Swear I’m working on some new stuff but to break things up a little I’ve been dusting off some old pieces. Beginning g# (It is probably safe to follow the current at this time) was made back in 2000, and revised just this week.
I used a shareware algorithmic composer programme called AlComp to generate a relatively simple melody. The melody could be drawn from notes in either of two complementary sets of pitches, with a weighted probability. This melody is played simultaneously by 12 instruments in a ‘staggered unison’, where the attack of each note has been randomised within a possible range of four beats. The durations of the notes have been preserved and are the same for each instrument.
The rhythmic flow is further developed by repeated, chance-determined changes in tempo. Each instrument takes turns to drop out of the texture for a fixed unit of time. Although each instrument plays in standard 12-tone equal temperament, each is tuned to a different frequency within the range of a semitone.
For this new version, I’ve modified the intonation of each instrument so that the pitch they are tuned to slowly rises and falls throughout the piece. I’ve also altered the panning so that each instrument slowly moves from left to right and back, like so:
The piece was originally made on an old Soundblaster sound card. To re-record it I had to search the web for an old hardware driver to download, so I could extract the set of original instrument patches and recapture that very special low-quality sound.
I got a nice email circular from the Nonclassical people, reminding me to listen to Who Killed Classical Music? “Nonclassical founder and composer Gabriel Prokofiev looks at the increasing disconnection between classical music and its audience on BBC Radio 4”. So it seems they’re not entirely ashamed. They’ve also been promoting on Twitter the upcoming talk, “Why do we find it easier to love contemporary visual art than contemporary music, and is our love on the move?“, apparently without realising that they are part of the problem. (Because contemporary painters haven’t spent the last 100 years complaining that the cubists killed art.)
“Is contemporary music just aping some of the promotion and presentation tricks of the visual arts or are we more willing to take risks as contemporary music audiences?” asks/bewails the talk blurb. Given that the Nonclassical founder’s radio show asked not if, but how “composers such as Schoenberg killed off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience”, we can surmise that Schoenberg’s crime of breaking from “the traditions of previous composers” and thus “changing all this” was in fact a risk-averse strategy.
On of the key presentation “tricks” of the visual arts is that the curators and promoters rarely seem too resentful about presenting an artist who is still alive, or at least more recent than Monet. Hell, some of them even manage to display enthusiasm that the artist is on hand! In the Tate’s current Paul Klee exhibition they have taken the sneaky step of displaying a buttload of Klee’s paintings and drawings, without even throwing in Whistlejacket or something to ensure that everyone will enjoy the outing. None of the press releases describe Klee’s art as ugly but Very Important, nor do they warn you that Klee’s birds don’t really look like birds but, you know, just try to go along with it. It’s a relief to see contemporary music refusing to resort to such stunts and instead take a riskier approach.
As we have established that breaking from tradition is a hidebound, conservative approach, we should instead take the bold, edgy response to the challenges of today and grittily resolve to carry on much as before. But is it too late? The Southbank Centre has just launched its 2014/15 Classical Music Season.
Among the new music on offer are works commissioned by Southbank Centre from internationally-renowned composers including, Steve Reich, Anna Clyne, Terry Riley, Unsuk Chin, Kaija Saariaho, Simon Holt and James MacMillan…. commissioned works from Magnus Lindberg, Harrison Birtwistle, Julian Anderson, James MacMillan and Stevie Wishart…. a new work by Nico Muhly and Jonny Greenwood…. premiered with works by Unsuk Chin, Colin Matthews and Benjamin Wallfisch.
Crisis averted! Only last week we were told that classical music lay dead in the icy grip of Schoenberg and his disciples, but just in the nick of time Southbank stepped in with a season that bravely programmes new music by composers who are generally tonal and even melodic. It’s a miracle that the likes of Reich and Greenwood have managed to survive the 100-year hegemony of elitism. I can only hope that their careers may now be permitted to flourish, and that other musicians may take courage and follow their example without too much deviation.
It’s been the funniest day in music I can remember. It started when The Rambler posted a comprehensive demolition of BBC Radio 4’s pitiful Who Killed Classical Music? programme. I’d already condemned the show before I’d even heard it. Regrettably, my prejudice was justified. A small sampling of the think-piece’s delights:
In one passage the Daily Telegraph‘s Ivan Hewett states that sitting in silence to listen to music is quite a recent ‘cultural invention’, dating back only ‘two and a bit centuries’.
OK, three things. Firstly, if you’re measuring cultural change at a level at which ‘two and a bit centuries ago’ represents the ‘quite recent’, you’re being a little too geological about this.
Secondly, we’re talking about music. A realm entirely made up of ‘cultural inventions’. Why are these bad things?
Thirdly: ‘two and a bit centuries ago’ would also do for the piano; are we about to toss that out too?
If classical music is dying, it is not because the music has got weirder, more dissonant, less accessible. It is a choice we have made as a society. It’s a political decision.
The real laughs came in the afternoon when the London Contemporary Orchestra announced an unusual concert next week in London:
One does not simply sit down and play La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano. Young is notoriously protective of how his musical activities are presented. Recordings are hard to come by legitimately. Even the tuning scheme of The Well-Tuned Piano remained a secret for 27 years. As noted on Twitter this afternoon, licensing such a performance would be a lengthy, painstaking process. Rehearsals for such a massive undertaking would take at least months, under Young’s direct supervision.
