 11: Superpower

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

Saturday 9 November 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday 10 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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

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.

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More (2009)

24 January 2012

‘If the British Prime Minister’s Cabinet could co-operate on the same level as the great Miles Davis quintets, we’d be experiencing a different form of government altogether.’ (page 142)

This is an absolutely brilliant book. It is a rare example of an autobiography by a musician who’s got something interesting to say – about making music, about his own feelings and ambitions in music, about the bands he’s played with, about the enormous changes he’s seen over the past 40 years in the music ‘business’ and wider society – and who says it with intelligence and dry humour. The only comparisons I can think of are Mile Davis’s and Bob Dylan’s autobiographies, but Bill’s has intelligent and thoughtful points to make about a much wider range of subjects. And he’s English (hooray!)

If you’re interested in the music of the 70s, if you’re interested in progressive rock music, if you’re interested in jazz, if you want to know how albums are actually pieced together, how bands behave on the road, how the recording studio works, what managers are like, the cost to a person’s private life of being a working musician doing gruelling foreign tours, if you want tips on how to survive in the music business, or if you’re just interested in the social, political, cultural and economic history of the last 40 years, then buy this wonderful book!

Bill Bruford: The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More

Review

Bill Bruford, son of a vet from Sevenoaks in Kent, was a teenage prodigy of a drummer, as soon as he could taking the train up to London to see American jazz drummers performing at Ronny Scott’s and other Soho jazz clubs in the mid-60s and learning from everyone. By 1968 a series of chance encounters led him to land the gig as drummer in the new progressive band, Yes, his extraordinary technique propelling the band through their first five albums: Yes, Time and A Word, The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971) and their masterpiece, Close To the Edge (1973).

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

Yes in concert 1971. L-R: Tony Kaye keyboards, Chris Howe on guitar and Bill Bruford on drums

At which point, just as Yes were about to tour the album round the US and go supernova, Bill left the band to join their rival in progressive rock, the far darker and more experimental King Crimson. Led by guitar maestro Robert Fripp, the Crim had had chronic difficulty keeping a stable line-up since their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King back in 1969. Bruford’s arrival heralded the third incarnation of the band, much heavier and more guitar-driven and without the pseudo-medieval lyrics and elaborate song structures of Peter Sinfield. This darker sound came to the fore on the albums Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (1973), Starless And Bible Black (1974), Red (1974) and the umpteen bootlegs and live albums from the time.

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

Bill Bruford drumming with King Crimson in New York, 1973

At which point Fripp surprised the band by dissolving it, and Bruford embarked on the next 35 years forming his own rock combos, sometimes with former Yes-men, sometimes with a reformed Crim (which Fripp undissolved in 1980), but increasingly moving into the area of jazz which had been his earliest love, forming the groups UK and Earthworks, as well as recording with numerous jazz greats in the US and UK, and a constant schedule of touring across Europe, America and Asia. In 2009, after a long and varied career, Bill announced his retirement and, later the same year, published this, his autobiography.

Format Bill has had the brilliant idea of structuring the book around chapters answering the questions he is most frequently asked at cocktail parties, some of which drive him to distraction: So how did you get started? Why did you leave Yes? What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? But what do you do in the daytime? and 15 others. The chapters themselves consist of stories, anecdotes, thoughts and reflections skipping around in time and place but all relating to the central question.

This is a great format because it’s so flexible: it allows him to focus on luminous moments or funny anecdotes or challenging ideas rather than being tied to a chronological list of his activity since, as Bill emphasises, the working musician’s life often boils down to a pretty boring litany of rehearsals, recording and touring. It is a “best of…” Bill’s thoughts and reflections.

Drumming He leaves the details of drumming until well into the book. Personally, I could have done with understanding more how a drummer decides which of all the available rhythms in a piece of music to pick out, and why, and on which drums or percussion instruments? But there is still plenty about the business of drumming, the setting up and the testing, in the studio or before a performance, as well as lots about the business side – attending drumming conferences, fronting ads for specific manufacturers and so on:

‘When I first pick up the sticks, I feel stodgy and slow. I need to warm up. Simple, powerful strokes eventually get some blood circulating in wrists and fingers, and soon the strokes come more easily. Drummers usually practice the rudiments, a codified set of sticking patterns with colourful onomatopoeic names such as flamadiddle and ratamacue. There are traditionally some 26 of these, mostly derived from military drumming, and it’s like practicing the correct fingering for your piano scales.’ (page 294)

There’s a wonderful meditation on the physical, musical and philosophical differences between rock drumming and jazz drumming on page 172 which sheds light on the purpose and structure of the two different genres.

