I believe that many artistic problems that crop up, either on the work table, or in the conversations of composers, are really only as problematic as we choose to make them. Many diverse things can be artistic, even a child playing with coloured bricks. But a mother would be foolish to come into a room and complain that her child should put two blues together, rather than combine a blue with a red. If she did, the child would be right to carry on playing, regarding his mother’s remark as bit more adult craziness to be ignored. So here at least there’s one “artistic problem” that can be discounted……….
Fashion and also money manifest as artistic issues. Rich people are perhaps uninterested in last year’s designs, so if you are out of date, and trying to sell to that clientele, you’d better watch out. However, there are those who are so poor that they are lucky if they own any clothes at all, so they are hardly likely to be concerned with fashion. Everyone needs clothes, but only a few need fashion.
Similarly, in music, if you compose like those long dead out-of-fashion composers (like John Ireland for example) then you are going to be shifted to the least prestigious venues (dusty church halls? – whatever). Whilst composers who write “cutting edge” stuff have their pieces done by the major ensembles and in the ritziest of surroundings. I like that hideous cliché “cutting edge” along with another overused term – “challenging”. “He is a cutting edge composer doing challenging work”.
There are those who say they write for themselves and those who say they write for others. I think it’s a false distinction. It’s not like making dinner in which you can say you cooked just for yourself and didn’t invite anyone along. A better metaphor is language. You don’t talk to a child the same way as you would talk to a pope or a princess. And you don’t talk to a pope or a princess the way you would talk to an intimate friend. The language differs. So it is right what Stravinsky says – he said he composed for the hypothetical other. We are always “addressing” someone – hypothetical, or real – it’s unavoidable.
The invention of musical ideas is the simplest of tasks. In my case the ideas are there the whole time and if I think about one, it just starts developing automatically. In the four minute movement I wrote over Christmas, I made for the first time a special point of using this automatic invention I have. Over the course of a few days I wrote down all the variations that occurred to me of a particular idea, in a long list, simply that. When this involuntary invention came to an end I incorporated everything I had invented into the piece. In fact I think nothing else was invented for the piece aside from the decisions about proportions and texture, instrumentation and so forth – the structural stuff. Well, put like that, it seems quite an unoriginal way of working, but as I say, it was a first for me.
I am troubled by some craft issues. It vexes me for example that I do not play a wind instrument and have to work so hard to imagine the physical actions required to play my wind music. In addition there are sound issues with regard to the combinations of elements that are hard work to imagine. Here though, I believe I made recent progress. In the new piece I included a few moments where the instrumental texture combines in such a way that distinct identities break down and the sound blends. I adore these moments. They have for me the status that “special effects” do in sci-fi films. This is an old art to be sure. Look for example at the first few moments of Stravinsky’s 1917 symphonic poem Le Chant du Rossignol. That is a model of this kind of writing and not the only example from the master’s work in that period of his career.
Up at 7, showered and dressed, then running for the tram a little before 8 as I had decided beforehand to do. Today is the centenary of my mother’s birth [1909-1993] and she, the breadwinner of the house, was forever running for the bus early in the mornings - the stop was just across from our house. She had strong legs and could run well. (Her father, by the way, William Biggar [1877-1935], had been a footballer and it is pleasing to see that there are some little biographies of him on the Net). In my case it is not necessary to run, as the tram stop is out of sight around the corner. Nevertheless I ran for a while and then was pleased as I neared the stop to find that I actually DID have to run for real, as a no.12 came racing along. Heh-heh. Nice that it worked out as planned.
Into the centre of Amsterdam only to find it more or less deserted and nowhere much to have breakfast. This is decidedly NOT
But later I completed one of the other tasks for today. I went to the children’s zoo in Rembrandtpark to look at the poultry because my mother adored hens. I sat there a long time and covered several pages of ms paper - I had also written a page in the café in the morning. Indeed it is now certain that the only way I really like writing music is in this manner. I developed it for my Grand Sonata for 2 pianos and 6 percussion (2004). That had to be written in about 2 weeks. I map out some sort of structure, including silences by the way – this is very important, and then write notes at lightning speed.
