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Clare Hammond – Gubaidulina

First, one of those embarrassing small musical world admissions: the pianist Clare Hammond was a contemporary of mine at university. Although I didn’t know her well, I won’t forget the day I heard her give a solo recital in a college chapel. Many of my fellow undergraduates were excellent musicians, but I was blown away by her playing. It was immediately clear that Hammond was a pianist of the highest standard, with a potential career as a solo artist shining brightly before her. 

As I recall, her programme that day included a piece by the Australian composer Carl Vine. Evidently she was someone who cared about venturing beyond the core classical repertoire and into the world of contemporary music – very much my kind of musician.

That exploratory curiosity has certainly been borne out in the intervening years, as is demonstrated by Hammond’s discography. Her latest album, Variations, brings together pieces by Symanowski, Birtwistle and Hindemith, among others. But the stand-out piece for me is the final track: Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, an early work from 1962, coming in at just under ten minutes.

This is a ferocious piece – one I didn’t know before, but which gripped me immediately. It announces itself with broad fortissimo chords like granite blocks, a brutal equivalent to the stately opening you might expect from the title’s Baroque form. Soon we hear the era’s pompous dotted rhythms too. But this is the Baroque recast in a modern mould: dissonances crunch, chords tug mysteriously in parallel movements. 

The first few iterations of the theme keep fairly steady, but soon the music starts to disintegrate, exploding into passages of virtuosity as Gubaidulina furiously reinvents her material, including some terrifying thundering octaves. I love how she toys with the familiar textures of old music – its balanced, intuitive patterns – but then keeps tearing these elements apart. At times it’s as though Bach were reconstructed for the industrial age: resurrected into a world of clanging steel girders and roaring traffic.

And as it happens, this Chaccone is having a bit of a moment in the limelight right now, as it featured in the recent Wigmore Hall livestream by rising star Isata Kanneh-Mason, part of a programme of works for International Women’s Day. Watching Kanneh-Mason’s performance makes an equally strong impression, and I can’t help but feel that if someone like Stravinsky had written this piece it would be revered as a masterpiece of 20th-century piano repertoire.

I highly recommend exploring Hammond’s discography, and in particular I draw your attention to her recording of Unsuk Chin’s formidable Etudes. Hammond wrote an admirably candid article about the effort it took to learn these works, spending ‘months pounding away in a practice room underground’, but eventually finding her own way to make them speak. I wouldn’t trust many musicians to succeed in that aim, but she certainly does.

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Kenneth Leighton: Laudes Musicae

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Green Bushes

Last Sunday was a beautiful spring day, so I decided to go for a walk. I had a route in mind, and drove a few miles to the large, flat expanse of Greenham Common. This former military site – synonymous with anti-nuclear protest camps in the 1980s – once contained one of the longest runways in Europe. Happily, it was converted back to grazing and recreation land about 20 years ago. It’s now a fantastic community resource, and I walk and cycle there a lot. But it was only my starting point this time.

I headed off on a path leaving the common. It follows a wooded gulley which runs down into the Kennet valley below. I love this path – with huge mature trees looming either side of you, and a small stream winding down, it’s like entering a little pocket of another world.

This area is unusually rich in history, even by British standards. Nearby is a site where Palaeolithic hand axes were discovered – the tools of nomadic hunters who camped here as early as 13,000 years ago. Other evidence suggests the possibility of continuous habitation in this part of the valley for the last 10,000 years, though it’s difficult to prove conclusively.

My plan was to get to the canalised river Kennet, then turn west along the towpath, eventually coming back up the hillside on a different footpath which I’d noticed on my OS map, but had never walked before.

A pool beside the Kennet and Avon canal.

Following the river, I started to hum a tune that I’d heard on Radio 3 that morning. It was the folk song Green Bushes, from Percy Grainger’s orchestral setting.

I already knew (and loved) a slightly different version of this tune in The New Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs. The lyrics start with the narrator going for a walk in May, and having a chance encounter with a young girl. He then proposes she forsake her true love and marry him – somewhat hastily, it must be said, but that’s folksong for you.

