All posts by Corymbus

Wine of Summer

Green Grass In The Forest by Lisa Fotios. Original here.
Green Grass In The Forest by Lisa Fotios. Original here.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In 1895, Britain was scandalised by a series of sensational trials. Oscar Wilde – writer, wit and flamboyant star of high society – was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ for homosexual acts, and sentenced to two years of hard labour. The origin of the trials had been an accusation by the Marquess of Queensberry, who was in fact the disapproving father of a man who had been Wilde’s lover: the young Lord Alfred Douglas, sixteen years Wilde’s junior.

This episode in Wilde’s life, and his early death in Paris in 1900, is relatively well known. The life of Lord Douglas (1870-1945) is less well remembered – even though he was a poet and author himself. He has been described as ‘the Yoko Ono of Victorian literature’.

Douglas, who went by the nickname ‘Bosie’, was a man of many flaws. His life story reads like a soap opera of squandered privilege, marred by dysfunctional relationships, bitter feuds, and an alarming number of court cases. In the years after Wilde’s death, Douglas repudiated him utterly; converting to Catholicism, marrying, and renouncing homosexuality (he reportedly told a court that Wilde had been ‘the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years’). He attempted to sue Arthur Ransome (later the author of Swallows and Amazons) for passages in a book on Wilde, but lost. In the 1920s, further darkness emerged: his publication of an antisemitic conspiracy theory, alleging sinister links between Winston Churchill and Jewish financiers, landed him with a six-month jail sentence for libel.

Lord Alfred Douglas, photograph by George Charles Beresford, 1903
Lord Alfred Douglas, photograph by George Charles Beresford, 1903

Perhaps chastened by his experience of prison, Douglas seems to have lived a quieter life after his release. It must have been some surprise when, in 1937, the 67-year-old Lord received a letter from one Havergal Brian, asking permission to set to music Wine of Summer – an obscure poem he had written 40 years previously.

Brian was only six years younger than Douglas, but their backgrounds were worlds apart. Born into a working class family in Staffordshire, he was a former church organist who was self-taught in composition. A career as composer had once seemed possible: in 1907 his English Suite and overture For Valour were performed at the Proms. For a while he was even financially supported by the patronage of a wealthy businessman, in order to dedicate himself to composition. But despite this stroke of luck, opportunities never significantly progressed. Brian soon had to work a series of other jobs.

And yet, undeterred by circumstance, Brian embarked upon a most extraordinary artistic shadow-life. He threw himself into composing large-scale works, without any prospect of hearing them performed. These included a three-act opera, The Tigers, and – as if to mock the hand life had dealt him – one of the biggest symphonies ever written: The Gothic, a work lasting nearly two hours and requiring enormous forces. It was an absurdly ambitious first step in perhaps the most counter-intuitive of all symphony cycles.

Havergal Brian c. 1900.
Havergal Brian c. 1900.

Brian’s style is somewhat hard to define, but that will to compose against all odds is not difficult to hear. His music breezily sets about its own idiosyncratic path; a development of ideas highly contrasted, colourful and unpredictable. An early formative musical experience was hearing Elgar’s cantata King Olaf, and the big-boned sound of massed forces was clearly influential. His orchestrations are often rugged, with brass and percussion frequently deployed, and marching passages haunt the pages of his scores.

Wine of Summer however stands out for its more understated, impressionistic approach. The poem describes a midsummer day in a wood, a vision of natural paradise that progresses to melancholy rumination over the author’s lost loves. Brian set it for orchestra with baritone soloist, and it became his fifth symphony.

In a mysterious introduction, softly snaking violin lines evoke a heat haze. Douglas’ scene-setting becomes low and ominous with the lines ‘In the soft air the shadow of a sigh / Breathes on the leaves and scarcely makes them sway’. It may be summer, but the wood is full of shadows.

Brian’s music is driven by the poetry throughout – it ebbs and flows around the baritone solo, delicately orchestrated and with a haunting strangeness. Particularly magical is the scoring of a passage that itself invokes ghostly music:

The soft faint whispering of unnumbered trees.
Mingle with unreal things, and low and deep
From visionary groves,
Imagined lutes make voiceless harmonies.
And false flutes sigh before the gates of sleep.

Over forty years earlier, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun used lush strings and drooping lines to convey languid summer heat. So too did Gershwin’s Summertime from his 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Heat comes with many associations – sensuality and eroticism, but also energy-sapping idleness. And idleness, with its requirement of leisure time, touches on the question of class. In Lord Douglas’ case class is clear enough, whereas Gershwin’s lullaby comes with a layer of cultural irony – ‘the livin’ is easy’ and ‘your Daddy’s rich’ sets the scene in the poor black community of Catfish Row.

Douglas was apparently delighted when he met Brian and heard his setting played through on a piano, though it would not be performed in the Lord’s lifetime. Happily for Brian, he lived long enough to enjoy some belated recognition. His music came to the attention of the young BBC music producer Robert Simpson (later a prolific composer himself) and many of his symphonies were finally performed in live radio broadcasts. In 1961, the gargantuan Gothic had a concert premiere in London.

In retirement, as if making up for lost time, Brian became astonishingly prolific: he composed 14 symphonies in his eighties, and 7 in his nineties. The final count of 32 is truly remarkable, and yet – with cruel irony – today his name is generally remembered for just one: The Gothic. The notion of an eccentric outsider toiling over a monster opus is appealing – less so the more complicated truth. But then Brian’s life, like his music, never followed the expected script.

Wine of Summer is a good departure point for a more rounded appreciation of his legacy. As a single movement of 20 minutes, it marks the beginning of the condensed approach that characterises the symphonies of his later years. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its abrupt ending on a thundering climax. ‘My dreams go out like tapers – I must hence / Far off I hear Night calling to the sea’. Cymbals crash like waves, before the orchestra is suddenly snatched away from the singer. Chris Kettle has noted a similarity to Michael Tippett’s setting of W.B. Yeats’ Byzantium, which also ends on ‘sea’ – ‘both Brian and Tippett […] leave the vocal soloist hanging onto the word – its drawn-out vowel-sound opening onto an unknown and measureless infinity’.

As for Lord Douglas, his final years seem marked by a poignant sense of what might have been. His marriage had long since broken up – though they never divorced – and his only child spent most of his adult life in a mental hospital. In 1940 he published Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up, a more sympathetic assessment of the man he had once fiercely renounced – a testament perhaps to his greater maturity, but also to the long shadow still cast by his former lover, whose literary reputation outshone his own.

It is a shame that he did not live to hear a performance of Brian’s work. This maverick composer was able to breathe strangely beautiful new life into a relic of his youthful summer. One of the symphony’s impassioned climaxes coincides with perhaps the poem’s most memorable lines. They might have resonated in his old age:

Sweet with faint memories,
And mellow with old loves that used to burn
Dead summer days ago, like fierce red kings.

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Of Illness and Creativity

Thomas Mann in Munich, 1932. Shared under Creative Commons License.
Thomas Mann in Munich, 1932. Shared under Creative Commons License.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

The German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) makes an interesting observation when he writes in his youthful novella Tonio Kröger: ‘A property constituted, healthy, decent man never writes, acts, or composes.’

Here, Mann states that artistic creativity belongs to an inherent sickliness of the creator.

While Mann would continuously revisit the theme of illness and its important role on creation throughout his career (e.g. The Magic Mountain), it is in his Faustian masterpiece Doctor Faustus where a decisive commentary on musical creativity is made. Here, a fictional composer Adrian Leverkuhn contracts syphilis through the devil, an act which results in the composer’s unleashing of unworldly creative powers.

‘If it is healthiness that you are after – well, with mind and art it has not got much to do, it even in a sort of way opposes them,’ prophesises a character in the book.

On the one hand, one can dismiss Mann’s preoccupation as a form of eccentric and degenerate fantasy. On the other hand, the inverse relationship between a healthy body and musical creation can be found commonly throughout history.

For example, Demodocus from Homer’s Odyssey is portrayed as being ‘gifted’ a physical impairment for his musical ability (‘the squire now came, leading their favourite bard, whom the Muse loved above all others, [al]though she had mingled good and evil in her gifts, robbing him of his eyes but granting him the gift of sweet song.’). Similarly, when the Indian saint, poet and musician Surdas decides to devote himself to the creation of devotional songs, he does this by voluntarily imposing upon himself blindness.

The 14th century poet Eustache Deschamps (1340-1406) describes poets and musicians as fumeurs (smokers). Bodily irregularities and ill health are commonly observed in these individuals, and this phenomenon can be seen as a case of biological determinism in artistic creation.

Suffering of a physical nature plays a crucial theme in the story of the Greek god Dionysus. Born from a mortal mother, Dionysus undergoes physical annihilation (‘the fragments of the body […] boiled in a great cauldron, and made impious banquet’) until only the soul is preserved. Through Zeus Dionysus resurrects, becoming the god of wine, religious ecstasy, and in many cases, music.

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, Dionysus’ physical suffering and consequent spiritual emancipation is set as the ideal model for music of greatness. ‘The whole world of agony is needed in order to compel the individual to generate the releasing and redemptive vision’, writes Nietzsche.

Bacchus (Dionysus) by Paulus Bor

These examples demonstrate how physical malady becomes an ingredient for great musical creations. But is there any truth in this Faustian trade-off? If so, one would at least expect a certain rebirth of musical creativity after the onset of a severe illness.