The “finale” for today was meant to be a trip to the cinema (The Tushcinski) to see the new Harry Potter. But I couldn’t face another trip to the centre so instead I hired a video of the charming movie Minoes which served more or less the same purpose. My mother adored cats and also she had a nice feeling for this kind of fairy tale. Incidentally, my companion at breakfast was a black and white cat. She did that lovely cat thing in totally ignoring me, though I was sitting on the same chair as she was. I didn’t have much room but she, of course, was not going to shift for me. I had to smile.
What does one say about one’s mother? “Thank you” is never going to be enough. Nothing is enough. Nothing can ever repay the debt, except perhaps, as Michelle Obama often says, in the action of Giving Back. I do a bit of that, but nothing like enough.
Out early this morning to the shops. The youth behind the cash register in the Turkish butcher/grocer was completely tired and bored, just slumped there – he said he had got up at 5. I chatted to him a bit, but he wasn’t interested. No spinach for my Indian recipe, so I searched round the corner. Nothing doing. Cycling back, I saw the “tired” youth now outside in animated conversation. So I thought, it’s just ME that was boring, not he who was bored. Probably he finds middle aged men with sparkly inquisitive eyes boring. Can you blame him?
I ended up in the good Turkish café, where, to my surprise, I ordered lamb and aubergines preceded by lentil soup. And coffee on the side. Weird. I almost never eat breakfast and certainly not something so heavy.
I had music paper with me as I knew I would sit somewhere and write. My favourite way to write music is to sit at a table and not bother with an instrument. There was loud music playing and I thought it was funny to write my own stuff against that background. So as I put pen to paper I just incorporated the sound of singing into the instrumental lines I was writing. That was a first for me, but in other respects it went as usual – very fast, with no rest for my wrist.
It had begun to storm outside and after a while a man came in carrying his small daughter all wrapped up in a coat against the wind and rain. He set her on the floor and she looked thrilled to be in the place. He was very handsome, so I was eyeing him, then I saw how he handled his daughter and how he looked at her with such love, his eyes sparkling. It was lovely to see. He was manly, yet somehow sweet and pretty at the same time. She was very young and he couldn’t understand what she was saying to him. After a while he got bored and just let his eyes wander around the room, leaving her to prattle on about “her things”.
Because of the loud music, my mind drifted to thoughts of Mr Z. and the fuss he used to make if music started up in a restaurant. He would squirm and look pained. It was a look that invited you to DO SOMETHING NOW. You might suggest leaving or even decide to have a kind word with the waiter. Either way, having manipulated you into doing something, he would act as if it had been your idea. That memory flashed by and I thought I should have screamed at him “children are so hungry in Africa they don’t even have the strength to stand up and YOU WANT TO MAKE A FUSS ABOUT MUSIC IN A RESTAURANT???????????!!!!!!!!!!” I would have needed to pop in something like “WHY DON’T YOU STAY IN YOUR OWN FUCKING HOUSE?” to make the full effect. But he was 15 years older than me and the apple of my eye, so I thought he knew better than me. In any case, I couldn’t have brought him to his senses. He was way beyond even spoiled, he was half way to being a god. And there he was, his nose jammed in the smelly armpit of this terrible world with its piped music, the poor darling.
[How sensitive am I, I ask myself? The deep vulgarity of these times we are cursed to live through are too much for me sometimes. I feel the urge to flee to some rocky place where all you hear are the calls of seals, the cries of gulls and the moaning sound of wind and sea. The pitter-patter of rain and the ratatat of hail. Miles of grassy sods and not much else. Pebbles, sand, sun and moon.]
Concentrating so hard on my piece, the loudspeaker music was gradually blotted out and then it was all done. I wrote at the top of the page “good Turkish café 7th July 2009”. Then I thought that would make a nice title.