When I had first seen the tune in my book, I imagined it as a gently flowing melody. But the Grainger version on the radio treated it so energetically, that at first I didn’t recognise it. It sounds slightly demented: a psychedelic spring, bursting with life and libido.

In fact, if you look through an English folksong collection, you’ll find that a remarkable number of them begin with a variation on this theme: walking out in the spring and having a chance encounter. What is it about that scenario? I suppose spring is a metaphor for youth – one reason why poets idealise it. A fine spring day is like discovering life afresh. The land is awakening. No wonder it seems ripe with possibility, romantic or otherwise.

But while instant marriage proposals are mostly the stuff of fiction, spring is certainly a good time to find nature. Last year I heard a cuckoo calling along this stretch of towpath. It was tantalisingly close, and I stood for several minutes trying to spot it among the trees – all in vain. It’s still too early for their arrival this year, so on Sunday I had to make do with the laughing ‘yaffle’ of a green woodpecker, wafting mockingly on the breeze. Meanwhile a wren flitted among the dry reeds, firing its bullet notes beside the sparkling water, a tiny ball of cock-tailed aggression.

When I found the footpath heading back up the hill, I was surprised by a startlingly long perspective: the far end of Newbury Racecourse, its length extremely foreshortened behind a wire fence. On my other side, an enclosed field was bedecked with signs warning me it was ‘not a play area’ (it hardly looked like a plausible candidate for one).

Such sights only remind you how much of Britain’s countryside is enclosed for one private use or another – whether military, agricultural, or moneyed recreation. The colonisation of south-east England by golf courses, for example, is one particularly rampant and much-discussed phenomenon.

This makes the rare instances of public reclamation, like Greenham Common, especially precious. Because in the English countryside you’re always under suspicion of over-stepping a boundary. Any spring walk will almost certainly include chance encounters with the signage of paranoid landowners: Keep Out. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. At least we can deceive ourselves that birdsong is joyful – this ugly human territoriality only sings a sour note.

Thankfully, a happier discovery awaited me further up the path. It was the entrance to a nature reserve I never knew existed before: Bowdown Woods. Here was a more welcoming sign, showing several nature trails that dip through the wooded gullies carved by streams flowing down to the Kennet.

It was clear that this was a more scenic route back to my car, so I took the diversion. The gamble of trying out a new path paid off, and the ramble up and down the surprisingly steep gulley sides, with glimpses of valley views through the tall trees, was delightful.

I look forward to coming back here again as the months progress. As it happens, I made a firm new year’s resolution to finally spot a cuckoo. If I’m successful, perhaps I will see the same one I heard last year – returning to the Kennet’s side from his African winter, singing in hope of his own romantic liaison.

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A Walk With Haydn

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Anton Arensky, String Quartet No. 2

The YouTube autoplay algorithm took me to a striking place last night. I don’t recall listening to much of Anton Arensky’s music before, if any at all, but while I was busy with other tasks autoplay alighted on his string quartet no. 2. The repeating opening chords at first made me think I was listening to a piece of modern minimalism like Philip Glass, then I glanced at my laptop to see it was composed in 1894.

The quartet is written in memory of the recently deceased Tchaikovsky, and unusually, it features two cellos instead of two violins, shifting the ensemble’s centre of gravity down into the lower, richer registers (an interesting parallel, perhaps, to the four Wagner tubas inserted into Bruckner’s 7th symphony a decade earlier). 

That’s not the only thing that struck me. A while ago I wrote about how much I love hymn tunes used in instrumental music – well here is a prime example, as the first movement is based on an Orthodox Psalm melody, and includes some chorale-like textures amongst its more idiomatic string quartet writing. The second movement is an extensive theme and variations on Tchaikovsky’s own ‘Legend’ from his Children’s Songs Op. 54, and the short finale sets a sombre funeral mass theme that unexpectedly breaks into a triumphant folksong in a quasi-fugal style – as if to remind us that mourning the dead composer should also mean celebrating his life.