Is there a composer more well-known than Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) for physical ailment? Beethoven’s infamous deafness reached clinical levels by 1815, significantly discouraging him from public performances as well as spoken communication. Signs of jaundice and a perilous lung disease started to emerge by 1820.

Around this time, Beethoven’s musical language undergoes a radical change to enter what we know as the ‘late period’. If Beethoven’s earlier works are breath-taking for their heroic passions and engulfing drama, these late works breathe an air of wondrous serenity and reflection. A timeless quality pervades in Beethoven’s late style, and this can be heard in the late string quartets. Was this the sound that Beethoven heard, in his silent isolated world?

Notwithstanding contextual gaps, there are large similarities between the late string quartets of Beethoven and those of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). The late Beethovenian spirit of serene abandon is especially pronounced in Shostakovich’s 15th quartet. By this time, Shostakovich had experienced multiple injuries (e.g. crippling injuries to his writing hand and both legs) and heart attacks, and records inform us of the composer’s increasing awareness of his own mortality.

In six dirge-like slow movements, the music unfolds through quiet intensity; it is as if the composer internalised his trademark style of angular expressivity into a voice of inward-looking meditation. This is what the composer had to say about the work’s performance: ‘play the first movement so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience leaves the hall out of sheer boredom.’ The overall impression of the work suggests a feeling both terrifying and soothing.

Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) 9th symphony was conceived in the midst of a series of strokes, a condition he battled for the last 13 years of his life and which left the composer’s entire right side of the body paralysed. Written with his weaker left hand, the difficulty the composer had to bear in writing this work is unimaginable. Unlike Schnittke’s usual incorporation of polystylism – where different styles and genres are exuberantly juxtaposed to form a strange tapestry of musical memories – the 9th symphony has an uncharacteristic solemnity and brevity, as well as stylistic coherence. Underneath the struggle, it is as if Schnittke found a deeply enclosed personal language, no longer in need of quotations from distant places and times.

Allan Pettersson’s (1911-1980) career as a concert violinist came to an end prematurely through rheumatoid arthritis. Upon finishing his 9th symphony, nephritis (a kidney condition) forced extensive hospitalisation. Desperation over such physical hardship is expressed remarkably and brutally in his 10th symphony; Pettersson eliminates his usual hallmark of religious undertones, represented by sublime choral sections. Instead, the music expresses a mortifying state of resignation and disappointment. In parts where the musical logic seems to point to an optimistic plane, hopes are bitterly exterminated, an effect most devastatingly felt at the very end.

As if to secure such a message to his listeners, Pettersson provides an introduction:

The angel of death is a hypocritical poetic figure. Death has nothing to do with mercifulness, because he casually randomizes the strong relation between sadness and sickness, especially when the antipole, the strength to live, is weak. The aim is life, not death. When he comes, he comes like a national decree. I cannot accept him, he doesn’t go together with my will to live. Death, my constant shadow, is stronger yet than I. Or is it He himself, God, with whom I as a man experiment in another life form?

Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) late works are hardly late by the standard definition, given the untimely death of the composer that came at the age of 31. Yet there is little disagreement on the unique autumnal soundscape that Schubert draws from the year of 1823, where symptoms of syphilis appear, until his death five years later.

It would be no exaggeration to claim that the late style Schubert finds root from the disease. Various letters show Schubert’s lamentations over his own ill health (e.g. ‘I am the most unhappy and miserable person in this world… my health will never improve, and in such despair, things will only become worse instead of better…’) coincide with themes of death becoming increasingly frequent in his musical output.

There is a youthful vitality that struggles underneath the detrimental progression towards the composer’s physical non-being, which altogether makes the resigned undertones of Schubert’s late works sound bitter and morbid, yet also with a warm dose of humanity. These characteristics stand out in Schubert’s last group of songs, compiled posthumously as the Schwanengesang (‘Swan Song’).

As if to approve Mann’s observations on illness and creation, these works demonstrate a creative outburst that largely finds causality in physical deterioration. Moreover, the transformations imply a strong pulse of originality and deeply personal contemplation.

In a sense, one can view sickness as a gateway into life’s wisdoms otherwise unobtainable, through which an elevated aesthetic language is created. This view is verified in Mann’s own words when he said ‘the concept of illness and death, as a necessary passage to knowledge, health, and life.’ Here, Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) worldview, where threats of physical annihilation of the self are seen as a necessary condition of an ‘eternal, peaceful, knowledge subject’, is strongly echoed.

Alternatively, although the life of the mind which transcends the ‘merely’ tangible is all important in the intangible world of music, is it not an able body that provides a minimal agency for thought? Subjugation of the body to a sickly force, therefore, is a powerfully humbling experience, whereupon an individual realises and accepts his/her limits, and consequently becomes a source for spiritual, à la musical, reinvention.

Notwithstanding the fascinating logic, however, there are some inconsistencies. Consider, for instance, composers who stopped composition after the onset of health issues (e.g. Haydn) or whose most radical inventions happened during good health (e.g. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schoenberg). These stands directly opposed to the scenario of Adrian in Doctor Faustus.

Moreover, the biblical story of David healing Saul through the powers of music demonstrates the Christian ideal of music being intrinsically linked with health, a reference that can be found in various texts throughout history (e.g. Abraham Cowley’s Davideis of  1650). Also, the Roman senator Boethius illustrates the notion of musica humana, a spiritual link between ably proportioned and functional bodies with musicality. Ancient Greek theories of music (e.g. the Pythagorean ratio) similarly saw a certain continuity in music, harmony and health.

Saul and David, by Rembrandt.

These examples may deem Mann’s preoccupation as somewhat forced. Still, one cannot deny the strange appeal towards the myth of ill health-based musical creativity, something that captivated the minds of people throughout history. It is inconceivable, as long as humans continue a healthy capacity of high imagination, to expect an end to this fantasy any time soon.

Ultimately, however, I intend to conclude positively. When, for instance, Beethoven is seen from the public as a Heroic Overcomer, there is as much ennoblement and acknowledgement of his courage as his physical suffering. In reality, the overall message, I hope, is a life-affirming one.

Read more by Young-Jin Hur on Corymbus:

Silence: A Fertile Soil

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). His writings are available on his blog Where Cherries Ripen.

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Connection and Perfection: Social Media in Classical Music

socialmediaflowers
‘Growing Social Media’ graphic shared under Creative Commons License. Original here.
profile pic            By Annabelle Lee

With over a decade since the launch of many of today’s mainstream social media sites, and around 2.22 billion social network users worldwide this year, the impact the social media industry has had – and is continuing to have – on classical music cannot be ignored. As professional classical music performance is becoming ever more of an overcrowded market, platforms like YouTube can give artists an additional boost of income and a growing number of musicians are implementing public crowdsourcing sites, such as Kickstarter and Patreon, to fund their artistic visions; take the success stories of concert pianist Emmanuel Vass and Baroque cellist Emily Davidson. In conjunction with traditional marketing materials, artist agencies are fully aware of integrating social media as a free or low-cost form of promotions for an overall PR kit, and now there are agencies dedicated to digital marketing of classical music, such as 21C Media Group in New York.

Against a media-generated backdrop of a ‘classical music crisis’, classical music presenters have also been able to attract wider audiences. In June 2014, the Facebook Insights of the Metropolitan Opera indicated that its most ‘Engaged Users’ were aged 25 to 34 years old, while London’s Wigmore Hall has become renowned for its inimitable, quirky, and boundary-pushing style of tweeting, increasing its follower count by 400% within two years as a result. What is more, Twitter and Tumblr are being used by people of all different ages, generations, backgrounds, and countries as a way to form like-minded communities or fandoms, daily and passionately messaging each other about their favourite art form, performers, and composers. I would like to think that the resources for such interactions may have been somewhat limited forty, thirty, or even twenty years ago, as many individuals with a deep love of classical music are rejected or bullied by their peers during their childhood, school, and teenage years.

But as social media has gained effectiveness, popularity, and momentum within the classical music industry, it seems that within the last few years or so there has been a striking irony to this social media optimism. Technology is now so much part of our everyday lives that it is all too easy to take what we see on the computer screen, phone, or tablet for granted, real life, or at face value. Yet the mechanics of social media explicitly motivate a culture of what the website Millennial Rules has termed ‘social perfection’.

In social media land, everything is always meant to be positive, interesting, and ‘perfect’. Combined with today’s Internet-savvy culture, people are, more than often, posting up all the ‘best bits’ of their lives and carefully thinking about what to say and show in their messages. Social media have become the online equivalent of a glossy fashion magazine, and photo sharing network Instagram, along with Facebook (their corporate owner), have latched onto this aspect, deliberately encouraging users to put filters on their selfies ‘to make them prettier. . . [and] brighten their reality so as not to “drag down” those around them’.

Social networks can, too, feel more like a popularity contest as the online metric systems influence users and organisations to strive for more likes, shares, followers, and comments than they already have. Indeed, it appears that Wigmore Hall has been able to additionally augment its follower count by following lots of Twitter accounts that would likely take an interest in the concert hall’s activities – it currently follows 46,700 and has 47,600 followers. Add into the mix the art of classical music, where the standard is usually perfection (e.g., in performance), and it is no surprise that all of this digital noise can be too much and make us feel inadequate compared with the superstar music virtuosos and other types of people within the classical music world. In fact, a recent study from Anxiety UK reports that over half of respondents regularly using social networking sites saw a negative change in behaviour, and there were further factors at hand, including negative self-comparison with other people, and trouble disconnecting and relaxing.

