The Language of Modern Music

angerMy new string quartet is shaping up, slowly. What is helping me this time is to think of an audience. As a matter of fact, I have been thinking quite specifically of an audience of woman factory workers and composing “for them”. I am visualising them and even the spot where they and the quartet will be sitting.

Music without a goal is rather difficult to f…………

At that very moment I was interrupted by a Skype communication from a pianist friend (he’d better remain anonymous) complaining about having to work on the Ligeti Etudes. (He’d already written earlier in the day to complain that “I am up to my BIG BALLS in work” and “I have had ENOUGH of LIGETI . F U C K that dead jerk …. I have to do all his etudes on Friday”….)

Here is what he said this time……

Geoffrey King says: how are your 2 large balls?
Geoffrey King says: I am just writing a note about my quartet for the blog, so that I understand what I am trying to do
Anon says: 2 conditions to write ugly contemporary music : SOFT and EASY . otherwise it’s PURE RUBBISH
Anon says: DIRT 
Anon says: TRASH
Anon says: CRAP 
Geoffrey King says: The la grenuoiller movement will be the second one 
Geoffrey King says: grenuillere
Geoffrey King says: grenouillere
Geoffrey King says: FROG
Anon says: SHIT 
Anon says: VOMIT 
Anon says: PUKE 
Anon says: STINK 
Geoffrey King says: I’m glad I have a friend who’s such a fan of contemporary music… (chuckle) 
Anon says: am going. bye

As I was saying……music without a goal in mind is difficult to write. So, my first big piece, written when I was sixteen or seventeen (Contrasts for piano), explored the number seven within the language of 1960s style Stravinsky and also that of Webern. And because of this focus, it was fairly easy to write. And I still love it………but I certainly wouldn’t recommend dishing that piece up to an audience of factory workers.


astronomersA few weeks ago, telescopes all over the southwestern United States were turned toward Pluto to observe the occultation of a star in the constellation Sagittarius. It took about six minutes, that is, about three times longer than a typical Pluto occultation. Astronomers were keen to view the star’s light as it filtered through Pluto’s atmosphere in order to monitor both pressure and composition.

Yesterday, going down the Rozengracht on tram no.14, I was surprised to see high up on the tower of the Westerkerk a new sight. At the level of the clock face, the four ornamental urns that perch at each corner of the structure have been painted a bright blue. The tower has had extensive maintenance work done on it for over a year now. I had already on another occasion admired the painting of the crown at the very top of the tower. It is 90 meters high by the way and was built in 1638.

In rapid succession I thought:- “how beautiful” – “it’s garish” – “I like it” – “but it’s garish” – “I wonder if it’s been restored to the original colour” – “or if that’s some new playful departure” – “many ancient statues and stone buildings were originally painted” – “am I allowed to like it” – “I don’t know” – “I am disturbed”.

It must have been a very few seconds that passed before I came out of this reverie, but I was able to capture it all. And so I was able to monitor my “atmosphere”. Apparently, certainly in the first instance, at least, I don’t trust my own taste.

Trees and woods

A wood like my woods

A wood like my woods

Saturday was my last meeting with my class this semester. I liked the students very much and some of them worked quite hard. Now there is a big gap until September, when I begin again with a new group.

The trees on the way down were wonderful. An explosion of leaves and blossom – and that’s almost not a metaphor. A slow motion explosion, but not slow enough. Next time I look the leaves will be fully out. And then they will start to age.

I increasingly miss the woods near my childhood home. Much of that area will be changed now, but not all of it. Addington Palace has become a hotel. It was the headquarters of the Royal School of Church Music when I was a child. When I think of everything that happened to me there! Joyous things, painful things….

The place was always in my imagination as a solid rock, but nothing is solid. Everything is in transformation. I still remember exactly how the massive front door felt as I opened it. As a boy chorister I wasn’t supposed to enter by that main entrance, but sometimes I couldn’t resist it.