It was by this stage storming enormously. A woman hurried by – short dyed blond hair, neat tight jeans, and small umbrella in the process of getting destroyed……She had to hurry as she was frightened the wind and water would spoil her set piece………She might arrive looking like a wet dog – O the shame of it! Puddles formed, drops made circles and bubbles floated. I thought that would make a nice image for a title too. Then I remembered that the music I was busy with didn’t convey any of these things, it was just something formal in approach. The Turkish singing had been a starting point, but nobody would guess that, and puddles of water weren’t being reflected on my page either. Mostly when we stick a label on music we find it already has its own “text” thank you very much.
I thought about how this music compared with the first piece I wrote, when I was 14 – no improvisational element there, just chords and gestures worked out at the piano with clear metres, and very nice too. [I must make a neat copy of that and show it some pianists…………though best not to mention the juvenilia aspect.] I began to wonder if that piece was possibly more convincing then what I write nowadays, with my far superior technique. [Such positive thoughts about myself tend to arrive in the early mornings - one good reason for getting up…………..]
Cycled home and got half drenched. Heh-heh.
Rose L: How did you enjoy your evening at the Holland Festival?
Geoffrey King: An entire evening of Varèse? I was happy to witness this extraordinary skill, both on the part of the composer and on that of the performers. I was sitting opposite to where you were, so I got a good look at you. You seemed pretty fed up to me.
Well, the music is all a bit the same, but that in itself is no criticism. Amériques moved on to different territory I thought. It was all very well done and Peter Eötvös is a good conductor, don’t you think?
I haven’t seen so many Boulez gestures since I last saw Boulez. I was surprised by that and thought he could easily step into the older man’s shoes, just as soon as they become vacant. Not a very nice or respectful thought, but there we are……
No, of course not and I wouldn’t make that accusation at any particular individual. But let’s get real here! Old Boulez popping his clogs? The man soaks up a lot of work, so it’s only natural that he has some competitors out there who are, shall we say, expectant……The son loves the father, but the son also wants to inherit. This is natural.
What did you make of the accompanying videos? Did you hear that woman shout out “weg met de video!”
Yes I heard her. The videos were a non issue for me. They could play or not and it wouldn’t make any difference from my point of view.
I thought they were nicely done, though, as you say, redundant.
For me it was an evening of musical violence leaving me very negative, bitchy and unsettled.
Maybe that’s what Varèse intends. Could be. But the music is not usually described in these terms. It’s described abstractly. He’s the “father of electronic music” because of his emphasis on sound. People talk about an emphasis on colour and rhythm.
I haven’t heard so much bloodcurdling music since I went to see the new Birtwistle opera in London – the one with all the shrieking. (He just keeps rolling out these “horror operas”, I can’t understand why, unless it is to create a sensation). The horror aspect of several 20th century composers is to be questioned, especially where those individuals hide behind talk about abstract qualities like rhythm and sound. There is also the “self-hatred” aspect in all this exoticism – hello, what about our OWN culture?
Exoticism is a very big subject. You can say that’s a remarkable thing about educated white people in our culture. They can be anything they like – peasants, Jamaicans (you saw perhaps that white lady there with the dreadlocks, heh-heh), Indian holy men, or just plain vanilla white – whatever they want. You could call it (if you were being ironic) flexibility. And if you want to be bitchy you can say that the only fixed thing about us is the good medical care we get. We usually have teeth well into our 80s.
I am not a music professional like you. I take the music as it strikes me and I haven’t even read the “spin” about it, let alone believed it. But a ten year old could hear the violence during the Varèse evening, it’s not a difficult thing to understand. That is what I draw attention to. It’s necessary to open up a discussion about that and, from my point of view, protest about it. That’s my target.
Well, you may as well give up before you start. The audience was very enthusiastic and it was not JUST some professional clique there – there were tons of music lovers, like yourself.
I’m sorry, I don’t buy that. Actually you mean “music snobs” rather than “music lovers”. These people will clap what they’re told to clap. Reflect that Varèse’s music has very high prestige yet is precisely as I describe it. As you saw, the concert was one of a pair of concerts featuring ALL his music. I had never heard nine of his pieces in a row and I was actually very surprised to see how truly wretched it was. This stuff needs to be countered. I didn’t bother with the second concert. There’s only so much punishment………..