Why then are artists, organisations, and audience members issuing their social media messages and what is actually happening behind the corporate marketing, shameless self-promotion, reblogged five star concert review, glamorous yet filtered Instagram selfie, post from the classical musician’s practice sessions, night at the opera, post-concert party, or digitally extroverted thread among classical music tweeps, i.e., the façade or persona of social media? Is the regular classical concert-goer tweeting about all the wonderful performances he/she has seen a critic who is actually being paid to review the events or, alternatively, an artist agent who is seeing one of his/her clients on stage? Has a company told the performers to take an orchestrated backstage selfie with their musical celebrity colleagues – something which tends to say a lot about the artists themselves, their status within the industry, and their bank of personal connections as characteristic of the inner workings of classical music performance?

In fact, celebrity brand endorsements on social media have become something of a lucrative market – and, no less, in classical music – so there could be other reasons why our favourite artists frequently post out a casual product placement. Concert pianist Stephen Hough has tweeted about his promotions of the Chicago-based hat seller Optimo Hats, subsequently giving him and the business more reputation and influence.

Social media can offer many distinct advantages in a classical context, for instance as a new business model for musicians and companies, and there are people regularly using these sites who are aware yet genuine and authentic about what they put up in the face of ‘social perfection’. For now, I cannot envisage a sudden shutdown of the social media landscape, although who could have predicted the closure of Bebo in 2010 and reports of stunted growth in Twitter usage earlier this year?

Social media are neither the ‘be-all and end-all’ and nor are they for everyone. According to John Gilhooly, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Wigmore Hall, there are classical music audiences in London who do not use a computer. Of course, there are plenty of ways to experience, appreciate, and enjoy classical music without relying on digital technology – like walk-in visits to a concert hall, booking in person, and taking away a copy of the shiny print brochure of event listings. Personally, I am someone who needs to limit the amount of screen time that I have but I do not feel that I am completely missing out on the latest news, promotions, or indeed, what a particular concert artist had for breakfast this morning before preparing for the big performance ahead.

Annabelle Lee is approaching her final year of a PhD in Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, where her studies have been funded by an AHRC Doctoral studentship. Her thesis is about social media marketing of classical music. Prior to her PhD research, she read an honours degree in Music at Durham University and an MSt in Music (Musicology) at the University of Oxford, where her Master’s thesis focused on the Facebook and Twitter marketing of Wigmore Hall. 

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On Neglected Music

Photo by Kate Romano
Photo by Kate Romano
Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 12.16.14         By Kate Romano

‘Neglect’: its a strong word. To abandon. To fail to care for properly. It’s a label we bandy about a bit in classical music and attach variably to a mixed bag of repertoire, often when we want to draw sudden and urgent attention to it. It tends to crop up in the contexts of anniversaries, themed concert series and in conversation every April, when the new BBC Proms season is revealed.

I love the Proms; I especially love the Proms online archive listing every single  programme in 121 years from its Queens Hall beginnings in 1895 to the present day. I also like the alphabetical Proms roll of honour: 2260 composers who have featured in this great Festival. The archive also tells you the number of times that their music has been played as part of the Proms.

2260 different composers sounds pretty good – but hang on…that’s an average of just less than 19 composers a year. And there are 49 Proms in each season – that’s nearly 6000 concerts, maybe 20,000 individual pieces of music? The Proms archive is not, of course, a paradigm of musical parity, but a story of taste and fashion. It’s a historical treasure trove depicting a century of behaviours and trends in concert programming. A portrait of changing times, society, policies and testimony to what works well in big resonant spaces. Inevitably some things get more attention than others. Beethoven (1486 performances), Brahms (823 performances). No surprises there. Tradition and Nationalism play a part; Elgar (879 performances), Parry (133 performances). Composers we rarely hear of today – (Graham Peel, 81 performances) – fared well in the early 1900s when people flocked to the Proms to hear popular parlour songs performed by super-star singers. But of those 2260 Proms composers roughly 45% had just one single performance of their music and 72% have had fewer than 5 performances.

I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I’m guessing that those ratios might well be a fair representation of the wider musical picture today. Lots of one-offs, premieres, isolated occurrences. Fewer second, third and fourth performances. Classical music largely represented by a tiny minority of the composers who ever lived. The vast majority of composed music is destined to be ignored or forgotten – ‘neglected’. Our available repertoire grows exponentially year by year as new works are written and ‘new’ older ones are unearthed.

Who are the custodians of this mountain of silent music? All of us who care are custodians. The public. Performers. Conductors. Publishers. Concert programmers. Festivals. Teachers. Students. Classical music needs this large dedicated team of talented, driven people to make it happen at all and never more so than in the 21st century. And because we care, our perception of ‘neglect’ becomes a personal, subjective thing determined largely by how much we sense an emotional attachment to a composer. It is less about quantity or frequency and more concerned with guilt and failure to support things that we cherish. Some composers seem to have permanently branded with the word ‘neglect’: Tippett (99 Proms), Bridge (100 Proms), Rubbra (21 Proms). I didn’t think anyone could call Mozart (1335 Proms) ‘neglected’, until an article by Martin Kettle appeared in the Guardian in 2012, motivated by the fact that there were just 4 Mozart works featured that season and calling for an urgent review of this Mozart ‘symphony famine’.

Two months ago I met the composer Erika Fox. Erika is an astonishingly vibrant, energetic, and stylish 79-year-old. To know Erika’s music you need to go to her house and listen to it – on cassettes. It is not on the internet. It is not published and not held in archives. It is in Erika’s house preserved only on hard copies and in handwritten scores. And it is REALLY good! Erika has a burning curiosity for sound and a theatrical imagination. Her music is resourceful and intelligently crafted. It takes a bit of rehearsal and is always idiomatic. It would stand up in any concert of 20th century music. There is absolutely no artistic reason why Erika’s music shouldn’t be better known. So I asked her why she thought this was so. ‘I don’t know’ she said. ‘I guess I’m just not good at promoting it…’. Erika is not so much neglected as simply not known. Rubbra could (should?) be a giant amongst Symphonists, yet he is not and perhaps that’s the crux; ‘neglect’ means that somewhere along the line we feel we have failed to do credit to a compositional output that we know exists.

Erika Fox
Erika Fox

Can a composer do anything to ensure that his or her music is not neglected? Composers today are often forced to shout loudly and develop their own high-level marketing expertise in order to get their music heard. Those supported by dedicated and proactive publishers tend to fare better. But only a very small handful of composers (past or present) experience anything like consistent performances of their music. I know many composers in their later years who predict dryly that their next big splash will be a posthumous one. Even some of the most performed composers have had ‘hot and cold’ moments when circumstances are not favourable. Owen Wingrave was Britten’s least performed opera for some time. It was conceived for television and was premiered on BBC2 in 1971. Perhaps this factor deterred directors from taking it onto the stage. But recent performances seem to view this more as a creative challenge and an opportunity to see it afresh. Owen Wingrave just had to wait a bit.

In 2006 The Daily Telegraph ran a feature on John Foulds, described as ‘the neglected composer who joined Vaughan Williams to Ravi Shanker’. The article was written to draw attention to the new release CBSO recording of Foulds’ Dynamic Tryptich, an extraordinary work written in 1929 and discovered by Malcolm MacDonald many years later in the British Library. There must have been a frisson of excitement for MacDonald when Foulds’ daughter took him to see two coffin-sized boxes full of sketches and manuscripts in the garage that she had been left by her mother. A short-lived frisson – unfortunately, most of the manuscripts were damaged by rats and ants. Foulds nevertheless leaves a reasonably sized body of work but remains a marginal name. Sakari Oramo believes that Foulds’ drawback as a composer was also his greatest strength: he was simply interested in ‘too many things’ and his music can be a bit hit-and-miss. Yet his best is marvelously bold and distinctive.

I’m becoming increasingly persuaded as I write that ‘neglect’ is not an especially accurate or helpful label for music that is not as loved, known or played as it might be. It can’t be quantified or qualified and there is something very negative about tarnishing a composer in this way. I cannot imagine Tippett et al ever shaking off the tag. But I am very interested in the idea of neglect in music and the Arts. For all our self-berating and admonishment, ‘neglect’ in the arts is currently rather fashionable which makes for a curious tension.

We seem to find beauty in temporal things that, through our own lack of input or care, have begun to decay naturally. And we rise heroically to the challenge of hanging on to things that weren’t especially designed or intended to last. I have photography books on my shelves containing poignant shots of crumbling concrete buildings, temporary civic structures with a shelf life of 10 years that attract emotive campaigns for their renovation and salvation. I have books about London’s neglected stations and the forgotten overgrown paths of former tram tunnel systems. I went to an exhibition about loved, lost, damaged and destroyed public art from the post-war period. Last week I watched a wonderfully engaging documentary, Elektro Moskva, about the Soviet Electronics age. With a backdrop of artfully shot derelict warehouses and flea markets, it revealed an underground world where the passion and trade for these unreliable junk-made electronic instruments has never died. Old and obsolete technology is as covetable as new. Today, vinyl records, analog cameras, and print books sit happily side by side with streaming music, smartphones and ebooks. It seems that transience, nostalgia and the ecology of decay and disintegration has a firm place in our hearts.