I would like time to slow up I always think, but perhaps it is me who has the tempo problem. As a child I would sometimes spend hours in the woods. I was exploring slowly and thoroughly. No, I wasn’t learning the names of the plants and the animals – that didn’t interest me – but I was keenly observing things even so. Nowadays I would never take that amount of time just “doing nothing”.

Some of the things I saw then must have been very old indeed – paths, cottages, dating back to the eighteenth century. But there was a medieval church in Addington Village. So some of the sights must have been even older. But which? What had changed and what had remained the same? How old were the springs in what I called the Spring Woods? And are they still there just the same, or have they dried up? I would like to travel back into the past to see how that area was long ago, and then I should like to travel into the future to see what of it will remain.

The first time I went to Addington Palace it was a Saturday morning in September and the gardeners were burning leaves. I was with another child and we were taken into a room where boys were singing divisi. It was the Beati Quorum Via of Stanford. I had never heard anything so beautiful. It was radiant like light.

You gotta do what you gotta do

Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II

H.M. The Queen is 81 today.

Alasdair left at nine in the morning for Schipol. We ate breakfast together and I took him down to the tramhalte. But I didn’t accompany him further because it’s an easy journey.

He arrived late last night and so we talked into the small hours, rather than over dinner. Very nice. I’m going to see him from time to time perhaps, as he has to make visits to the Koninklijk Conservatorium over the coming months. He gave me two of his scores and some recordings. He has a page at the RSAMD website.

After he had gone, I continued work on my string quartet.

Finally I have tracked down a recording of the John Rutter Requiem. It was the Requiem Aeternam movement broadcast on the radio a few weeks ago that struck Ananda and myself with such force. It is an inspired and well crafted movement . What I mainly wish to note here however is that this sort of specialist church music composer is regarded with contempt by my contemporary music composer colleagues. A strange snobbery, as one would certainly think twice before attending a vocal piece composed by some of those guys! He-he.

It’s partly about snobbery, but it’s also partly about acting and lying. But that’s an unnecessarily negative way of describing it. Let’s just refer to it as “career mentality”. Everybody remembers the case of the conservative government minister who gave an embarrassingly jingoistic, rabble rousing speech at a party conference. He lost his seat at the subsequent general election and then began to change his tune radically and to reveal himself as quite a reasonable man. He seemed to many to be papabile but then it emerged that he had a “gay past”. Oh dear. So he flopped in the ensuing leadership election. Only half interested in this depressing comedy, I realised rather late that the famous awful speech and subsequent change of direction had as their basis an ambition to rise to the top in politics, and maybe little else.

We make a pretence (and how often have I shuddered at hearing MYSELF deliver some carefully crafted compliment about Elliot Carter’s music?) because we hope to belong to the group that is going to ascend smoothly to the top. And we hope also that no one will notice that we don’t actually give a rat’sfuck about the group credo. I don’t happen to think it’s culpable to lie about one’s beliefs in order to survive and prosper. I just think it’s a pity that a very accomplished composer like John Rutter gets trodden underfoot in the process.

The Queen’s birthday today reminds me of what a disaffected bunch the composers’ group is. They are “republican” and “socialist” and “atheist”. I can’t imagine one of them turning up to cathedral evensong or taking communion at a Church of England mass unless they were paid to do so. And they would certainly laugh to scorn the very idea of a Royal Family. Fair enough. But watch when you withdraw the government subsidy from these same folk how they start chanting about the collapsing state of the nation. And by the way, not a few of these “socialist” composers don’t give a ratshit about what music “the people” actually enjoy. That makes sense to them I guess.

Well, I don’t mean entirely to condemn the hypocrisy and, as I indicated, I take part in it myself. You gotta do what you gotta do.

But let me resolve henceforth always to think well of my colleagues, no matter how rich and talentless they may be. I cannot promise always to SPEAK well of them, but in my heart they shall be honoured. Dear, dear colleagues, may you live long and prosper.

