I have, for most of my composing career, been almost completely uninterested in performers – their techniques, their mentality, their world – even quite hostile to them, to be honest.

I have changed my mind about this over the last couple of years. People reading through my blog might not imagine me to be a sentimental person (more of a “mental” one… heh-heh). In fact though, I am intensely sentimental, but unpredictably so. Anyway, for no phony reason, I have begun to get interested in performers as both people of action, and people with a complex and delicate psychology.

I think for example of that moment at the beginning of concertos when they are waiting for their first entry. But then, there are ALL the moment to moment actions (the fingerings, the breaths, the rests) which involve psychology as well as physical gestures. I have in mind here soloists – groups are different again.

Composers often complain about how arrogant and uncooperative performers are. But how arrogant have composers been towards performers? Is it not arrogant to write for instruments as if they were only sound sources and not actions with a psychological aspect?

In the bad old days (at the height [or depth] of the decadence) composers thought of instruments as “colour”. Colour, which didn’t even have a human hand attached to it, let alone a human psychology. They DID delve into the colour issue a bit. There was an entire book produced in those times, dedicated to the thousands of different squawks you can produce from wind instruments (Nuovi Suoni per I Legni. Bruno Bartolozzi. Milan: Edizioni Suvini Zerboni). I did not fail to read and inwardly digest that fascinating work. And you can be assured that when seagulls are flying over my Amsterdam apartment early in the morning, I am drowsy, but not so drowsy that I forget to distinguish one bird from another. Do you imagine that I – a composer of the advanced school – would lump all those squawks together? Perish the thought! And the electronics departments opened up too, so that we could have, in addition to wind squawks, electronic ones. “Ooohh……..yes……….do me another squawk. Make me a tape of that squawk at once. I’ll take it home”.

It has become a cliché to say that composers write for each other, rather than for the public, or for performers. Things have changed a great deal since the avant-garde collapsed a few years ago. But how far composers are still trying to impress each other is not clear to me. Perhaps that stuff goes on still. The status and subsidy issues are still major ones of course – are you published and who’s cutting you a slice of the cake? Because of subsidy, all this activity could carry on independently of audience input. But now there is pressure from the agencies who bake the cake. They don’t want composers to be so “art for art’s sake”. The pressure is on to force composers to take people (other than each other) into account.

I am re-reading Aristotle and Plato on the subject of music and ethos. That is my route to deal with this matter. I am also interested in new American music, both the classical wing and the, much larger, popular wing. Here also there are many clues available to solve the puzzle of audience alienation. Issues of style and ethos are all unresolved in me still. And that’s how it must be I guess, because it is in my nature to waver in the face of different sources of attraction.

Back to the issue of performers……I mean to write some solo pieces over the next few years. That’s one of my projects. It has nothing to do with money and nothing to do with “what I am expected to do”. Maybe I am expected to write Jesus symphonies? I am sure I could do one of those. But I’d prefer to do it well, rather than behave like a general who doesn’t care what happens to his soldiers.

Some reasons for monologue…….

A young composer gave me a CD recording of his music. After a few weeks he asked me for my comments on it. I refused, saying, “I don’t make comments on people’s music”. He was nonplussed. I suppose it seemed to him only normal that I would have a reaction, and then wish to share it. Fair enough. But I didn’t. There are reasons for that.

The first reason is that when giving criticism, you are adopting a certain stance towards a person. You are making them the centre of attention. So even before the talk starts, something has started. Maybe you don’t really want to put yourself, or them, in that position.

The second reason is the quality of the talk itself. As soon as you say “you are that”, the composer or the performer replies “no I am not that”. Or if you say “your piece is that” then comes the reply “no it is not that”. Pretty soon you can be in a tug of war, if you’re not careful. So I have learned to avoid making statements like “your piece reminds me of Stravinsky” because the reply will come back “well actually I never think about Stravinsky, he doesn’t interest me – in fact I identify far more with Bartók”. By this time (if you are me) you are angry. You have just heard an entire page of Agon more or less directly quoted in this guy’s score. So now you are ready to kick him in the nuts, not because he stole something (who doesn’t?), but because he is a bullshit artist.

