In my last post a month ago(!) I was navel-gazing over the musical conversation going on in London. It’s occurred to me that I’ve been taking for granted how many interesting composers are working in the UK these days. Just recently I read Daniel Wolf’s post about the two streams in British composition now and it’s nice to know my opinion isn’t pure parochialism.
Wolf’s mostly discussing the “complexity” school in his post, but it’s interesting to see that the “experimental tradition” is still thriving, too. I got this bee in my bonnet about how what is usually considered “experimental” in music is the stuff that approaches music as art, more than as craft, so I’ve been pleased to find more than just a scattering of a few, lone voices in the British scene.
That sense of “scene” is helped through supportive musicians and other organisations, like the record label Another Timbre. A couple of weeks ago I saw Ensemble Plus-Minus perform a concert of pieces by James Saunders. The music draws from a variety of influencing sources: group behaviour and home-made materials à la the Scratch Orchestra, a focus on process and structure that emerged with conceptual art, minimalism, controlled improvisation, the austerity of materials used in the Wandelweiser group. Group behaviour was the organising principle for several works: titles like everyone doing what everyone else is doing and everybody do this pretty much sum up how the musicians interact in the respective pieces. The music is composed through the arrangement of these interactions, leaving the sounds themselves to the discretion of the performers, using both instruments and found objects.
At times the music teetered on the edge of being little more than a technical exercise, albeit an entertaining one. Much conventional music also takes this risk, with much less interesting results. You start to wonder if a recording of the music would be less appealing because of the lack of the theatrical element, or more appealing because the structural means are a distraction from the musical ends.
Luckily for me, just after the concert I got sent a nice swag of CDs by Another Timbre for reviewing or whatever. One of them is Saunders’ disc divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole. The musical material here is much more spare, with much fewer musicians involved than in the Plus-Minus gig. Two duets, three solos, a trio, and a work “for 10 players with coffee cups on various surfaces”. Without visuals, the music is separated from concerns about technical exercises and deals with subtle distinctions in sound. Much of the disc is very quiet, and the sounds often have an ambiguous character to them, fragile and unstable. When just listening, you realise that the substance is obscured as equally as the technique: a harp is prepared with objects and bowed, radio static merges with the soft rasping of a bowed wood block.
These finely nuanced results are very different from the deceptively straightforward compositional strategies that produce them. As with a good piece of the New Complexity school, the music is both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.
I’ve been catching up with friends in Melbourne. We’re getting to the age where we can legitimately reminisce about good old times. Back Then it felt like an exciting time and place to be making music, art. Yeah yeah everyone feels their own little scene is special when they’re young, but what we were really talking about was that there seemed to be a big conversation going on. Doesn’t seem that way now. Is there a conservation still going on, and if so why aren’t we taking part in it?
Back in London, where is the conversation?
I always feel awkward about going back somewhere I know people. After an absence, they’ve moved on and I’m going to keep trying to put them back where they used to be. (This worry disappears as soon as we meet, of course.) Went to the Melbourne Now show at the Ian Potter Centre and enjoyed it for the wrong reasons, then met a friend for lunch. She disliked the show, finding it disappointing, superficial. I told her too much London art was even shallower. What had gotten me inspired was just seeing so many people back from the old Conversation still making stuff. Still not sure if this is a misguided thought.
Running with the pack is one thing, but what I miss is the feeling of competing against everyone at once – or at least of trying to hold up one’s own end of an ongoing discussion.
(Wanting to contribute to an interesting dialogue is the main impetus driving my work.)
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on a new piece for digitally-emulated feedback. It’s basically an attempt to use a laptop computer to autonomously generate a wide range of interesting sounds, live, within a relatively simple software setup. I hadn’t worked seriously with this method since 2008, when I played a few gigs using this method. Although the system produced a nice palette of sounds, there turned out to be no real way to change the basic nature of it from one moment to the next, which made the performance feel rather undifferentiated. This new piece is working on that last point.
In an attempt to use the same principles I’d worked with when making pieces out of analogue feedback oscillation, I tried making a similar type of music with more portable and robust equipment i.e. a laptop computer. I made some pieces in AudioMulch by patching together various sound processing contraptions into circuits. The circuits created feedback loops which generated a signal that was modulated by the interaction of the circuit’s constituent parts. Because they were intended for live performance, I put some of the critical control points in the system under my own control, while the computer handled other controls independently.