Varèse’s ear is fabulous. You talk about the music being wretched. I see a clear contradiction there.
If he had supreme skill, why didn’t he put it to good use? What was his usual inspiration………….the rituals of human sacrifice? He has two ideas. One goes shriek and the other goes thump. They appear together or apart and he likes things happening at the extremes of the scale. He seems to me to have written the accompaniment to rituals that we read about. “They cut the chests open. Ripped the hearts out. Tossed the bodies down the steps. Then cooked them and ate them”. He’s written the musical accompaniment to that. That’s what his music sounds like ALL THE TIME. Why was he busy with this? And why is this violent music acceptable? Why is it a pillar of 20th century music? Because Varèse has a “fabulous ear”? Bullshit!
Certainly there are echoes of a fictional pagan world. Primitivism is an important aspect of Modernism. But Varèse was also very forward looking and very inspired by the New World.
You mean like Mondrian in New York, doing his Boogie-Woogies?
Yes, that sort of thing. Varèse was a genius. And by the way, as you also slight Birtwistle’s music here, I’ll add that I admire this composer tremendously. Maybe the sheer quality of these composers is just passing you by. You are deaf to it.
I’m not deaf and I’m not daft either. I will admit that I was in a very bad mood because I hated the building. Jerry-built excuse for a hall – in an ex factory – a gasometer, of all things. Entrance the size of a telephone booth so people had to queue up to get in and out and it took ages. What is it with cultured types and factories? They certainly don’t want to WORK in them. What’s the attraction then?
They like the costume of the proletariat, just as they like beads and incense from the East. That doesn’t mean they want to get up at 5 in the morning and do the work, nor that they want to live like some Africans and shit in latrines/ on the highway.
You’re possibly right there. I think probably I don’t have respect for any aspect of this wank. And can I point out that during the evening, which certainly explored musical material from non Western cultures (almost an “ethnic celebration” of an evening), there wasn’t one single black face to be seen. Not on the platform. Not in the audience. Just one exception, a black guy (and very cute he was too) who’d been hired to serve drinks. Thanks for that “Holland Festival”.
Well it’s a “white celebration” isn’t it. If you want to see an “exotic crowd” of blacks and browns, you need to go Sloterdijk Station at 6.30 in the morning and watch the people traveling to the early morning factory shift. You won’t see them at a concert of exotic based classical music.
Yes whites celebrating…..what exactly? Posing as what exactly? The answer to that is complicated I’m sure, but some things are very simple – have you seen the Wiki photo of Varèse? – is that a pose, or what? I understand we’re dealing partly with show-biz here, but, really, tell me, why are people taking this music seriously and financing huge expensive events like this…………?
Well I’ve tried telling you, again and again, but you are not buying it.
No I’m not and I’m digging much deeper than YOU. Artists like Varèse, they seem to like expressing violence in their work, I am targeting that. And white folk and their love of exoticism, I’m targeting that too. It seems that the only thing we educated ones truly DON’T like is our own history. We travel to the remotest places on earth to breathe in THAT atmosphere. Or we “time travel” to the remotest epochs in order to breathe in THAT atmosphere. I call it self-hatred.
Well you know what, I think you are an amateur psychologist just as much as you are an amateur musician. You can date “white” fascination with exotic travels and imaginings back to the Renaissance. And didn’t Mozart write in Turkish style sometimes? Just how much of our culture (which you ask us to treasure) are you are attacking here?
Well start with the treasure: J.S.Bach. Nothing exotic about that and it tells us about who we are, far better than the “bow and arrow” stuff of Varèse. The horror of people of taste in this environment is a school carol concert or “meat and two veg”. A chat with the local vicar or receiving a Christmas card with a robin on. The sight of the Queen Mother in a petal hat. Put it all together, you know where I’m headed.
You’re like a playful kitten with a ball of wool. Like a scratchy bad-tempered kitten I should say, because you are just creating confusion and chaos and mischief. You are tangling up many different threads here. Some of what you just mentioned is simply English kitsch with absolutely NO relevance to the discussion you started.
