The Rest Is Noise 11: Superpower

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

Saturday 9 November 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday 10 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Timeless Beauty @ Royal Festival Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sofia Gubaidulina (Wikimedia Commons)

Sofia Gubaidulina (Wikimedia Commons)

The Rest Is Noise 10: Politics and Spirituality

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

Full disclosure

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

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

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

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

Example: Gorécki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timetable for the Politics and Spirituality weekend

Saturday 2 November

1. Opening Lecture: Catherine Merridale

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

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

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

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

2. Gubaidulina: String Quartets 3 & 4

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

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

Sofia Gubaidulina – String Quartet number 3

Sofia Gubaidulina – String Quartet number 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Alain de Botton – consumerism and spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

A theory of reception

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

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

Thanks to the South Bank

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

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

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

The Rest is Noise 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.

Conlon Nancarrow weekend @ the South Bank

22 April 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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