For this new piece I have relinquished all direct control (so far). It’s still being built in AudioMulch, using only the contraptions that come with the programme. (A dizzying array of freeware plugins can be found on the web.) It’s a new layout of feedback circuits but instead of monitoring control points within the circuits, I’m getting the computer to constantly micro-manage every possible parameter within each contraption in the circuit. To do this I’ve written a simple script which generates chance-determined MIDI control signals for nearly 500 parameters within the system.
It’s going to take a lot more refining, both in the circuit design and in the controlling script, but it’s all sounding extremely promising. I’ve temporarily uploaded some sample recordings on SoundCloud, where you can hear how the early versions of the piece developed from crude to less crude to the not-bad state in which it exists today. The latest version is embedded below.
These recordings are purely a demonstration of the software doing its thing. I haven’t intervened at any stage, tweaked any of the sounds or edited anything out. As a comparison, I’ve uploaded a recording of what the circuit sounds like after the control script has been turned off. I’ll worry about how to present this piece as a live performance later.
Buddy Guy, “Hard But It’s Fair” (1962).
(2’28”, 4.5 MB, mp3)
Back in 2008 I wrote about the web site for Grey Area Art Space Inc. This was the artist-run space in Melbourne where I got my start in making exhibitions and giving performances. The collective and their exhibition space was wound up in early 1999, but the little website for the gallery just kept on going. At the time I wrote last it had stuck around for almost ten years unattended, log in and password long forgotten, almost entirely intact. “I wonder if it will last another ten years?” I asked at the time.
It turned out that the stray query I’d received in 2008 was the last time I was ever asked about exhibiting in a long-defunct space. I’d check up on the site every now and then to see if it was still there and it always was, until last weekend. After 15 years of uninterrupted rest it was finally cleared away on 31 January 2014, along with everything else hosted on the server.
If only I’d contacted them in November, I might have been able to preserve the web location in perpetuity. As I feel partly responsible for this I’ve uploaded a mirror onto my website, complete with the original tilde in the address. If you want a brief journey back in time please visit http://www.cookylamoo.com/~greyarea/.
Because no-one wants to be just adequate.
A couple of weeks ago I saw the JACK Quartet play at Wigmore Hall. The stand-out pieces began and ended the concert: I finally got to hear Ruth Crawford Seeger’s superb String Quartet played live. I’d never heard Horațiu Rădulescu’s music played live, either, and his 5th Quartet “before the universe was born” – consisting pretty much entirely of harmonics played on retuned strings – was also an exceptional experience.
You can read that review for more about the concert; but at half-time I pondered over my overpriced-but-actually-rather-drinkable shiraz about a discussion earlier that day, about “experimental” music, which I wrote about last week.
Then, I had another thought. Just before the break the quartet had played Julian Anderson’s Light Music, a piece he had written in his teens. Only recently performed for the first time, it’s the earliest work the composer keeps in his oeuvre. Strongly influenced by the spectralist composers (Rădulescu and French composers of the time), the piece is technically fine, sonically interesting, pleasant overall but a little shapeless, and it starts to drag. Each section seemed to carry on a little too long, exploring and assessing each new effect.
By contrast, Crawford’s quartet always feels as though it is over too soon. I always wish there was more of it, that each section could just keep going. In some ways it seems as though this feeling is part of the music’s subject: the final movement is structured so as to preclude the possibility of continuation right from the start.
Which is the more experimental work, in the conventionally understood sense of the word? Anderson’s piece embraces the newest musical thinking of its time; Crawford’s predicts future musical thought. But which piece presents us with more experimentation? The Anderson quartet is struggling to accommodate new material; Crawford’s material is held in absolute control.
Too much, too long: it seems to me that this is the true defining condition of experimental music. Each new discovery is presented with some degree of excessive emphasis, partly out a didactic need for exposition and partly out of uncertainty of its own success.
It’s a problem I’m aware of in my own music: the nagging sense that this thing is of less interest to the listener than it is to me, that they’ve picked up on it quicker than I thought. Remembering that thumbnail description of Cage’s music of always having either too much or not enough happening in it, I err the other way and present excess with a kind of Beckettian obstinacy (“I’m doing it on purpose.“)
I would not be displeased with a concert that programmed two performances of Crawford’s quartet.
Had a discussion with some people last week about “experimental” music. I think everyone knows what this means, kind-of, sort-of, but lots of people don’t like it. Because I’m impressionable, whenever the term comes up I think of John Cage’s statement on the subject, from 1957: unfortunately I only ever remember the first part where he says he used to object to the term and forget that he immediately goes on to say he no longer does. He then goes on to talk about music being nothing but sounds and tells the story about the anechoic chamber again and I kind of blank on the rest of the talk. After that, all I’m left with is Cage’s initial objection, “that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the finished works, just as sketches are made before paintings and rehearsals precede performances.”