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Bill with Mark Hodgson (acoustic bass) and Tim Garland (tenor saxophone). Photo: Fernando Aceves

Prog rock Bill has numerous insights into the history and development of the genre music to which he contributed so hugely – after all he worked with the giants of the genre, Yes, King Crimson and, briefly, Genesis. Passages of pure insight like the following are scattered throughout the book:

‘Robert Fripp had stopped King Crimson, rather smartly I thought, in 1974, and we were able to leave the scene relatively unsoiled by the excesses that were fast entrapping the unwary… The history of progressive rock since about 1976 can be divided into two distinct periods. From 1976 to 1982, a watered-down, simpler version limped on as American stadium rock and British symphonic pop, but no new ground was being broken and the older bands started to lose commercial viability… The Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd groups of 1972 became the lighter, more consistent stadium rockers such as the Journey, Styx or Kansas of 1978…  By the time John Wetton’s Asia had sold millions of copies of its bland radio-friendly pop in the 80s, the post-hippie extension of the counterculture that was progressive rock, based on the idealistic impulses of the 60s, had finally runs its course. The dream, or illusion, of individual and global enlightenment was over. Progressive rock, like the period that gave rise to it, was essentially optimistic…Perhaps that lasting innocence, a refreshing anecdote to modern times, is where the attraction lies for the remarkably large group of listeners it has managed, over many turbulent years, to retain.’ (page 125)

As someone fascinated by the historical context of all types of art, these passages are, for me, pure gold.

Jazz Jazz was always Bruford’s first love and the book makes clear that, throughout the 70s, he felt like a jazz drummer masquerading as a rock drummer until he felt confident enough to set up his first jazz group in the 1980s. Having experienced both worlds he is uniquely well-placed to comment on the enormous disparity between the two musics:

‘If I threw a party for my greatest 20 musical friends, past and present, the room would divide down the middle with 10 on one side and ten on the other. The ten on my right would be millionaires with salaries so unaccountably large that more time would be spent in charitable dispersal of the stuff than its actual acquisition. The ten on my left would be among the finest jazz musicians in the world, with an average salary approximately equal to that of a supermarket checkout girl. And I would be standing in the middle.’ (page 199)

The music biz Bill describes himself and his band mates in Yes as being astonishingly naive about every aspect of the business when they started out. They were on a weekly wage of £25 well into their period of greatest success. He gives vivid vignettes of the band, memorably recalling Jon Anderson in the band’s communal flat in Fulham, yelling down the phone at promoters and agents, doing everything necessary to keep the band going. Bill’s anecdotes give a good sense of the various managers Yes and King Crimson went through, and an unnerving insight into the chanciness and dodgy dealing which accompanied so many of the ‘business’ arrangements.

Our hero - older and wiser

Our hero – older and wiser

But behind the anecdotes about this or that manager, about the constant squabbling over money (and everything else) which characterised Yes, about the hussling for gigs, the sordid contractual realities which lay behind the making of the albums the fans loved and the tours they sold out – it’s the confidence with which Bill sets his own story within the much broader context of the day which makes the book so rewarding. He explains key facts such as the music business’s turnover tripled each year in the early 70s. Money seemed to be pouring in in uncountable amounts for the successful groups which managed to make it big in America, the platinum albums, the sellout stadium tours, the private jets, the hotel suites which they felt free to trash. The bands, the managers, the promoters and the record companies thought the gravy train (which Pink Floyd sing about with such disgust on 1975’s Wish You Were Here) would never stop, but…

I remember seeing The Song Remains the Same, the epic film of Led Zeppelin live, at the Odeon Leicester Square in October 1976 and being blown away; but then I was an impressionable 14 year-old. Led Zeppelin hadn’t played in England for two years to avoid paying supertax and most of the other megagroups – Genesis, Yes, Supertramp, Pink Floyd – had become similarly rich and distanced from their ‘fans’. Earlier that year a couple of new bands had been touring England creating a grass-roots movement wherever they played. They were The Clash, The Damned and The Sex Pistols. Though they would lumber on into the 80s and increase their turnovers, the era when the prog rockers represented youthful idealism was over. Increasingly they just represented their own need to make money.