So we like old. But we seem to like our old to look old, feel old – and even sound old if the shutter effects on digital cameras are a barometer of current taste. The desirable ‘old’ of the 21st century is a little bit shabby, needy and non-perfect – rather like us, perhaps? But music is not an object. We can’t play decay. We can’t perform the visceral, numinous quality of something which has been untouched for 150 years, or maybe just 20 years. In the hands of a living musician, a lesser-known piece from the 16th century is no more ‘decayed’ than one from the 1950s. Popping a ‘neglected’ orchestral piece into a concert is, by and large, an instant and (relatively) cheap and quick restoration project. Maybe we don’t quite have all the period features intact, but contemporary trends dictate that we can and should fill the gaps imaginatively where we don’t have the historical bits of the jigsaw. And this convenience, this ease into which something ‘neglected’ can slip so effortlessly into modern times means that it also remains largely disposable and can be instantly forgotten again. ‘Neglected repertoire’ is no eye-sore, no greying concrete blot on the landscape. It is not a health and safety matter. It is not a financial drain whether we keep or dispose of it. We can put it away until the next centenary and no harm will be done.

How can we keep an impossibly huge expanse of music alive and vibrant? How can we prevent each new generation of composers facing even greater barriers to hearing their music played? Some thoughts….

We can write our own histories – the music of the mid 20th century, to me, is as vital and valuable as the operas by Wagner and the Cantatas by Bach. No single person can serve every music and every composer. But we can become more fascinated by those who do interest us and we can try to programme them imaginatively in ways that illuminate and enhance their vibrancy and spirit.

Funding and development bodies: can you offer incentives to support imaginative programming? (Sound and Music – you do this – thanks). How about a ‘twinning’ scheme with a living composer and a lesser-played historical composer with the aim of generating some liberated thinking about commissioning, programming and planning for Festivals and events?

Not every composer can have a publisher behind them. But there are a growing number of entrepreneurial people making projects and providing frameworks for composers to work within. All you need is a mobile phone, a website and some good ideas.

BBC Ten Pieces – it’s good, it works. Kids who don’t yet know Classical Music are an absolute joy. They don’t make ‘status’ judgments on composers and they take everything at face value. So – next step – why don’t you give them some Georges Ensecu, Elizabeth Maconchy, Vítězslav Novák, Allan Pettersson, Havergal Brian, Antonio Rosetti, Roberto Gerhard? They’ll love it! And we’ll all get to learn something new. People who set examination syllabi: please also take note. And can we ditch the ‘great’ lists whilst I’m on this one? (greatest composers…greatest women composers…greatest piano concertos…there are even ‘greatest neglected composers’ lists…)

Audiences – please continue to take a punt on things you don’t know. Most of you do this – thank you.

Anyone reading this is likely to care deeply about music and what happens to it. ‘Neglect’ seems too harsh a word in this sense; people who work hard to make things happen do so with an enormous amount of goodwill, passion and regret that they cannot do more for silent music. The sheer volume of un-played music can be overwhelming, but it is no different to the feeling I have when I go into a bookshop and know that I will only ever read a fraction of the books on the shelves. It is no different to the feeling I have of not being able to get to all the concerts, exhibitions, operas and events I would like to. Rather than feeling despondent about ‘neglect’ I’ve come to the end of this blog feeling rather proud for all that we do manage to achieve for music against almost impossible odds. And I’m more determined than ever – as player, producer, listener – to keep enjoying and exploring the rich treasury of music that is out there and so readily available to me.

Read more by Kate Romano:

Applauding Audiences

‘One of the most versatile musicians of her generation’, Kate Romano is a clarinetist, producer, fundraiser, artistic director and writer. Previously a senior member of staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for 12 years, she now works as a freelancer. She tweets as @KateRomano2 and her website can be found at Kateromano.co.uk.

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Silence: A Fertile Soil

Interior with Ida Playing the Piano, by Vilhelm Hammershøi, cropped. Original here.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

LISTEN to me,” said the Demon as he placed his hand upon my head. “The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zaire. And there is no quiet there, nor silence.”

So starts Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Silence – A Fable. The tale commences with the demon’s successive attempts to frighten a man bearing ‘sorrow, and weariness, and disgust with mankind, and a longing after solitude.’ The dark forest of tall primeval trees, the river of sickly hue, the roaring and frightful animals, and a violent tempest do not threaten the man – he shakes in solitude but perseveres. At last, when the demon conjures up an unworldly silence that sets everything to absolute stillness, the man flees in terror.

Poe shows silence as a source of great terror. Indeed, there is an ominous and often frightful aspect to silence. 18th-century English philosophers, including Edmund Burke (1729-1797), would not disagree. ‘All general privation’, Burke writes, ‘they are all terrible; Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence.’

The Soviet composer Nokolai Myaskovsky’s (1881-1950) symphonic poem Silence is based on the Poe short story. It depicts the terror and unease with a brooding introspection building up to a violent release. There are moments of great passion, in which the propulsive rhythm draws a graphic and dramatic picture.

While silence as a literary concept often reveals a sense of dread and terror, what are the effects of silence when utilised as a compositional device? And ultimately, what is the relationship between silence and music?

The Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was notorious for using silence in his music, to such a degree that his Second symphony was at one point nicknamed the Pausensymphonie, ‘symphony of pauses.’ In fact, this is very characteristic of Bruckner’s compositions. While frequent pauses abruptly disturb the flow of music, they bring out a sense of granite-like monumentality, a rigid architecture. By eschewing smooth transitions between differing musical ideas, Bruckner also achieves heightened contrasts and surprise. ‘You must take a new breath when you intend to say something important,’ he once explained to the conductor Arthur Nikisch.

These characteristics are prominent in his fifth symphony. Slow pizzicatos (plucking of the strings) solemnly and mysteriously open up a spacious canvas, upon which walls of sound build up to stately musical climaxes. In the coda of the finale, the giant work concludes with ecstatic grandeur, again through pause-driven suspense and release.

The second half of the 20th century saw an increasing tendency for composers to identify silence as an important musical language. According to Boulez, the initiation of such a paradigm shift can be attributed to the works of Anton Webern (1883-1945). Boulez writes* in 1955: ‘if one can, in a certain sense, maintain […] that Webern was obsessed with formal purity to the point of silence, it was an obsession that he carried to a degree of tension hitherto unknown in music.’

While ‘pointillistic’, ‘concentrated’, and ‘economical’ are terms often used to describe Webern’s works, such illustrations often overlook the deeply emotional nature of his music. Webern’s unique and potent use of silence allows the listener to hear each individual note clearly, right from the birth of the note to its decay, which gives his music layers of eerie contemplation and introspection. The short duration of his works and radical harmony only add a deeply personal and abstract poetry. Such characteristics are represented well in his terse string quartet, Op.28.

A particular group of composers in New York, led by John Cage (1912-1992), took the element of silence to another plane. It was Cage, with his Zen-like spirituality, who brought silence to the fore through his infamous 4’33’’, where not a single note is played. Cage also left a substantial amount of writing on silence in music. Yet it was the composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) who struck an ideal balance between silence both as a concept and musical language. In his essays published in 1985, Feldman writes, ‘silence is my substitute for counterpoint. It’s nothing against something […] It’s a real thing, it’s a breathing thing.’

In his mammoth, 70-minute piano work For Bunita Marcus, strange repetitions of notes echo between the abysmal valleys of silence. Yet for all its strangeness, there is an atmosphere of calm. It is also noticeable that the music has a spatial dimension, much like the musical architecture of Bruckner’s symphonies. However, Feldman’s unique grandeur never roars or imposes – it merely whispers and gasps.

Feldman infamously wished to be completely dissociated from the Western musical tradition, to be remembered as the first great Jewish composer. Still, if one can hear a strange resemblance to the music of Webern, this may be no accident. Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972), the tutor of Feldman, was an ardent advocate of Webern’s music, after all.

It appears that whether loud or quiet, music with ample doses of silence acquires characteristics of contemplation and breath – characteristics well suited for sacred music. The religious music of Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) lacks no intentions for creating silence as a source of awe and spirituality. ‘Silence’, says Pärt in a recent interview, ‘is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed […] [and] must be approached with a feeling of awe.’ Such is felt in abundance in Da Pacem Domine (‘give peace, o Lord’).

Yet Pärt is no pioneer in this regard. In fact, Pärt’s art of distilling silence in long stretches for the purposes of spirituality has long been practiced and mastered by Renaissance polyphony composers, as can be seen through the works of Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517).

Isaac, much like Pärt, uses elements of silence as a crucial form of composition, the difference perhaps being that Pärt was more conscious of his choice of silence. It is fascinating to know that Webern studied Isaac’s music extensively for his doctorate thesis. Could it be that Webern’s paradigm shifting musical language of silence may, therefore, be as old as it is new?

Silence has a long tradition in the thinking of East Asia, and developed independently from various Western developments. The state of emptiness is crucial in the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism. The Japanese Wabi-sabi, furthermore, is an aesthetic discourse that finds grace and beauty in the emphasis on emptiness. Such appreciation of nothingness is reflected in the general aesthetics of East Asia, as can be seen in the following work by the calligrapher Chusa Kim Jeong-Hui (1786-1856) from Joseon (now the Korean peninsula).

Original here.