Surely every success is the consequence of a series of failures, and any “experimental” art presented to us is in fact the result of a successful experiment, to some extent. Really, I don’t have a problem with the term because everyone knows what it means, kind-of, sort-of, and we gotta use words when we talk to each other. My problem is this: I keep hearing people saying that a Good Thing about experimental art is that the failures can be as interesting as the successes. I really don’t think this is true.
Firstly, there is the objection already mentioned, that the failed experiment is not presented as the finished work – the finished work is a successful experiment made as a consequence of the failed experiment. But when people cite failures as being potentially productive as successes… does this ever actually happen? There are fortuitous accidents, but that’s a different matter. The “useful failure” seems to be a case of the arts borrowing a concept from science that doesn’t really fit. The most glaring difference is that scientists want their experiments to be replicated by others; artists do not. Artists don’t present a new work with the proviso that it’s actually no good and provide detailed instructions on how it was made, in the hope that someone else will use this method to make a better piece.
Given that artists keep it to themselves, do they ever make an experiment that fails in a way that turns out to be interesting? Again, I’m not talking about fortuitous accidents, I mean failure. An artist makes an experiment that fails, but that failure itself leads them to some sort of creative breakthrough (“not doing it that way” doesn’t count). Can anyone think of examples where this has happened?
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)
I’ve got wind and rain lashing against my leaky window, but still it’s been a quiet end to the year. I’m thinking back on what I’ve seen and heard this year – not too hard, just enough to see what’s stuck with me – and it’s the quiet, contemplative, introspective works that have defined the year for me. 2011 and 2012 were each dominated by the euphoric spectacle of seeing Stockhausen’s Sonntag and Mittwoch aus Licht. This year, the events which were epic in scale were far more modest in immediate presence, audience, venue, and sound world.
Hearing Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston live for the first time in winter early this year seemed to set the tone. Not the best performance imaginable, but the experience of sitting in a smallish room with the musicians, in the back of an art gallery in Camden, for four hours was invaluable. A small crowd came and went throughout the afternoon; a few stayed.
I mentioned more recently that amongst the usual dazzle and complexity of featured composers at Huddersfield this year (Alberto Posadas’ elegant, Hèctor Parra’s slightly clumsy) three oases of stillness stood out. Firstly, Antoine Beuger’s en una noche oscura sort of pleased me because I didn’t like it. Another four-hour stretch of stillness and near-silence, it showed me that I’m not an indiscriminate sucker for anything sufficiently hushed and conceived on a sufficiently expansive scale. It felt stilted and precious, disappointingly inert. Unlike other punters there, I did not experience any transformative effect as the piece progressed into the small hours.
Anton Lukoszevieze’s arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s Fluxorum Organum, on the other hand, took on a strange new life. Originally collaged from repeating fragments played on an organ to soundtrack the film of a Joseph Beuys performance, this chamber arrangement for a small ensemble of winds and strings revealed a different character, somewhere between Satie and late Feldman in its cross between the naive and the gnomic. The episodic series of repeating patterns could be taken as either forbidding or beguiling.
One of the two biggest highlights of the year was Jakob Ullmann’s Son Imaginaire III. Successfully performed at last, after three attempts in nearly 25 years, this concert had everything Beuger’s piece lacked. Again, a piece that hovered on the threshold of audibility, but in Ullmann’s case the music contained a faint but indelible richness, a mystery in how the sounds blended together in ways that couldn’t be understood, from one musician to the next and with ambient sounds in and outside St Paul’s Hall. Sitting there, attention focused on perceiving the music, you could lose yourself, your concentration on a sound so diffuse that your attention becomes a sort of dream state. Over a hundred years ago painters really started to pull apart the idea of what it meant to see something; we still don’t know what it means when we say we’ve heard something.
The crowd for the Ullmann gig was small, but maybe not as small as I remember.
All of this is leading back to my real defining musical experience of the year – hearing R. Andrew Lee play Dennis Johnson’s November at Cafe Oto. It was a satisfying culmination of many things, but also the start of many more.
