June 27th 2016 – A little hard-won freedom for the imagination
Nowadays I wake very early and begin to work straightaway in this little attic room above my apartment in Amsterdam, where there is a pleasant view of sky and treetops. I practise the piano and compose. It is a dull day today and all I can see is grey sky and the branches of plane trees swaying in the wind. The curtain M. hung in my window yesterday, in order to keep out the dazzling early morning summer sun, is redundant. In winter when there are no leaves to obscure the view, one sees all the way to the tower of the Westerkerk on the horizon. In Den Haag, when I lived on the Prinsengracht, the view was of the tower of the Grote Kerk, but that was close by.
I usually start with some keyboard exercises which I repeat in the middle of the day and in the evening. Keyboard technique is difficult to hold on to, but it has become very easy for me to compose now that the barriers to my imagination have been lifted, either because I removed them myself, or because they rotted away through time. It is, after all, way back in the late 1960s that I developed a loyalty to a certain modernism as defined by the composers I admired in those days (Boulez, late Stravinsky, Webern). I remember the time I first heard Le Marteau sans Maitre on a record and got the score. That was exciting indeed. To my mind, all along, such music has been a sort of orthodoxy and I strayed from that world with difficulty. The music of Alexander Goehr and that of Peter Maxwell Davies stood as examples of how one could move on from styles characteristic of the postwar period.
Boulez talks of the two necessary lungs of a composer – systematic thinking being the one and spontaneity being the other. For myself now, spontaneity/improvisation is of the essence and there is no need for systematic thinking as I do not wish to be involved with that. I speak of my composing as “endless melody”. Not that I write melodies necessarily, but the idea of melody – a line which is rendered more than just a line by virtue of possessing some sort of soul – is appropriate. I have many ideas and the flow, like water from a tap, is, as I say, endless. Perhaps if over the coming years I make a thousand pieces, I will start to repeat myself or to run dry, but I doubt it. A good sign that one of these ideas possesses a strong soul and is therefore worth cultivating is that when I leave off working, the idea goes on revolving in my head, often through the night, so that it is still there in the morning.
During this summer and my rest from concerns about students, I have reviewed many old ideas I had noted down. They are largely forgotten, but when I look at them, they spring to life again. They are useful and blessed thoughts and I recognize them as I would recognize a person. There are many thoughts however that in comparison appear malignant. Memories of bad things loom in one’s head and I ask myself what is the use of such thoughts and, where I can, I dismiss them. I am interested in ancient Greek mythology and I wonder if the source of these painful thoughts can be identified with the Erinyes we read about?
Since last Thursday – the day the British voted in a referendum to leave the European Union – I have been working on something new: a song. I don’t like to write vocal music. The conservatoire vocal colour is not to my taste and the faulty tuning is just as much a problem for me. I understand very well why some composers are reduced to writing for marimbas and the like, where such performance problems don’t exist.
Of course I am interested in and certainly treasure aspects of musical modernism – I have for example called Schoenberg’s music the Crown Jewels of Europe – but I have a life before that musical world existed, and that is also valid. All those Victorian hymns I sang as a boy, and loved, they are still in my mind. You can seem to forget them, but they have just slipped over the horizon, they have not ceased to exist in the mind. When you review them (occasionally I hum these tunes), they spring to life again and are full of soul.
Scottish folk music is not even over the horizon for me, it is a tradition sitting in the centre of my imagination.
Musical style is something we share just as we share musical traditions. All this stuff goes very deep, as deep – say – as learned male and female behaviour. How should we walk, speak etc. This is a tribal matter. Sometimes I watch TV journalists with the sound switched off. It is interesting to see all those mannerisms as they are replicated from person to person. Of course it was the enlightening observation of such things that led me to grasp quite late in my life the concept of soul/spirit. But here is not the place to drag out that sermon yet again.
I don’t consider style to be a shallow thing, nor do I consider it to be a manner in which something is said or done. It is itself the “something”. “Freedom from conditioning”, my piano teacher Alan Rowlands used to say, and it was what he sought the whole time I knew him. A hard-won freedom for my imagination was what I sought and it has been my achievement. I started out by rejecting my imagination because it didn’t offer perpetual “newness”. In the end I angrily rejected this rejection.