David Horne and Alasdair Spratt

Alasdair telephoned from the Conservatorium in the Hague to say he would be coming over to stay en route for Schipol. He is an ex-student of David Horne who is an ex-student of mine. So a sort of “grandson” as far as writing music is concerned.

David is now a formidable composer and teacher, bright as anything and he will dispute till the cows come home on many subjects, though it never gets abrasive. I have to think my ideas through carefully before tackling him or I end up flat on my face in the mud…………he-he.

Alasdair and I have been having a correspondence by email for some time, mostly about religious matters. They interest us both very much. He sang in the chorus at the Edinburgh premiere of The Coming of Wasichu, a big cantata I wrote about native Americans back in 1998. That’s a very religious piece and it marks, perhaps, the point at which my interest in religion began rapidly to increase. Exponentially in fact. Incidentally, I don’t at all like the term native Americans. I would prefer something like Original Americans or First Americans.

Alasdair is a composer of course. I only know one piece so far, but that’s all about to change. In addition, he writes about music.

Jeremy’s software



Across town on my vouwfiets to see Jeremy and to return one lot of software and borrow another. My bike normally lives in the attic (and that also doubles as my composing room when the neighbours are making too much noise).

Jeremy defies the laws of nature by getting more cute as he gets older. He looks about 28, though he is perhaps 40. Being so good-looking (especially now that he’s all bronzed from a recent cruise) and nice, and clever and well educated, and everything else that any reasonable person could desire in a partner, he naturally has boyfriend trouble……

We sat on the balcony and J. served lunch. I could see across to the Rembrandt Tower. It was a lovely hot day. I started to wear a straw hat, but that didn’t help. Truth be told, I don’t much like hot sunshine. But I did like sitting amongst herbs and pot plants. And being with him was so nice.

We talked a bit about the massacre in Virginia because it’s just happened. But all the issues have been gone through again and again, so there’s not much to say. The main thing I find is not to sneer at the U.S. and its problems. I don’t like that. It’s a cheap thing to do. J. didn’t do that of course. On the contrary, he’s researching into the problem.

Cycled back along the Baarsjesweg where they plan to build the new Westermoskee. If it happens it should be magnificent. Fantastic position there by the canal and they’ve erected a hoarding where you can see an image of what it will all look like. The whole project is controversial though……….needless to say.

Flag waving

Royal standard of Norway

Royal standard of Norway

Yesterday the train was again diverted via Hilversum, but this time it was due to necessary work on the track which will go on for several weeks. I was en route to give my last class for this semester. On Saturday the students do their Final, and then it’s over.

By chance, the journey via Hilversum gave me an idea. A very obvious one, but I have a peculiar ability to miss the obvious… Maybe because there is so much around that doesn’t appear to be interesting. We passed by some business premises just outside Hilversum – I don’t know what the firm was. There were flags flying there. Not nice national flags or, even nicer, a royal standard, but “company flags”. I was used of course to seeing these, but had always discounted them. In this case, they were truly risible. Along the tops of the flags, threaded into the border, was a thin rod, at right angles to the flagpole. So the flags were erect and “flying” even though there was no wind. It was stupid looking and, of course, part of the attraction of a flag is the way it furls and unfurls in the wind.

These stupid stiff versions are really advertisements, simply that. And then I thought that blogs, websites for composers, are similarly advertisements. Attention seeking.
On the journey back, I was thinking about the ways in which composers do this. The other day I received a publishers catalogue of what is, I think, quite a poor composer. There was an introduction written by a music critic. The prose was almost purple (violet? mauve?). And then I got the idea that the critic knew just how weak the work was that he was praising. The more “purple” he became, the more he seemed to be lying. (We never stop lying of course, but the insidious ones are the lies we tell ourselves).

So I think a website can be used to give out honest thoughts and feelings as well as cataloguing work. Trumpeting “success” where there is none is, well, lying. And rather transparently so in the case I mentioned. As to company flags – how dull is that?

The Royal Standard of Norway, shows how it should be done.