1961, Bridget Riley "Movement in Squares"

1961, Bridget Riley “Movement in Squares”

My last partner pointed out that I serve music as if it were a goddess. And he added that if you worship a god, he/she should look after you in return. This thought has stayed with me for several years.

It reoccurs to me this morning as I make a neat copy of the duo I wrote yesterday evening (“Future” – number seven of the eight songs I am working on). This duo is for mezzo and tenor, singing in thirds. It interests me how when you combine high tenor with a mezzo singing just a third above, you get the illusion that the mezzo notes are actually beneath the tenor ones. Curious – an aural equivalent of one of those eye popping moments in Bridget Riley. Incidentally, as I love her work so much, along with that of her style compatriots, I wonder why I have written so much neo-romantic music. Yet more to think about…

Anyway, why I was put in mind of the goddess issue is because the songs I have been writing (I did the texts as well) deal directly, for the first time, with my own biography. I am sure that other works I have composed treat this obliquely, but that is not the same thing. Here I include actual sentences that were said by me or by others. And each situation is one that I know from my own story. So, it occurs to me this morning that here, finally, there is chance of some reward. That I can say what happened in my life. Not that it matters to anyone, not that it adds anything new to what we know. But that it is a joy to say it.


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.