The third reason for not getting involved in commentary is that you’ve wasted half an hour of your life on this guy and he’s not going to pay you for that time.

Meanwhile, if he had any respect for you, he is rapidly losing it, because you have shown that you take him seriously by entering into a dialogue. He doesn’t take himself seriously. He’s a bit like Groucho Marx [“Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member”]. That’s the fourth reason.

There are other reasons. Sort them out for yourselves.

The Anglican Communion 2

After my voice broke and I stopped singing in chapel services at Addington Palace (the then headquarters of the Royal School of Church Music), I let go of my interest in Anglican church music. Neither organ playing nor singing were studies I wished to take up. But I retained, “locked in a cupboard” somewhere in my mind, a memory of that whole repertoire. And sometimes it is reflected in my music. The culture of the chapel was largely a safe, ordered and disciplined world. And one shouldn’t forget that the Anglican Church is one of the few areas of our musical life where there is a genuine interest in new music. (I remember the excitement when Derek Holman wrote a piece for us).

Over the years since, I have probably failed to point out how much I owe to the chapel training (which included piano and composition lessons). And it was all given gratis – no small thing, as my family could not have afforded any of it.

It is decades since I listened to this music. Here are some of the composers I loved as a child:-

Thomas Attwood, Edward Bairstow, Benjamin Britten, William Byrd, William Croft, Harold Darke, George Dyson, Orlando Gibbons, John Goss, Maurice Greene, George Frideric Handel, William H. Harris, Pelham Humfrey, E. J. Moeran, Thomas Morley, Frederick Ouseley, Henry Purcell, Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Sumsion, Thomas Tallis, Thomas Tomkins, Christopher Tye, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Thomas Attwood Walmisley, William Walton, Thomas Weelkes, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, Charles Wood.

John Marbeck I didn’t like. And psalm singing was always a bore – I doubt they have abandoned that ugly tradition. The Roman Catholic method of psalm singing however was PERFECT, and that HAS been abandoned (after Vatican II). Such are the ironies of…….

Incidentally, my first (failed) attempt at composition was of a psalm chant – I threw it away.

….where three roads meet……

diceIn De Clercqstraat, today, I had a musical idea which I began to sing quietly to myself as I waited for tram 14. Well, I was already singing it before I even noticed it was there. It was easy to memorize, and I noted it down as soon as I got to the house.

I had been on tram 3 on my way home from Wibautstraat. (I go there every Tuesday and Thursday to attend a Dutch class). I would have to change from a 3 to a 12 or a 14 in order to complete my journey. But as I got off at the crossroads where the tram routes intersect, I didn’t notice that a 12 was already waiting there. So it pulled away without me. That meant walking round the corner to wait for a 14.

That’s how I came to be standing in De Clercqstraat singing that bit of music. If I had noticed the 12, I would have caught it, and not conceived the musical idea. So this idea would not now exist and the string quartet would be a different piece as a consequence (I decided to include it in the new work).

I get irritated with all these musical ideas that appear. Yes, they are attractive, but at the same time they are like little birds in a nest with mouths wide open – the ideas have to be “fed”. I sometimes just push them away, through laziness. The same applies if I am in bed and cannot be bothered to get up to write music down.

But I should count all this a blessing really, because, years ago, when things reached rock bottom as far as my creativity was concerned, I would negate any spontaneous idea I had.

Today, the one that arrived, was vintage Geoffrey King – the sort of idea that my friend and colleague Peter Nelson teases me about (because of its Celtic derivation). When I later came to consider the fragment seriously, I decided immediately to use it…….as I said. And it will be easy to develop. What I have written in recent days will readily combine with it.