It is possible to notice the palpable empty spaces in such paintings. Here, emptiness is not the absence of presence (i.e. dead space), but rather the presence of absence, through which one realises the humbling of the physically tangible. It comes as no surprise that such attitude towards silence is reflected in the musical tradition of East Asia. For instance, Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) and Teizo Matsumura (1929-2007) made no secret of their fascination of silence. I present the music of the Buddhist composer Somei Sato (b. 1947). Taken from the album From the Depth of Silence, Satoh, in Kisetsu (‘season’), combines a uniquely East Asian sensibility of meditative vision using a Western orchestra and (relatively) traditional Western harmonies.

It isn’t hard to argue that there can be no music without silence. Silence, after all, is the canvas of music upon which notes are written. Yet is it not also the case that silence cannot exist without music? Is it not music or the presence of sound that allows our realisation of the importance and presence of silence? And the stronger the sense of silence, the stronger the sense of sound. I like to think therefore of silence as a very musical problem.

The experience of music is also the experience of silence, and much like the yin and yang, one cannot be detached one from the other. Once aware of the coexistence of sound and silence, we may start hearing things we never noticed before. And this awareness of the intimate relationship between being and its relative not being may go beyond a physical realisation, to a metaphysical one. Is this the state that James Joyce felt, for instance, when he wrote the following in the dying paragraphs of his short story, The Dead?

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling. 

Heidegger’s sweeping metaphysical rumination brings new light:

Let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself. 

* I would like to reserve special thanks to Dr. Edward Campbell of the University of Aberdeen, who helped me find the exact quote of Boulez on Webern.

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). 

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Musical Borders

Colton Map of Europe, 1855.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder’s postmodern novel about the history of philosophy, the young heroine Sophie is in a woodland cabin with her mentor Alberto, when a thunderous series of knocks is heard at the door. The visitor, unexpectedly, is Alice in Wonderland. ‘I am to give Sophie these little philosophy bottles,’ Alice explains. She hands them to Sophie and runs off into the woods.

One bottle is red, one blue. Both are labelled DRINK ME. With Alberto’s encouragement, Sophie sips from the red bottle. Her surroundings seem to change. ‘It felt as if the lake and the woods and the cabin all merged into one […] everything she saw was one person, and that person was Sophie herself.’

When Sophie drinks from the blue bottle, an entirely different transformation occurs. The surroundings fracture into infinite, dizzying variety. ‘The tiniest twig was like a fairy-tale world about which a thousand stories could be told.’ Alberto explains that the bottles reflect the pantheistic Idealism of the Romantics (red) and the Individualism of the philosopher Kierkegaard (blue). Kierkegaard disagreed with the Romantics, but neither his view or theirs is a strictly correct way to see the world.

This lesson cuts to the heart of a basic question of perception: how much do we see unity, how much uniqueness? It was an issue that briefly surfaced in the panel discussion of February’s Music Into Words event. There was a suggestion from the audience that genres like ‘classical’ were of limited use. Can’t we just talk about music?

I have always found this argument odd. Most of us enjoy music of many genres. But that does not mean that genre traditions are not meaningfully distinctive. All music has something to tell us about the people and the culture that made it.

The idea of ‘just music’ also conveniently ignores the messy business of politics: in an unequal world, musics are not created equal. Whether we like it or not, classical music has a a long history of establishment support and aristocratic patronage. In popular culture it is frequently used as code for refinement, class privilege, and prestige – and however unfairly limiting these associations might be, neither are they accidental.

I can certainly understand a desire to rid ourselves of this baggage – but baggage is part of inheritance. Rather than aspiring to eliminate genres, we could develop a better understanding of where they’ve come from, and what they tell us about where we are today.

Frances Stonor Saunders, in her insightful and moving essay Where on Earth are you? writes about borders both mental and physical:

All borders […] are explanations of identity. We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are; and we cross them in search of who we might become.

To fortify our sense of who we are. On the whole, the traditions of Western classical music are distinctive enough that what it is seems to be pretty well understood. And when musicians experiment across genres, that they are doing so also seems fairly well understood – with music as with geography, borders do not have to mean barricades.

However, for some classical artists who adopt approaches from more popular cultural forms, and in doing so achieve wide popularity, you can see battle lines of identity being drawn. The contempt it is common to hear reserved for figures like Ludovico Einaudi or André Rieu – as representing music supposedly too simplistic, vulgar, commodified – claims the opposite values as part of a supposedly authentic classical music. If Einaudi and Reiu were straightforward pop acts, distancing oneself would not be necessary – they disturb precisely because they occupy a kind of musical ‘uncanny valley’, an uncomfortable proximity. We use borders to mark differences; we use them to obscure similarities.

Thankfully, not everyone is so dismissive. But while some forms of identity are loudly declared, others hide in plain sight. Why is the classical repertoire so dominated by the works of dead white men? There may be many historic factors, but we do not learn about dead white men in music lessons, we learn of ‘great composers’, ‘masterpieces’. We are left to suppose the repertoire is defined by merit, even though the idea of such a purely meritocratic outcome is laughable. Yet this narrative can become so deeply ingrained that when a different story is told it often genuinely upsets people, even (or perhaps especially) when it is illustrated by the most damning of figures.

Can't we just pretend that gender doesn't matter?
Can’t we just pretend that gender doesn’t matter?

But since I’m on the subject of borders, I want to think about what it means that Western classical music, even as it has spread around the world, is European in origin. Particularly at this time when the borders of Europe are such a fraught political issue.

Britain will soon vote on whether to remain a member of the European Union – a project built on redefining the meaning of borders – or whether to pull back to its island shores. At the same time, the enormous humanitarian crisis at Europe’s edges has created tensions around borders on a much bigger scale.

The EU’s mission of a united Europe has echoes in its official anthem – Herbert von Karajan’s arrangement of the prelude to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, from the ninth symphony. If classical music is code for prestige, big choral-orchestral works signify might and glory (even UEFA, the European football body, use a pastiche of Handel’s Zadok The Priest for the Champions League Anthem). But Beethoven’s Ode is a glory of brotherhood rather than battle, and in pushing the boundaries of symphonic form it represents the spirit of progress, of building something bigger than before. It is also, of course, so familiar and renowned as to be iconic of classical music as a whole. And while Karajan’s arrangement is instrumental, the unifying sentiments of Schiller’s words inevitably hang about it in the air:

Your magics join again,
What custom strictly divided,
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

A world away from the halls of Brussels and Strasbourg, these words surely ring hollow at the recent sight of EU member states erecting fences and bolstering border controls. As we witness news reports of crowded boats sinking in the Mediterranean, Schiller’s ecstatic peroration – ‘Be embraced, you millions! / This kiss is for the whole world!’ – strikes a particularly sad dissonance against the calculating prose of contemporary politics.

And yet, despite the undeniable fear of mass immigration and far-right sentiment rising in many parts of Europe, there is plenty of compassion too. The classical music world has responded with charity concerts in aid of refugees. In March, Berlin saw a ‘welcome concert for refugees and helpers’, featuring three conductors and three orchestras. This was no doubt a worthwhile endeavour, but the music was predictably unambitious: Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev. What about the opportunity to start a cross-border dialogue with the music itself?

Back in November, Nicolas Nebout conducted a London concert to raise money for the UNICEF Syrian Children’s Appeal, with a programme including Pheonix in Exile, a work by contemporary Syrian-American composer Malek Jandali. This piece deals directly with the theme of the humanitarian crisis, and combines Middle-Eastern modes with Western classical forms and harmony. The programme note makes clear how Jandali uses the idea of the Pheonix, represented by oboe and violin solos, as a metaphor for the flight of refugees of Syria, as well as his hope for the eventual rebirth of the nation:

The Syrian people, like the Phoenix, will rise from the ruins and rebuild their homeland in a manner even more magnificent than it used to be.

Here it is worth reflecting on how relatively rarely we in the West seem to hear classical music from the non-West. It is not for a lack of it – plenty of music has been written for classical ensembles from countries as varied as Japan, Lebanon, Brazil. Much, like that of Jandali, incorporates non-Western musical elements.

We might conclude, then, that the well-worn maxim of music as a ‘universal language’ is too idealistic. My view is that all music can at some level be universally understood, but it will resonate differently with those who have an existing relationship with the traditions it has grown out of. It was on this point that last year, in Parochialism Is Universal, that I explained how music played a positive role in enriching my understanding of where I live – in my case works by British composers. But there is an important caveat: being interested in what is around you (literally ‘of the parish’) doesn’t mean being closed off to outside influences. In fact I would argue that to really understand where you are, that perspective is necessary.

Similarly, on a European level, it would surely be self-flattering to imagine that Bach and Beethoven speak to eternal human values, that they have transcended their European-ness, even their German-ness. If we know classical music can represent prestige, there is a danger of prestige becoming cultural triumphalism. This idea surfaces in Lucy Cheung’s recent article about an Orientalist attitude in the classical music world. She notes that conductor Daniel Barenboim has made several patronising comments about Asian and African countries he had visited to perform music. It is especially ironic given his friendship with the late Edward Said, leading critic of Western Orientalism.

Such comments should remind us that we can overlay the history of classical music remarkably well with the history of European Imperialism, from the Conquistadors of the late Renaissance to the breakdown of tonality at the time of the ‘Scramble For Africa’, which ended with European powers ruling an astonishing 90% of the continent. For many Europeans, it is our awkward inheritance that our history is also the history of peoples in distant parts of the world – their borders in many cases are our borders, the scars of European violence. These legacies still inform patterns of economic power and migration today, so how much we chose to remember matters. I cannot help but think, listening to the angry rhetoric about ‘taking back control of our borders’, that perhaps deep down rests an uneasy realisation – that the relative peace and prosperity we enjoy is not ours to fence off by any inherent moral right.