Creating chaos? You mean unlike Varèse who is, by contrast, putting a radiant light out into the world…….?
Oh Rose, put a sock in it! And do some study. In silence. Thank you.
The Lady Beltham [maîtresse de Fantômas] interviews Geoffrey King about the work of John Cage.
Lady B: What is your opinion of John Cage?
G.K: Well, I’m surprised to see you here.
A spirit can roam about, to some extent.
Apparently. Anyway, I’ll have to rephrase your question in order to answer it. I don’t have much of an opinion about Cage, but I do have some feelings and thoughts.
Ok, your feelings and thoughts on this topic then.
I am interested in the man’s writings and also in his music. The mesostics don’t interest me but I have seen some art work that I enjoyed. I met Cage twice. The first time was in Edinburgh and the second time was in The Hague where I was studying in the late 80s. I remember also a concert at the Royal Albert Hall where he appeared with some other performers. I walked out of that.
That was impolite and also “avoiding the topic”. Why did you walk out?
Cage and the other performer were fiddling around making noises with transistor radios. There was a big audience and I noticed a young man dressed in hippy style swaying to and fro as if transported into some state of enjoyment. I walked out after that in a state of indignation.
Because I thought the event was pretentious.
Have you something against hippies?
Nothing I could formulate. But I can say that any discussion of marijuana and recreational drugs in general is extremely tedious to me. Say, as tedious as hearing about the inner workings of a car.
We did not have hippies in my day, but they are not just about drugs are they? I regard the automobile as a quite remarkable invention by the way.
Cars in your day were worth looking at. I feel sure you’re right about hippies and drugs. What are these people about actually?
I don’t know, nor even if they exist anymore. I move in entirely different circles.
Yes, your boyfriend’s a murderer and a thief. Quite a special circle that.
You do not know how appealing he is.
I can imagine. Anyway hippies are just one of the many issues I feel I ought to know about, but don’t, and probably never will.
Back to Cage. Any other thoughts or feelings about him?
Yes, I remember a concert in Edinburgh that included a work of his. I was very struck by that.
Well you have to know the context. It was just one item in a concert of contemporary music. The other pieces did not involve the performers in chance procedures. But for me the random juxtapositions in the Cage made for the most interesting harmony of the night That’s when the penny dropped. It was a large penny and it dropped a long way.
Oh I adore large pennies. But what do you mean precisely?
Well, think about it. One composer spends days and weeks and months trying to write “the right vertical note combinations” whilst another sets up some method whereby you get random juxtapositions, but his harmonic results are better. If this were science, I would say that was a pretty conclusive experiment.
And your conclusion?
Don’t waste time and effort organizing something that works better when done randomly. Birtwistle describes somewhere exactly this phenomenon. He talks about a group of actors walking on stage and how if you just let that happen randomly it looks much more convincing than if you direct them where to stand. Random numbers are important in Birtwistle’s music and I think that may have had a big impact on me from about 1990. I think the large ensemble work of mine: Magritte Weather is the first piece that resorts to these methods of creation. As the title perhaps indicates, the randomness cultivated by the surrealists had also had an impact on me.
I still want to nail you down regarding Cage. Is he a great influence on you? Is he of great importance in the history of our times?
What I know is that if you hand me some of his writings I’m going to find them interesting. My impression of the man is that he knows his own mind and can speak it. How many of us can say that? Most of us are too scared to poke our noses out of our mouse holes. But also I simply like some of his music. It refreshes me. He does the things other people don’t think of doing, or dare to do. He dares to be simple and dares not to attempt all that flashy whooshing around we go in for.
Any other memories?
