Alan Rowlands and John Ireland
Alan was my piano teacher at the Royal College of Music in London in the late 1960s. He also became a close friend, though in subsequent decades we saw little of each other. But our friendship remains and in a few weeks he will visit me in Amsterdam for the first time.
He is a tremendous pianist, but within that musical excellence there is something more special still. (I don’t refer to the unusual musical gifts he has – being able to go to the piano and give a pretty good rendition of bits he has liked from a new work just heard on the radio, or during conversation leaping up to play a few bars from a Beethoven symphony to illustrate some point – these Glazunov-like gifts are impressive of course). What’s so special is Alan’s engagement with the music of his time. He had a real bond with John Ireland. And this is what is good, that a performer has had at some stage (probably when he/she was very young) a proper bond with a living composer – something deep, that matters and has consequences. Let’s not mix that up with the sort of association that happens later on – where collaborations can be little more than shallow money earning ventures and sometimes quite dispiriting.
Of the other half of Alan’s life – his work as an Alexander teacher, or his fascination with Douglas Harding, Krishnamurti and more recently Ramana Maharshi – I can’t say much, as I have little interest in these things. But I have today been rereading Harding’s “On Having No Head”.
Now back to John Ireland. As I say, I have been listening to his piano music. It is so familiar, so English………….so pleasing in many ways, yet I am struck by a “what if?” What if one were to rewrite certain ideas, turning them upside down, back to front, so to speak?
Alan worked closely with the composer on his interpretations and I have no reason to believe that he goes against his wishes. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that Ireland was well satisfied with the results of the collaboration. So when I target the performance of Chelsea Reach* (the first of the three “London Pieces”) it is not in a spirit of quibbling about performance, but instead to raise an artistic issue.
The rhythm of Chelsea Reach is very basic – almost entirely quarter notes, yet they are not played as such – these are “quarter notes” and not quarter notes. The beats are almost always delayed and by so doing you set up a polarity. You drift between strict and free. The word rubato is used for this. Some music teachers use the word “musical”, as in “he plays so musically”. It is in fact a routine addition to notated music in this period and when one is young and learning, it seems matter of fact and nothing worth commenting on. It’s as obvious as letting a woman go first through a door. Normal, one can say, except when viewed from a different cultural perspective.
When you view this issue of “rubato” from a distance, it appears anything but normal. It appears to me as extremely effete in fact. I haven’t just had this reaction, I’ve seen it in myself for a long time. And I’ve written something about a related issue – the custom of slowing right at the end of a piece and pausing very long on the last chord. This is uncomfortable for me – something like soap under the nails.
If I speak of a polarity, then I can develop that metaphor and begin to speak about “distance”. In the second of the London Pieces: Ragamuffin we are confronted by proletarian material. The composer let’s us know by the way he handles this that he has taken a distance from his material – he is no proletarian. In the strongly class orientated structure of English society this makes perfect sense. Why wouldn’t he take a distance from “street” material? The interesting question is “if you have to take a distance, why are you using street material anyway?”
If there were no distance, then what? If there were no rubato, then what? As I said, I am not criticizing anything here, I am raising “what ifs”. What if the last 30 seconds of Aubade were the beginning of a piece rather than an ending? That final descending fifth might be allowed to drift on, to multiply, in other words, you might like to imagine the music “after the ending.” Ditto the last 20 seconds of Equinox. Ditto the last 10 seconds of Sarnia – An Island Sequence. Ditto the last staccato chord of the Sonatina which is mainly there to thrill us into applause. Where could we put that in order to make another use of it?
I’m afraid I’m not much of a critic. First I can’t think of words to assign to feelings, second I get the urge to rewrite other people’s music and third, I am too soft hearted to do much damage. My beloved composition teacher Rubin de Cervin said to me this summer that “kitsch exists in order to protect us from the horror that is life”. Perhaps we can bear that in mind when listening to Ireland’s piano music. About where on the “scale of horror” does it appear?
Finally, talking once again about “street” musical material, Michael Bonaventure (my great mate, the Scottish organist) was here a few weeks back and we listened together in hysterics to two tracks from Russ Conway – his Roulette and his Lesson One. This is street stuff, real prole stuff, and no mediation whatsoever. The modulations are like gear shifts in a rusty old car. One of those black ones I remember from my childhood – on the floor by the back seat there will be a couple of screwed up tissues stained yellow with dried spunk. The music smells of beer, tobacco and urinals. …….We were talking about Russ Conway (a popular pianist in England from long ago) because I was telling a story about my dad sort of falling in love with him at one stage – we even had a picture on the mantelpiece…………(round about the time when dad went to see him at the London Palladium).
I myself like popular music very much and certainly don’t want to take any distance from it. Not at all. I think I speak for Michael when I say that the laughter we shared was one of joy – joy in the earthy aspect of English culture that goes along with the effete aspect. But then Michael next moment will be off to do a recital in Westminster Abbey, and I will be off upstairs to write a Sinfonietta. So I think it should begin to be obvious why he is such a great mate of mine…………
* [Rowlands has a nice story about Rachmaninov once telling Ireland that he liked his “Chelsea Leech”].