With all this in mind, we try to imagine what a classical music suited to the twenty-first century might look like, if it were designed anew. It could take on a leading role in navigating the bustling, multi-perspective world we find ourselves in. It could honour its many European roots, but do more to investigate the way those traditions have been adopted, and adapted, by other cultures. It could spend less time lounging in the historic squares of Vienna and Paris, and more exploring the confusing alleyways of the modern global megacity.

It could also spend more time exploring artistic borderlands. I was fortunate to attend a recent concert at Brighton Pavilion to mark the centenary of events, during World War One, when that pseudo-oriental pleasure palace became a makeshift hospital to injured Indian soldiers who were fighting for Britain. The concert featured English orchestral music by Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, both of whom served in that war (the latter fatally), and who were defining a new musical identity drawing on British folksong. Interspersed between these works was The Seasons of India, traditional Indian music scored with orchestral accompaniment by Kala Ramnath. Two different musical cultures were celebrated together as equals.

The Indian soldiers at the Pavilion were caught up in a catastrophic battle of colonial powers they had done nothing to start. We sat in the exact space they had lain hospitalised, and heard readings from letters they had sent home, of their adjustments to being in a strange land, of warning relatives not to enlist. These touching details invited us to consider the memories of places that would have come together under Brighton Dome, to make connections radiating out across the South Downs, past the villages where Vaughan Williams collected folksongs, to the battlefields of the Western Front, to distant British India.

27325425745_23568c76f4_z
A light show at Brighton Pavilion marks the ‘Dr. Blighty’ centenary celebrations, Brighton Festival 2016. Photo by David B Young, shared under Creative Commons License.

That concert, like the UNICEF fundraiser, was an example of how imaginative programming can illuminate shared history, while acknowledging the painful experiences so often bound up in it. Schiller’s vision that ‘all people become brothers’ is a noble sentiment, but has little precedence to offer us. The poet himself seemed to realise this later in life, describing in a letter to a friend how the Ode was ‘detached from reality’. Whether that is a bad omen for the future of the EU, we will have to wait and see.

Nonetheless, for all its flaws as an institution, I will be voting for Britain to remain a member of the Union. Perhaps I am something of a romantic idealist, but my instincts tell me that, for all our differences, progress more likely lies in partnership and collaboration. I cherish the idea that people can go abroad in search of a better life, whether they be EU citizens or Syrian refugees. But like Sophie, I think we need to drink from both bottles. In music as with politics, our distinctive histories are important to understand, even as we try to remember that they don’t have to define our future. Borders, as Saunders reminds us, are what we cross in search of who we might become.

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The Sea – A Musical Sublime

A Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich. Source.
A Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich. Source.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

The ‘Sublime’ is one of the most notable theories in the history of Western aesthetic discourse. While the origin of the concept dates back to the ancient Greeks, probably the most popular characterisation of the phenomenon as it is known today was made in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful of 1757. This is how Burke conceptualises the sublime:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.

Edmund Burke - source.
A painting of Edmund Burke, from the studio of Joshua Reynolds  – source.

In other words, the sublime is an overwhelming emotional experience related to fear. Characteristics of this concept become palpable when compared to loving pleasure, a joy which lies opposite to the dark-hued emotional landscape of the sublime, or as Burke puts it, ‘beauty’:

Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great, rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly […] beauty should not be obscure; the great out to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great out to be solid, and even massive […] They are indeed ideas of a very different nature one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure […] 

Yet for all its fear, the sublime is a form of delight – humans are attracted to such terrible experiences. Consequently, the Burkean sublime relates to experiences that present a complex and almost contradictory mixture of emotions. As one is overwhelmed by unpleasant forces beyond one’s control and capacity of reason, within this springs a sense of delight. Later in the book Burke would ascribe this phenomenon to existential awareness.

The sea represents the quintessential qualities associated with the sublime – it encompasses the evocative feelings and expectations of danger, the unknowable, a scale beyond one’s understanding. English essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719), a pioneer of theories of the sublime, gives a vivid explanation:

I cannot see the heavings of this prodigious bulk of water, even in calm, without a very pleasing astonishment; but when it is worked up in a tempest, so that the horizon on every side is nothing but foaming billows and floating mountains, it is impossible to describe the agreeable horror that rises from such a prospect. A troubled ocean, to a man who sails upon it, is, I think, the biggest object that he can see in motion, and consequently gives his imagination one of the highest kinds of pleasure that can arise from greatness.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

JMW Turner, The Shipwreck - source.
JMW Turner, The Shipwreck – source.

How is the sea, the bearer of the sublime, represented in classical music? Below, I present a selection of six pieces associated with images of the sea.

Symphony No. 3 by Peter Maxwell Davies is an hour-long work dating from 1984. While the symphony alludes to renaissance architecture practices, including applications of the Fibonacci sequence, the composer nevertheless had the following to say:

The thing that will strike the first-time listener most strongly may be the presence, through the whole work, of the sea reflecting the circumstances of its composition, at home in a tiny isolated cottage on a remote island off the north coast of Scotland, on a clifftop overlooking the meeting of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. Here the sound, sight, and mood of the sea influences your whole existence, all your perceptions, and—particularly in winter, shudders right through the stones of the house, and indeed through your very bones.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is often cited as one of the most influential composers in the development of 20th century British classical music, including that of Maxwell Davies. Both composers experimented with symphonic structure; both also had a deep affinity for nature, and through their music communicated something jointly elemental and emotional. Sibelius’s musical world is deeply rooted in 19th century Romanticism (sweeping melodies, dramatic devices, etc.) and portrays the evocative atmosphere unique to his native country. These traits are present in the seascape-based The Oceanides. It is a tone poem of two contrasting faces of the sea: a scene of blithely playing sea nymphs, and a storm. Yet the transformation is done utterly naturally, and the overarching warmth the music was imbued with before the turning point is recalled in the serene closing section.

Neither Richard Wagner (1813-1883) nor Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), men of Germany and Austria respectively, had substantial experience of living at sea. Yet given that both were renowned for composing music of unworldly monumentality, their take on the sea is somewhat fitting. Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman sets the mood to his most dramatic opera at the time. The opera portrays a spiritual voyage where the vanity of man to conquer nature – particularly the sea – provokes the devil. Amidst the wild tempest, the characters are redeemed only through fidelity of love.

Bruckner’s Helgoland is a late work for orchestra and choir. The text of the setting illustrates the divine intervention that saves the Saxon people from the invading vessels of the Romans on the Frisian island of Heligoland. As with the Flying Dutchman, the dangers associated with the sea are omnipresent – in this case not necessarily the sea per se, but it is difficult to not acknowledge the sea as an appropriate setting for human helplessness and redemption.

The Sea by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) is a work dedicated to Wagner, so some Wagnerian grandeur might be expected. Yet a sense of scale and ambition for drama are where the similarities end to this work by an echt-Russian soul. The vivid colours, rustic and bittersweet melodies alongside passionate dance-like rhythms are qualities very characteristic of the great Russian musical tradition. Glazunov provides an almost cinematic program for the piece:

A man sat on the shore and the various pictures of nature passed before his eyes. Bright sun shone in the sky, the sea was calm. Suddenly a raging whistling gust of wind arose, followed by another. The sky grew dark, the sea became agitated. The elements launched into a struggle, relentless, with a great roaring, with majestic force. A violent storm burst. But the tempest passed away, the sea became calm again. The sun shone anew over the calm surface of the water. 

Going further east, a very different kind of sea awaits in Toru Takemitsu’s late masterpiece Quotation of Dream; Say sea, take me! Unlike many works portraying the sea, the sea here has distinctively elusive qualities. Differing sections are not segmented clearly, and for most times the two solo pianos converge into unified bundles of aural haze – one could say that there is no communication between the two pianos at all, for communication assumes transactions between two entities. The latter half of the title refers to the poem My River runs to thee by Emily Dickinson:

My River runs to thee – 
Blue Sea – Wilt welcome me?
My River waits reply.
Oh Sea – look graciously!
I’ll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks – 
Say Sea – take Me?

Like many works by this composer, the sound-world may feel exotic to Western ears, because of Takemitsu’s lack of formal Western musical training and his endorsement of East Asian instruments and melodies. The eclecticism is further enhanced by the composer’s impeccable ear for glowing sonority and subtlety of expression. One is at times reminded of the sensual spirituality of Olivier Messiaen and the evanescent beauty of Claude Debussy.

In all of the above works, traces of the Burkean sublime – an experience of threat-tinged delight – can be commonly detected, especially in those works by Wagner and Glazunov. Yet it is also noticeable that not all selected works fit into this taxonomy. Takemitsu’s gentle sea presents a somewhat meditative picture. And while Sibelius’s sea certainly contains elements of tension, the overall impression is hardly terrorising.

What can this mean – does the sea in itself not exhaust the experience of the sublime? One thing seems clear: works of the sea suggest scale and power. Even in the softest utterances, one hears a lofty sense of inner strength. These works promise a musical drama concerning the ineffable, transcendental and invariably ambitious. It is worth noting that most works concerning the sea – even beyond my selection – take on forms of large orchestras, which can create an expansiveness and depth not easily achieved by smaller ensembles.

A simple conclusion of gross generalisation would diminish the complexities and realities of both musical and sublime experiences. I leave you with the last lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Secret of the Sea.