New technology Bill’s book sheds fascinating light on the way the music industry has changed and evolved not only during the period he’s been active, but throughout the entire 20th century. Again he places his own personal story in a much wider context:

‘It is an industry for which the  constant stream of technical innovations – phonogram, wireless, recording, vinyl, cassette, long-player, multi-track recording, CD – has been both the lifeblood and a constant source of disruption and disturbance that threaten the established ways of exploiting musical materials to yield a profit. If the music industry was all about banging out bits of black vinyl on an assembly line and delivering to a vast number of retail outlets, then its modern replacement, the music business, is about the never-ending war waged by record companies, composers, and publishers to establish and then protect copyrights on their material and collect royalties for its use.’ (page 181)

I’ve rarely read anything so thought-provoking about popular music, its place in all our lives, in our Western culture, and in the vast tentacular capitalist economies which control us. He sees the big picture:

‘It’s hard to escape the conclusion that there is already enough music in Western society, and Western society tends to point out to the musician through the market – sometimes quite brutally, because the stupid musician doesn’t get it – that it doesn’t really want any new music, that it’s stuffed with the music it’s got.’ (page 181)

Something I think about all the time. I chatted to a student at Pierrot Lunaire the other day, and she told me about a few gigs she’d been to recently, Lou Reed and Patti Smith. Good God, why them, Lou’s first album is nearly 50 years old! People at work are getting excited about a series of gigs we’re staging with Paul Weller, Jools Holland, Blondie and the Human League. The biggest selling music tours of last year were Madonna (first single 1982), Bruce Springsteen (first single 1975) and Roger Waters’ The Wall (1979). Where’s the new stuff?

When everything, all the written and recorded music of the past is immediately available at the flick of a few buttons, anywhere with wifi or 3G, what value does that music have? What meaning? It certainly has lost all ability to shock or subvert or change. I grew up on the Sex Pistols. Ollie Murs doesn’t worry me. And with recorded music so ubiquitous how can the new young performing musician compete? With so many avenues of exploration so thoroughly mined, where can the ambitious musician begin to say something new?

These and lots of other issues, ideas, questions and concerns are raised and discussed by someone who has really been there and done it, in this marvellous and marvellously thought-provoking book.

All quotes from ‘Bill Bruford: The Autobiography’. Used by permission of the author.

A Postscript from Robert Fripp

Robert Fripp has been lovingly remastering, repackaging and reissuing King Crimson’s LPs as well as issuing a host of live recording, and accompanying them with fascinating commentary, on the group and the times. In the notes to ‘The Great Deceiver‘ double live CD (a fascinating record of the group in 1973-74) he makes comments which supplement Bill’s and Paul Stump’s:

‘The record industry in the period 1968-1978 was a seemingly unstoppable growth industry. The early amateurism surrounding the rock business had professionalised by about 1974, although this increased throughout the Seventies and Eighties. Records became ‘products’ and ‘units’ which moved, audiences became consumers whose ‘behaviour patterns’ were charted by ‘demographics’. Something went terribly, terribly wrong in our sense of values. Pragmatics replaced Principle. Quantity demonstrated Quality.’

(Sleevenotes to ‘The Great Deceiver, volume 1’. Copyright Robert Fripp)

In 1978 when I was buying punk singles and albums I still thought music was some kind of rebellion, had something political to say, and could change things. By 1982 I realised the New Romantic movement was deifying the Triumph of Money and the comprehensive defeat of everything the 60s stood for. In the 1990s I got to be series editor of a TV arts programme, and was quietly appalled that the clever 20-somethings who produced the music items for it made their case for who should be on the show entirely in terms of units sold, gold, platinum records achieved or Mercury or MOBO awards. The entire sector had been comprehensively corporatised. The student I chatted to at Pierrot Lunaire said she’d been to see Radiohead at the O2 last year and was disgusted by the cost and the spectacle and the merchandising and the special lifts to the VIP boxes where bankers and property developers could enjoy this so-called ‘subversive’ music in luxury.