Yes a very odd one. At the Royal College of Music in the early 70s there was a concert of music conducted by Ferneyhough. Somewhere in that there was a Cage piece. It was “realized” for a little chamber ensemble, maybe 5 or 6 musicians – I forget. Anyway, at the College there was a Cage-ian composer called Malcolm Fox. With his background as a connoisseur, he had arrived at the opinion that this particular performance was somehow against the spirit of Cage and decided to make a protest. Shortly after the performance began, in he came, carrying a wooden step ladder which he set up behind the conductor. He mounted to the top and waved his arms about in a clownish imitation of beating time. He was carrying a double bass bow. He climbed down and lay on the floor, placing the bow between his legs just by his balls, pointing upwards. He started to “masturbate”. This was a moment of considerable embarrassment as you can imagine. John Lambert walked out looking very indignant. I myself was unsure whether this was how the piece was meant to be – you never know, do you..
The sight of a man simulating masturbation on a concert platform is certainly an image to be reckoned with. How did you feel?
Is that all?
Well it was “scandalicious” AFTER the event, but DURING, it was excruciating. By the way, I really don’t care for people miming sexual acts on stage (though I’d make at least one exception for the brilliant Danse Sacrale of Béjart, but that’s a whole different story). And stage nudity is generally irksome. I don’t even like dance companies (you know who you are) whose posters regularly feature semi naked dancers.
By the way, Malcolm Fox was then (or shortly before, or shortly after, I forget) my roommate. On the one hand he wrote very good academic exercises and his theory teacher was pleased with him. On the other hand he wrote these Cage-ian works. That struck me as weirdly polarized. Later on I found a similar polarity in quite a few composers – for example an interest in big fat juicy music from the late 19th century combined with an inclination to write thin bloodless music when it came to creating their own stuff. I’ve always wondered why these “Mahler fans” don’t put the “Mahler” into their own pieces. Probably naïve of me.
I find your musings about psychology of interest. But let’s stick to something concrete. Give me your opinion of Cage. Is he a great man? A great creative artist?
Well he’s a famous man, that’s clear, and he’s someone I admire. I’m looking forward to learning more about him and his work. I am very interested in his use of chance processes in creating music. Possibly this came about, as I say, because of my interest in surrealism and in Birtwistle. But certainly I’ve been struck by the odd parallel with Cage in my own recent work – he is after all a person for whom I had absolutely no respect when I was a student.
You haven’t given me what I was looking for. Is it so hard for you to come up with a clear statement about the worth of this composer?
Shut your mouth.
Today, for the most part, I was grumbling about the thought of having to go shopping. A tussle between opposing wills – you HAVE to go, no I don’t WANT to go – which got quite heated. Until, that is, I realized it was a Sunday and not a Saturday. Working so hard on finishing the score of my new piece I had lost a day. (Well that’s nothing – I also discovered an entire meal that I thawed out yesterday in the microwave but forgot to eat…….). Of course, now I have one day less for finalizing everything, but that loss is more than compensated for by the delicious fact, thanks to the Christian religion, of not being able to go shopping. The sun is shining, yes, but I think I will just IMAGINE a walk. And with all this lack of exercise I have been having lately, I am rapidly losing weight – another compensation………..
My two new suites for piano (2008-9) were created in a rather odd way. They originally came into being as a set of seven “one page pieces”. These I wrote in the summer of 2008 whilst holidaying at the house of my teacher in the north of Italy. There I had spent a lot of time in the kitchen chatting with the cook. I sat at a large wooden table watching what he was doing (I am quite interested in cooking) all the while teasing him about girlfriends etc. – the usual banter. But I was writing music at the same time. It was a deliberate strategy to remove one layer of consciousness in order to see what would come out.
I placed the completed pieces in my luggage and brought them back to Amsterdam and stuck them in a drawer and forgot about them. On April 5th 2009 I found them again whilst rummaging around for music paper. I played the pieces through and decided to gather them into two sets of four (a piece from the original set of seven I had divided into two in order to do this) – a diatonic set and a chromatic set. So seven became eight and eight became two.
The first suite (the diatonic one) is dedicated to Alan Rowlands, my piano teacher at the Royal College of Music, for his 80th birthday. The second (the chromatic one) is dedicated to the Edinburgh pianist and teacher Richard Beauchamp. The pieces have no titles and are, as they say, “completely abstract” – (in other words, not in the least bit abstract.)
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”].