Till my soul is full of longing
For the secret of the sea,
And the heart of the great ocean
Sends a thrilling pulse through me.

Read more by Young-Jin Hur:

Silence: A Fertile Soil

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). 

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Different Heroes

heroes
Adverts for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2013 David Bowie exhibition. Shared under Creative Commons License. Cropped from original by Eiimeon here.
By Bobby Jewell

There’s a plethora of articles online about the influence of classical music on pop, whether it’s the sampling of Mozart in Hop Hop or Beethoven in Disco, rock band legal disputes over Bach plagiarisms, or the use of baroque orchestral instrumentation. Less talked about though is the influence of contemporary music on classical, where avant-garde pop and rock acts slowly came to impact composers during the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

In 1992 minimalist giant Philip Glass created his Symphony No. 1, an homage to David Bowie’s 1977 album Low, itself a bleak and sonically adventurous work by the singer-songwriter and producer Brian Eno that pushed the boundaries of conventional pop music. Glass’s Symphony broke down the album, focusing on several themes within the music, creating a slow, sombre orchestral work that relied on relatively little of Glass’s regular techniques and tropes.

Glass would later revisit the concept in 1996 with his more direct Symphony No.4, taking on Bowie’s album Heroes in a similar vein, the second in Bowie’s famous ‘Berlin Trilogy’.

Fellow minimalist titan Steve Reich also looked to contemporary music in 2012 with Radio Rewrite, a reworking of two songs by the English band Radiohead (Everything in Its Right Place from Kid A, and In Rainbows Jigsaw Falling Into Place). Having previously shown the influence of African and Indonesian Gamelan in his music, Reich admittedly came late to discover the band in 2010. Radio Rewrite coincidentally works similarly to Glass’s Symphony in that it only hints at its inspirations rather than mimicking them fully. Reich was quoted as saying ‘the piece is a mixture of moments where you will hear Radiohead, but most moments where you won’t’.

This cross-disciplinary collaboration owes a lot to the New York art scene of the 50s and 60s, where composers like Glass and Reich would be interacting with dancers, performance artists, painters and musicians. One key act of the period was the Andy Warhol-managed Velvet Underground, who experimented with minimalism, tape loops, distortion and psychedelia. Hugely influential on rock music both then and now, their influence has also spread to classical music. For example David Lang – an American composer and co-founder of the ensemble Bang On A Can – put together an arrangement of their 1967 song Heroin for tenor and cello, which was released on his album Pierced in 2010.

After the Velvet Underground disbanded, lead singer Lou Reed would go on to have an adventurous and acclaimed career of his own. One infamous piece, the 1975 double album Metal Machine Music, was a free-form assault of harsh noise that lasted over 65 minutes. Although totally bizarre and heavily derided at the time, the album has gone on to be seen as pioneer of the noise, industrial and heavy metal genres and was arranged for orchestra by Ulrich Krieger for German ensemble Zeitkratzer in 2007.

Apart from reinterpretations and arrangements, some composers used their own styles to craft tributes to pop musicians. Take for example Lukas Foss’s Night Music (For John Lennon) released in 1983. Though it was originally meant to be a new commission for the Northwood Symphonette, Foss began working on the piece on the day of John Lennon’s death and soon began crafting the work from that inspiration. While not stylistically linked to any of The Beatles’ work, Night Music plays with contrasting melodic and harsh elements. The use of an electric guitar and colourful switching of tones creates a work that doesn’t seem too far removed from the personality of a Stockhausen aficionado like Lennon.

With the breaking down of musical barriers in the 20th century there’s a reciprocal element to what modern composers have drawn on. Contemporary artists such as Max Richter and A Winged Victory For the Sullen cite minimalists like Glass and Reich equally with the ambient music created by Brian Eno, other pop musicians and traditional classical composers.

Collaborative live performances such as Techno legend Jeff Mill’s Light From The Outside World with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and electronic producer Actress’s recent show at the Barbican with the London Contemporary Orchestra again show the continued blurring of dichotomies with traditional genres, and the willingness of audiences to follow the results.

Read more about 20th-century classical music on Corymbus:

In Pursuit Of The Ondes Martenot

Bobby Jewell is an arts and music writer based in London and has written for This Is Tomorrow, O Fluxo, and Perfect Wave. He makes monthly ambient/classical mixes which can be found at https://soundcloud.com/lovedistance. He tweets at @bobby_jewell.

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Shakespeare in Scandinavia

Ingmar Bergman’s 1941 A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sagoteatern
Ingmar Bergman’s 1941 rosperoroduction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with his Sagoteatern Theatre Company, (Stockholm). Original photo here.
leahbroad     By Leah Broad

Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare. With the 400th anniversary of his death this year (following hot on the heels of his 450th birthday in 2014), it’s difficult to go far before being confronted by the British bard. I am always a little nervous about anniversaries, because they run the distinct risk of becoming tedious. Repeated showings of Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus set in Fascist Germany are enough to put anybody off Shakespeare for life. And Shakespeare hardly needs more advocacy — as one of my friends put it, ‘Well, he can’t live up to the hype. Just makes him seem a bit over-rated, doesn’t it?’

In some ways, I’m inclined to agree. But it’s because he’s over-rated that Shakespeare can be so fascinating. Lauded as a universal playwright of the people, Shakespeare has been reinvented in the image of every generation — and not just in Britain. His plays are something of a geographical and chronological constant, enduring across continents and throughout changing political regimes. Shakespeare is a mirror which cultures have held up to themselves, reflecting fragments of history through his familiar words.

Take, for example, the Nordic countries at the turn of the twentieth century. Alongside the Swedish playwright August Strindberg, Shakespeare was seen as a touchstone for the “modern” director, continually staged in both the provinces and capitals of the Nordic countries. The Swedish director Per Lindberg staged Hamlet (twice), As You Like It, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice and Othello at the Lorensberg Theatre in Gothenburg; when he later moved to Stockholm, his first major production in 1926 was Antony and Cleopatra. Such was Shakespeare’s popularity in Scandinavia that in Danish critic Georg Brandes’ 1898 critical history of the playwright, Brandes wrote: ‘Europe is still busied with him as though with a contemporary. His dramas are acted and read wherever civilisation extends.’

A watercolour sketch by Knut Ström for a Romeo and Juliet production at the Lorensberg (Stockholm) in 1922.
A watercolour sketch by Knut Ström for Romeo and Juliet at the Lorensberg (Stockholm), 1922.

And central to all these productions was music. Music is threaded into the fabric of Shakespeare’s plays, from the opening of Twelfth Night (‘If music be the food of love, play on’) to Hamlet likening himself to an instrument (‘there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak’) and the witches’ scenes in Macbeth (‘I’ll charm the air to give a sound / While you perform your antic round’).

For a composer, Shakespeare is the gift that keeps on giving. In his lifetime, it is likely that music would only have been used when called for in the script — when the clown in Twelfth Night sings ‘Come away, come away death’, for example. This probably would have been a solo singer, perhaps accompanied by a single instrument (for, as Shakespeare was at pains to point out, musicians were expensive to hire).

Twentieth century composers provided music for these moments (‘Come away death’ was set by Jean Sibelius, in the Swedish translation ‘Kom nu hit, död’), but they also wrote much more extensive orchestral scores to accompany these dramas. It was customary to commission incidental music for the largest productions of the early twentieth century stage, and Shakespeare performances fell squarely into this bracket. The Swedish composer Ture Rangström wrote no fewer than 50 short movements for Hamlet in 1942, and Sibelius produced 34 pieces for The Tempest in 1925-26, orchestrated for some of the largest forces he ever composed for.

Sadly, much of this music has never made its way into published, let alone recorded, format. At least part of the problem lies in the nature of incidental music — without the production that the music was meant for, it loses much of its context. Even setting aside the visual aspects, if you record theatre music, do you include the text? Another clue is in the terminology itself — “incidental” music. The sonic elements of the theatre are so often forgotten, assumed to be subordinate to a performance’s visual and textual elements.

Gösta Ekman as Hamlet in 1934 (Vasateatern, Stockholm).
Gösta Ekman as Hamlet in 1934 (Vasateatern, Stockholm).

But these scores were the lifeblood of the twentieth century stage. In 1908, one reviewer wrote of Sibelius’s music for Strindberg’s play Swanwhite that it was ‘needed so that the piece can work on stage.’ And the theatre provided a vital platform for experimentation. Theatrical resources were often so limited that composers had to look for innovative new methods of scoring, and ways of being expressive in an extremely concentrated format.

We only have to turn to Sibelius’s second song in his Twelfth Night settings, ‘Hey ho, the wind and the rain’, to hear this. It’s a cheeky, modern setting that relies on having performers with a flair for the dramatic. It takes the ribald humour of Shakespeare’s original setting and puts a twentieth century spin on it: and at a running time of just over 2 minutes, Sibelius has a very short amount of time in which to do so. Techniques honed on the theatrical stage were transferred across to concert works, and vice versa, the different genres enjoying a mutually symbiotic relationship.

Sibelius’s Overture for The Tempest — his study of a storm with its whirling, destructive aeolian sonorities — generates the sound-world for his final tone poem Tapiola, composed only a year later. Musicologist Daniel Grimley has suggested that Sibelius’s interest in The Tempest is fundamental to understanding both Sibelius’s late works and his later silence; that he was drawn to the play because of the character of Prospero, and because of all Shakespeare’s plays, it is the one most motivated by music. Sibelius himself wrote to the critic Gunnar Hauch that ‘The Tempest [is dearest to me] because of its musicality.’ He seems to have identified strongly with Tempest’s cast of exiles, especially the creative castaway Prospero.