Not unlike Bill (though as a humble fan, not a premier league performer) I also abandoned rock music in the 80s for more musically interesting jazz – and then progressed on into 20th century classical music, much of which is still so uncommercial and difficult that it resists corporatisation, assimilation and denaturing to fit the infantilised tastes of the ipod age.

Webern and the Second Viennese School @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall

29 January 2013

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the latest in the year-long Rest Is Noise festival. These early weeks are focusing on the composers of the Second Viennese School ie Schoenberg the father and Berg and Webern his students, who began to write their influential works in the years just before the Great War. If Schoenberg is the transitional figure who picks up late Romantic chromaticism and moves into the territory of pure atonality, his students began at that position and explored its ramifications. Berg was able to use atonality to build surprisingly large structures including his brilliant Violin Concerto and even two operas, ‘Wozzeck’ and ‘Lulu’. Webern, on the other hand, is famous in musical history for developing the ideas of atonality and serialism into works of astonishing compression and brevity. Many of his works are only a minute long, with no melody, no harmony, just the rigour of his mathematical application of the method of serialism.

I remember first learning about this and expecting the resulting music to be harsh and dissonant – and so being astonished to encounter the precise, crystalline structures of these micro-pieces, sharp and unearthly like stars in a cold sky.

The performance was by the London Sinfonietta with Baldur Brönnimann conductor, Sarah Gabriel soprano and Lightmap video design. Sarah’s singing was impassioned. She wore a stunning strapless dress in the first half, and another black velvet number in part two. The video was a continual projection in the background of b&w footage of pre-War Vienna and images of the composers, along with texts in German and English of the songs, quotes from the composers including one from Webern from which one word at a time slowly faded as the music played.

Videos at classical concerts seem to be the fashion – there was a video at Gavin Bryars’s Titanic, the film of Koyaanisqatsi at the Barbican, and during the other weekend’s Pierrot Lunaire at the Festival Hall they projected a loop of b&w images of the century.

It was interesting to hear Schoenberg’s orchestral pieces for the second time in a fortnight, in a different and more edgy arrangement. But both Berg and Schoenberg seem normal next to the other worldly miniaturism of Webern. No-one else has ever written so intensely. Every note is vital. In a post-concert panel discussion the conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, said it’s tricky to conduct because everything you do spoils it, it has such Platonic purity.

Discussion panel This after-concert panel was excellent, including an academic expert on Webern, Baldur the conductor, Peter the viola player and Netia Jones who produced the video. They all had interesting things to say. The viola player said the music is so intense because behind every phrase, behind every pair of notes, is the entire German tradition. The academic pointed out that Webern saw himself as a Romantic – his inspiration came from an obsessive worship of Nature and high mountains as well as mourning for his dead mother. In other words, as Baldur emphasises, the 1950s and 60s did Webern a disservice by making him the messiah of the new religion of atonality, performing his music as mathematically strict and antiseptic. Now, 50 years later, he said, we can see the music more fully, stripped of 60s ideology, as deriving directly from its Romantic German antecedents in its concern with expressivity, albeit taken to unprecedented heights.

My favourite work was the three little pieces for cello. It makes so much difference to see these works performed live. The drama and intensity of real performers producing these extraordinary sounds really hit you as they can’t on a recording.

Anton Webern: 3 Lieder
Arnold Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Anton Webern: 6 Pieces for orchestra, Op.6
Anton Webern: 5 Pieces for small orchestra, Op.10
Anton Webern: 3 Volkstexte (Three Traditional Rhymes) for soprano & ensemble, Op.17
Anton Webern: Symphony, Op.21
Alban Berg: 4 Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5
Anton Webern: 3 Little Pieces for cello & piano, Op.11
Anton Webern: Concerto for 9 instruments, Op.24

Black and white photo of Anton Webern

Anton Webern (1883-1945) Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

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