Autoplay often serves up forgettable works, but this piece immediately grabbed me. There is such a wonderful sincerity and clarity to Arensky’s melodic scheme – by borrowing widely for his themes, he seems to suggest the whole world is mourning Tchaikovsky. It’s also a superbly written piece, but one which never lets the need to be Serious Chamber Music get in the way of its songful soul. This is a remarkable work, and a fitting tribute to a wonderful melodist – and I look forward to exploring more of Arensky’s music.

You can listen and follow with a score here

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Michael East: Amavi

Michael East (1580–1648) is hardly the most celebrated musical figure of the English Renaissance. So it surprised me to learn that he was one of the most published composers of his day, with no fewer than seven books compositions to his name.

That’s what I discovered in the liner notes to Amavi, a new album dedicated to his music by Chelys Consort of Viols in collaboration with Fieri Consort. Chelys and Fieri used crowd-funding to make this project happen, which features the complete set of his eight five-part fantasias, leavened with his madrigals and verse anthems, plus a new commission.

Fantasias for viols were a private form of music played in houses, so they rarely reached the printing press, but circulated in manuscript copies instead. East was therefore unusually enterprising in getting his viol music out into the world, and also unusual is that the fantasias featured here, from his 1610 collection, each have Latin titles. These suggest the traversal of a spiritual journey, Desperavi through to Amavi – despair through to love.

It’s not particularly obvious that this scheme is illustrated by the music. Sure, Desperavi has a slow and solemn opening, and Triumphavi is consistently the most upbeat. But I suspect that East simply contrived a way they could be linked together for publication. It might have been shrewd marketing – perhaps a bit of Christian piety mixed with Classical learning was what the educated music buyer wanted in their collection. (Elsewhere, a set of his fantasias are named after the nine Muses, while others have more whimsical titles, such as Name right your notes).

The  instrumental and sung works are thoughtfully dovetailed on this album, with the choral music linked by mood to the preceding fantasia. There was a flexibility in the domestic musical practices of his day, and his publication lists his songs as ‘apt for viols and voices’. So in addition to the verse anthems, Chelys join in with some of the madrigals too, adding a silvery gilding to the voices.

Listening to the fantasias and choral works side by side, you begin to hear similarities. One common denominator is the fast turnover of texture. East alternates close counterpoint of short phrases with broad chordal passages – elaborate tracery and stately columns. And he also puts lively rhythms into moments of choral homophony that emphasise the words to memorable effect – as I can now attest, you know you’ve been listening to English madrigals can you end up with an ear-worm bearing the words ‘nymphs of Diana’.

I’m so pleased that Chelys and Fieri managed to fund this record. Like the consort music of Byrd and Gibbons, I find this repertoire inexhaustibly listenable. It unfolds without fuss or ego or excessive ambition – simply a beautiful craft of its time wedded to pragmatism, possessed of an unassuming dignity, as dependable and true as an oak table. This is, I feel, less about East in particular than his membership of a flourishing school of composition: a testament to the unpredictable collision of musical elements that came together in his era, and found a magic formula that for a while burned so brightly.

The final track is a new piece for voice and viols by Jill Jarman, setting words of East’s contemporary Henry Wotton. ‘Not wanting to pastiche the era nor stray too far from its sensibility’, as she puts it, Jarman’s approach begins with gently churning viol figurations over which long sung notes soar. It’s an imaginative reworking of the available forces, with some beautiful moments. But nonetheless it’s a jolt – a departure from East’s seemingly effortless craft to the modern composer’s burden: endeavouring, in the face of daunting creative freedoms, to forge something distinctive and meaningful.

Amavi is available from BIS Records.

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The Strange Case Of Solomon Eccles

The scene is London in the mid 17th Century. A man takes his musical instruments and music books to Tower Hill, and does something unthinkable. He publicly sets fire to them. Passersby hurry to put out the blaze, but this only makes the man angry, and he breaks the instruments by stamping on them instead.

This shocking act of self-vandalism was apparently the work of Solomon Eccles, a former musician and composer. In his tract A Musick-Lector, written some years after the event, he tells us this renunciation of music was brought about when ‘I through the good hand of God had an eye open in me’.