I had the good fortune to hear Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony live in concert a few months before the famous recording of it was released and quickly became ubiquitous. This made it a musical work I could hear as itself, not as a media phenomenon, but more important was the fact that I, and my friends and family seated beside me, and most of the audience were taken by it completely unexpectedly. Even having heard two or three other Gorecki pieces before, I wasn’t prepared for a piece simultaneously so monumental and so direct. Those two qualities combined can be used equally effectively to praise and to damn, and so a queasy ambivalence has settled in when discussing Gorecki’s hit. Unless you set out to be an iconoclast, any critique of the Symphony starts to lurch between defensive shrugging about the effect it has on listeners, and barbed apologies for its simpleness.
That same ambivalence reared up again after Friday night’s performance by the London Sinfonietta of Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain. One review after another struggled over whether the piece is really as great as it’s been made out to be. in vain definitely fits the criteria of monumental and direct: an unbroken 70-minute span of music for chamber orchestra, who soon leave off their intricate flurry of notes to become caught up in repeated runs of notes that sometimes rise, sometimes fall. There’s a hook, too: at certain, prolonged moments the hall lights go out, the audience listens and the orchestra plays in pitch darkness.
Possibly coincidentally, I was unprepared when I first heard in vain, as a recording several years ago. It was a Kairos CD so I was expecting something typically spiky and recondite. In that frame of mind, the unexpected emergence of naked harmonics, sliding tones and unmotivated dramatic gestures was entirely disarming. It gave a definite sense of a longstanding consensus being broken, a work turning Caliban-like upon the culture that both created and confined it.
Having now witnessed it performed live it feels like, as with Gorecki’s Third, I no longer need or want to hear it again. Once it’s done, it’s done; and you can argue endlessly over whether that makes it less or more effective as a work of art.
I’ve read very little on the circumstances of how the Gorecki and the Haas were composed and I don’t plan to research it now, but both seem to share a quality of compulsion, a persistent image that had to purge from their systems, as something outside of, and indifferent to, their tastes. (Another parallel: both works contain indelible moments, but on reacquaintance also conceal forgotten longueurs, unfortunate adjuncts to supporting the overall image.)
Taste, both good and bad, has plagued Western art since the late seventeenth century. In his book The Counterfeiters Hugh Kenner describes the strange, sudden emergence of this scourge, as it applied to English poetry when the Metaphysicals gave way to the Augustan era.
Analogies have no inherent decorum, their efficacy is a function of detailed judgement. For poet and reader alike are now men of Judgement, collaborating in that strange attempt to rear a whole civilization upon taste. Fine shades of congruity and incongruity must be distinguished with an instinctive sureness. There is literally nothing that will not help sustain a poem, precisely as a satellite is maintained in orbit by forces whose intent, unbalanced, is to plunge it off into the infinite abyss forever.
The contemporaneous emergence of science as a discipline of knowledge had its own destabilising effect:
Registration, not discourse: the most profound innovation of Royal Society Prose was this, that the relation of subject to predicate was no longer something affirmed, by a speaker, but something verified, by an observer…. In a virtually new language, stylistic principles had to be rediscovered from scratch. It is not surprising that many experiments were unlucky.
in vain, just thirteen years old, seems to have been a beneficiary and then victim of taste. It was elevated so quickly as a masterpiece, but by its British premiere in Huddersfield last month it had already started to cause embarrassment. The novelty of its exterior is wearing through, and any persistent interest in its craft may be quickly exhausted. The audience on Friday night, however, was mostly enraptured, a significant minority moved to stand for their applause. Are they just a little bit behind in their taste, or have they latched onto an element of the work where taste played no part?
I keep thinking of that poetic chestnut “Trees” – more particularly of Guy Davenport’s essay on the poem. “It is, Lord knows, a vulnerable poem,” he writes, conscious of how its many flaws – mixed metaphors, simplistic pieties, infelicities of diction – may be observed by readers of Judgement. It is a poor imitator of the commercialised Art Nouveau aesthetic from which it derives, and yet those errors in imitation have pushed it beyond the pale of the correct tastes of its time, and allowed it so survive on its own terms when hundreds of more technically (tastefully) accomplished poems have been forgotten.
And yet there is a silvery, spare beauty about it that has not dated. Its six couplets have an inexplicable integrity, and a pleasant, old-fashioned music. It soothes, and it seems to speak of verities.
The crudity and inarticulacy that emerges from in vain may be its saving grace. It is too soon to tell what the music’s fate may be. It will probably join the thousands of pieces of the nominal but unplayed repertoire of the past hundred years or so. It may persist, equally adored and derided, or it may even be effaced as a cultural signifier, as inaudible as Orff’s O Fortuna or Barber’s Adagio. Immortality always comes at a price.