As the day progressed the mystery deepened. No-one besides Young himself has played the piece in public before. No mention of the performance on the Mela Foundation website. Was this a clandestine concert, booked in the hope that no-one close to Young would notice? Did the pianist have access to a score? Would it be legal? Why was the advertised four-hour playing time significantly shorter than Young’s own performances of the piece? Why was there no mention of Marian Zazeela’s lighting design which is integral to the work? Would there be trouble? Five pounds seemed a small price to pay, just to see what would happen.
A composer who knows La Monte Young believes that he had already refused permission to Antoine Françoise to play the piece a long time ago, even sending a cease and desist letter. Why was the gig being advertised today?
Then, at the end of the day, the website changed:
It was entertaining while it lasted, which was about as long as a performance of The Well-Tuned Piano itself. The promise of “unknown material” just adds to the humour. Will this material be unknown to the pianist himself? Just the audience? Or (hopefully!) La Monte Young? It’s a conundrum of Rumsfeldian proportions.
Rued Langgaard, Symphony No. 11, “Ixion” (1944-45). BBC Symphony Orchestra /Thomas Dausgaard
(5’54”, 9 MB, mp3)
Many years ago I wrote a little blog post titled “Classical music sucks: just ask the people paid to promote it“. It seems just as pertinent now as it did then. Just last month this little post attracted the canniest piece of comment spam I have received to date:
Hi. I can tell this website caters towards the urban community.
Next Tuesday Radio 4 will broadcast a programme titled Who Killed Classical Music? The BBC seem to have forgotten that Norman Lebrecht published a book with the exact same title in 1997, as he’s not mentioned anywhere in the programme blurb. I’m sure he’ll remind them shortly.
A cynical observer may suspect that Lebrecht’s book turned out to be an opportunistic piece of publishing ephemera which failed to offer any satisfactory answers, but let’s assume instead that the BBC is genuinely ignorant and is tackling the old chestnut in good faith. Let’s see what they’ve dug up:
The Composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev) looks at the increasing disconnection between classical music and its audience. How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?
Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising ‘Serialism’ where melodies were no longer allowed.
It’s hard to believe that composers like Prokofiev (and Alexander Goehr, Tansy Davies and others) knowingly signed up to contribute to a show with such an inane premise. Or is it? The spiel continues:
Now the Serialist experiment has been largely abandoned and a whole new generation of composers – including Gabriel himself – is embracing popular culture, just as composers used to in the past when folk music or dance music were a major source of inspiration.
“Is music an art form? Or is it all just showbiz?” Morton Feldman’s question remains eternal. Never mind painting or sculpture, Christopher Nolan talking about his latest goddamn Batman movie wouldn’t take such a dismissive line towards
the wide range of cinema that “strayed too far” beyond its traditional roots in action, spectacle and broad melodrama. No other art form has so many of its practitioners going out of their way to tell how badly it sucks and isn’t really worth your attention.
Just yesterday The Guardian reported on a concert where the audience was deliberately groped and pestered throughout:
while the Phaedrus Ensemble got stuck in to Debussy, the audience were blindfolded and fed different sensory experiences in parallel with the music: fizzy pop and cola bottles for the effervescent second movement and fingers scampering up your arms in tandem with the first violin, then as the music changed, a scent-soaked silk scarf flickering across your skin, and hands laid on to give a sensation of pressure or relaxation. It’s a thoroughly entertaining experience.
As an experience it seems uncannily similar to Umberto Eco’s tour of the wax museums of California, where he saw reproductions of the world’s most famous artistic masterpieces: a full-length, three-dimensional Mona Lisa sitting for her portrait, the Venus de Milo in flesh-coloured wax, complete with arms. The museums wanted to give you more than the art, they wanted to show the real-life models “as they would have appeared” to the artists who immortalised them. Eco observes that for these add-ons to work, the art being so “enhanced” must first be idolised, an object for uncomprehending reverence. As such, the art is rendered meaningless in itself and so reduced to kitsch.
In the music world of today, those philistine hucksters encountered by Eco have been promoted to curators at the Louvre. Here is a genuine classical music experience! It must be good because it doesn’t sound like classical music! It must be good because it needs other sensory input to improve it! The music we are giving you sucks so hard we will do anything we can to hide it!
Composers, musicians and concert promoters are falling over themselves to denounce the qualities in music that led them into their love of music and their careers, with all the authority of a TV chef reassuring viewers that he never cooks with vegetables. Their fumbling for inclusiveness result in a presumptive orthodoxy of Boulez-like proportions.
Like that bit from Greg Sandow I quoted back in 2005 says,
This is yet another way in which classical music is drained of all meaning. Who cares what Shostakovich really is? It’s classical music! It’s a celebration! It’s big, grand, and colorful! Can anyone imagine talking about any other serious art this way?
Frankie Mann, “I Was A Hero, from The Mayan Debutante Revue” (1979).
(9’32”, 22 MB, mp3)