At the time, Prospero was broadly interpreted as Shakespeare’s autobiographical character, and that the character of the creative castaway was Shakespeare’s meditation upon his own late years and artistic process. This no doubt resonated with Sibelius at a period when he was struggling with his own self-criticism, struggling to justify his place on an international stage that was increasingly attentive to the angular sounds of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Scriabin. Sibelius’s setting of The Tempest, then, holds invaluable keys to his later compositional years.

On the other end of the spectrum lies Lars-Erik Larsson’s orchestral piece En vintersaga. This is not incidental music per se, but was commissioned in 1937 for a radio broadcast of A Winter’s Tale.  Larsson is an eclectic composer difficult to pigeon-hole in to any one specific “style”, but En vintersaga is a lush, romantic score that emphasises the pastoral elements of Shakespeare’s script. The Prologue opens with lilting, low strings over a bass drone, the gentle melody passing between the winds before culminating in a statement in the brass. The rippling wind motifs capture the fluidity of Shakespeare’s text, such as when Polixenes says ‘Nine changes of the watery star hath been/ The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne/ Without a burden.’

Within Sweden, only Larsson’s contemporary Hugo Alfvén could rival him for popularity, and Larsson undoubtedly drew on the sound world of his most popular work, Midsommarvaka, (‘Midsummer vigil’). This is an orchestral rhapsody that depicts the gaiety of the Swedish Midsummer festival, using Swedish folk tunes and dance rhythms. By transferring these sounds to Twelfth Night, Larsson set Shakespeare’s play in a place that is both timeless — Midsummer has pagan associations, seen as a liminal space between past and future, the real and the imaginary or mystical — but also identifiably Swedish.

Nearly twenty years later, in 1951/2, the sound of ‘Swedish Shakespeare’ had changed considerably. Titled Symphony Shakespeariana, Gösta Nystroem’s 4th Symphony was composed in the wake of his music for both The Tempest (1934) and The Merchant of Venice (1936). Shakespeare clearly stayed with him, subtitling the symphony’s movements with quotations from the sonnets and from The Tempest.

Nystroem’s Prelude to Tempest bears some remarkable similarities to Sibelius’s, but it is an altogether more mechanical storm, with undertones of music such as Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry underlying the wordless chorus. His symphonic version is less pictatorial, but retains the idea of nature tempered by a destructive militaristic pulse. Moving away from Sibelius’s almost symbolist concerns about the individual in nature, Nystroem’s Shakespeare seems to occupy an altogether more politicised landscape, emerging fragmented from the wreckage of the 1940s.

Whether it was by providing a vessel for compositional anxieties, or acting a vehicle for nationalist expression, Shakespeare has continually been cast simultaneously in the roles of the most abstract and specific of playwrights. Performing Shakespeare carries with it a formidable weight of tradition, but it is through the continual reinvention of this tradition that Shakespeare is at his most vital. He continues to find new political and spiritual guises across the world today — as in, for example, Thomas Adès’s opera The Tempest. For as long as Shakespeare continues to be the canvas upon which musicians, actors, artists, and poets can inscribe their passions and anxieties, thank goodness for over-rated Shakespeare.

Leah Broad is a DPhil at the University of Oxford. As the founder and editor of The Oxford Culture Review she writes extensively on the arts, and won the Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Best Arts Journalism Essay 2015. She is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker 2016, and co-leads Oxford’s Nordic Research Network.  More of her work can be found on her website. She tweets as @leahbroad.

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Become Ocean

Jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium, California.
Jellyfish at Monterey Bay Aquarium, California.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

When news recently broke that pop star Taylor Swift had donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony, eyebrows were understandably raised. They surely shot higher with the revelation that Swift had been inspired by the recording of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a contemporary orchestral piece of over 40 minutes length.

Even before Swift’s commendation emerged, the Seattle Symphony’s recording had sold extraordinarily well – at least by classical music standards – no doubt helped by Become Ocean winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. It seems that Adams has become that rare thing: a living classical composer who has struck a chord with a wide audience.

John Luther Adams – not to be confused with the other American composer John Adams – was born in Mississippi in 1953. After visiting Alaska through his work in environmental protection, he settled there in 1978 – with ‘high ideals and big dreams’, as he explained in a recent essay for the New Yorker. ‘Up here, unfettered by competitive careerism, I felt free to follow the music wherever it might lead me’.

Adams and his wife Cindy lived in Alaska for over 30 years, but now divide their time between New York and the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. It was in the latter location, near the Pacific coast, that Adams began composing Become Ocean in 2012. These stories of working in remote places inevitably add a certain romance to his image – as if he were a hermit forsaking our noisy world in order to gain a higher perspective on existence. It is the kind of escape that many of us might dream about, but few have the resolve to carry through.

An Alaskan landscape. Cropped from original, here.
An Alaskan landscape. Cropped from original, here.

Escape, perhaps, is a key word. It seems to be the primary route by which contemporary composers can achieve popularity, whether through the spirituality of John Tavener, the soothing arpeggios of Ludovico Einaudi, or the timeless melancholy of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, whose 1992 release is still the best-selling contemporary classical record to date. Being a quiet sanctuary is a positive role that classical music can play in modern life, though it is just one of many.

But if Become Ocean is a kind of escape, it is also nuanced and complex. Its interplay of rapid movements and glacial shifts creates a mesmerising experience. It murmurs, groans, fizzes, glitters. And it simply is there – in the words of Gramophone Magazine’s Pwyll ap Siôn, it is like ‘an immense sonic object, slowly floating across a vast area’. At the same time, in an astonishing feat of construction noted by Alex Ross, it is composed as a colossal palindrome: at the half-way point the tide turns, and the music starts running backwards.

Perhaps one reason why the recording has sold so well is that it rewards close listening, but does not demand it. A good deal of contemporary classical music takes for granted the listener’s familiarity with modernism, while assuming their undivided attention. Become Ocean, on the other hand, can work both as an immersive experience and as a strangely beautiful soundtrack to writing emails – music that swells to huge climaxes without ever assaulting the ears. In our multimedia age, such versatility is surely a strength.

In a note to the score, Adams warns us that ‘as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean’. That might sound crass, but at the opposite extreme of the USA from Alaska, Miami is already dealing with this reality.

It is those same warm Gulf of Mexico seas which, via Atlantic currents, give Britain its relatively mild winters. But even by our standards this December has been extraordinary, the countryside panicking into a hasty spring – catkins on the hedgerows, gorse in flower, daffodils emerging. A snow-laden Christmas is always more of a hope than an expectation in these parts. This year the idea seemed like a bitter joke.

Adams must know this sense of disquiet as well as anyone. Alaska is warming two to three times as fast as the mainland USA, and in his last decade there he witnessed profound change taking shape: ‘a summer of vast wildfires would be followed by a summer of seemingly incessant rain […] our sub-Arctic winters lost the pristine cold and deep stillness they once had’.

The natural world has always been a web of highly complex and dynamic relationships – it is a human fallacy to see it as balanced or ordered. But it is also a human failing to overlook our deep and numerous disturbances of those relationships. In an interview with The Guardian, Adams described a sense of ‘embeddedness in this staggeringly beautiful and complex experience of being in the world’. The composer added:

If we lived in a society where we felt empowered by that idea, and felt a responsibility to the world at that level, problems like climate change would be dealt with instantly, because they would just have to be.

Embeddedness, then, is another key word. It is surely something that music, like all art, can aspire to reveal. And yet, warnings of environmental catastrophe can actually carry their own dangers. Psychology research suggests that a sense of threat often results in people suppressing concern for others, or ‘retreating into materialistic comforts’, at precisely the time when clear-sighted collective action is needed.

It seems that paradoxes abound. In his summing up of new classical music in 2015, Ross discerned a conflicted zeitgeist, a mixture of ‘an ominous stasis, an unstable stillness’, with ‘rapid-shifting textures, spasms of nervous energy. Together, all this music suggests a world at once hurtling forward and spinning in place – very much the state in which we live’.

‘An ominous stasis, an unstable stillness’ could well apply to parts of Become Ocean too. The dark, implacable presence that looms at the beginning and end of the work might be a reflection of our current condition, with its challenges that often seem intractable and overwhelming. If there is a chilling undercurrent to this ocean of sound, it surely springs from the monolithic direction that heads the score: ‘Inexorable’.

In November 2014, shortly after the Become Ocean recording was released, I took a road trip down California’s spectacular coastal highway, Route 1. It was my first encounter with the Pacific, a westward expanse of over five thousand miles. I felt perched on the edge of the world. It seemed – though it was surely a trick of the mind – that it looked vaster than any ocean I had seen before.

Big Sur, California
Big Sur, California

It is easy to feel romantic or spiritual in a location like Big Sur. But as the waves lap ever higher, the question at the heart of Adams’ titanic work calls us with a simple urgency: what next? The truth we cannot turn away from is that we have already become ocean. It is now a beast of our own creation, its depths only as mysterious as ourselves.  If only we could reach the mid-point in the palindrome, and let it all run in reverse.

Read more by Simon Brackenborough:

The Many Ghosts Of Holst’s Psalm 86

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