Ideas develop on their own, or through applying various modalities. They can also develop through interaction with other ideas. One can speak of an attraction between ideas. And because they don’t have our shame, they can openly say, “oh come here, I want to fuck with you right away”, and before the thought is even over, the dirty deed is done…………..heh-heh.

Ooooooohhhhhhhhhh, HOW could I make THAT comparison? Oooh, the shame of it!

But, returning to the subject……early in 1999 during dinner at a friend’s house, I was talking about my interest in chance and said “if, later, I take a certain route home, I may encounter a person in the street who will become immensely important to me, whereas, if I take another route, I shall never even meet him”. I cycled off, and half way home, the front wheel of my bike collapsed. I was catapulted over the handlebars and ended up on my back with a shattered elbow. If I had taken another route, I would have, at the very least, fallen differently, or perhaps not at all………

And that’s why I point out that there is no complete Oedipus story without the involvement of chance……………specifically, no murder of Laius.

The gods say that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother, so he flees his homeland in order to prevent this fate. He comes to a place where three roads meet, and by chance encounters a group of men going in the opposite direction. They force him off the road and in retaliation he kills them all. Amongst these is Laius…………his real father…………

Thoughts no.8 – some musical “effects” I like

Score of The Star-Spangled Banner

Score of The Star-Spangled Banner

What interests me a lot is the transformation of musical ideas. Not the kind of change that is only made clear by careful analysis, but the sort of overt change you get in Wagner’s thematic transformations. I compare these effects to the use of depth in painting (where the surface is dissolved away). When thematic connections are made between different parts of a work, I can find it quite magical. Having mentioned Wagner, I should nevertheless confess that my two favourite examples of transformation are from Boulez and from my own Magritte Weather – there is in that work a quite wonderful transformation of some initial ideas, made towards the end. And in the fourth movement of Pli Selon Pli, there occurs a superb transformation of ideas first heard in the opening movement. Enchanting.

Although you can liken these effects to recapitulations in classical sonata movements, a better comparison might be made to the altered bridge passages you find there, or to the transposed material that follows on. Incidentally, it is not at all the durchführung sections of sonatas that I like most, though you might assume so. Indeed, it tends to be only the retransitions that I like in this context. I can be fairly sniffy about all those modulations……

And come to think of it, modulations can often strike me as repulsive. The brief one near the beginning of the American National Anthem is truly, truly vulgar. And ludicrously, the music for this anthem apparently derives from a popular British drinking song. What a crass idea, to take a drinking song as your national anthem. Anyway…………

For me, though, nothing is quite so uncomfortable as a slow cadence at the end of a piece, with a long pause on the tonic. That’s like soap under the nails.

I think you could argue that both cadenzas and durchführung sections are primary sources for modern music. Therefore I should like them, I suppose. But the only thing I tend to like about cadenzas are the 6-4 chords that launch them and the perfect cadences that sweep them away.

Thoughts no.7 – the craftsman and the artist

yuioAs so often happens in writing this blog, I come up against a topic I wish I could adequately discuss. But I am only a composer…………and I will have, once again, to use a decidedly unacademic approach………

Let us take as an example of artistry the beautiful gates to Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo on the Canale Grande. God bless the artist who made them, because they are just wonderful.

…then all around the sleeping castle there grew a dense hedge of thorns, impenetrable to all……save to one…a handsome prince………

Then walk across the across the Ponte dell’Accademia to Piazza San Marco and you see an example of craftsmen at work. With a few quick strokes of the palette knife, these “kitsch painters” can conjure up a Venetian scene – and people DO buy garish things. I myself would never stoop so low of course – indeed, with my refinement of taste, I must in some former life certainly have have been Parisian………

These examples I choose are quite amusing, because you might expect a painter to be classed as an artist. On the other hand, you might expect someone who makes a pair of gates to be classed as a craftsman. Not so in this case.

The two concepts are quite clear when held apart like this. The craftsman has a routine approach. We don’t expect him to be slow about his business. An artist however might well take some weeks asking himself the question “what could a pair of gates be?”