Eccles had become a Quaker, in the early years of that movement later known as the Society of Friends. He quotes Biblical scripture to justify his actions – the prophet Amos, who warned of destruction to those who ‘chant to the sound of the viol and invent to themselves instruments’, and the visions of Babylon’s music falling silent in the book of Revelation.

But perhaps his bonfire was most inspired by a brief episode in the Acts of the Apostles, where occultists who used ‘curious arts’ were converted, and then burned their books at great price. ‘And is not Musick a curious Art, wilt thou deny it?’, Eccles asks.

It’s certainly a curious story – and a sad one too. What could bring a musician to such an extreme dereliction of their art? To understand, we might look at the peculiarly charged circumstances of the time.

Quakerism emerged out of the long, bitter trauma of the English Civil War. In 1649 the King was tried and executed, a Republic declared, ‘the world turned upside down’ as the ballad went. In those distracted times, radical ideas – both political and spiritual – reached a fever pitch in England. Many wanted to drastically reorganise society. Some believed the ‘end times’ were near, such as the Fifth Monarchists, who foretold Christ shortly coming to reign on earth.

Out of this maelstrom early Quaker leaders, such as George Fox, challenged the authority of the church, speaking with contempt of their ‘steeplehouses’ and their Oxbridge-educated hired priests. Instead he emphasised every person’s ‘inner light’ of God.

The scriptures that Eccles used against music were typical of the early Quaker worldview. They saw themselves reflected in the stories of Christ’s apostles, but they also liked to draw on the dire tones of the Old Testament prophets, and the visionary doom-mongering of Revelation.

The movement quickly gathered both converts and fierce critics. Fox’s journal is a revealing testament of a life on the road, preaching and haranguing clergymen for their deficiencies – provocations which frequently saw him beaten up by angry mobs, and thrown in jail.

He was comparatively lucky compared to another leading Quaker, James Nayler. In 1656 he rode into Bristol to re-enact Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Parliament, unnerved by the spreading movement, seized the opportunity to make an example of him. He was publicly branded, had his tongue bored with a hot iron and was ridden through the streets in humiliation.

Fox shared Eccles’ distaste for music – at least, when it was made by men. But he made an exception for spontaneous singing from the spirit – in prison, he described being moved to ‘sing in the Lord’s power’. Likewise, Eccles mentions a vague music of the ‘inward part alone’ as the kind agreeable to God: ‘there is a difference between the Harps of God, and the Harps of Men’.

But in one particularly poignant passage, Eccles recalls the pleasures of making music:

I was once playing a part with four more, more than 30 years ago; and the parts hit with the Fuige, and came in with the Discords and Concords so very lovely, that it took very much with that part which stands not in unity with the Lord.

This rejection of music precisely because of the pleasure it gives had roots in radical Puritanism. But while church music was suppressed in the Republican years as unsuitable for worship, private music making carried on, so even in those times Eccles’s fundamentalist position was extreme. This is probably why he published A Musicke-Lector as a written-out conversation between a Quaker, Baptist and Musician. That enabled him to speak as the man he once was and as the convert, making plausible defences of music before countering each argument.

And yet surprisingly, Eccles’s bonfire of instruments was not even his chief source of notoriety. He took part in a phenomenon which spread among Quakers in the years 1653-5, described in detail by Kenneth L. Carroll. It was equally provocative: ‘going naked as a sign’.

Public nudity, even if only partial nudity, aimed to shock the complacent masses. George Fox justified one Quaker who spent three years ‘going naked’ in the following terms:

to the priests shewing how God would strip them of their power, and that they should be as Naked as he was, and should be stripped of their Benefices.

However, Eccles didn’t begin ‘going naked’ until 1659. By then the Republic was collapsing, and in this newly anxious atmosphere, Carroll credits him with starting a second wave of disrobing, which continued into the early years of the Restoration.

Eccles wrote a tract about this too, and he had his own eccentric approach: putting a pot of hot coals on his head, sometimes topped up with brimstone, to warn of damnation. He was whipped and imprisoned for his efforts, but his antics earned him mentions by Pepys and Defoe, and even a later depiction in a Victorian painting.

Despite all this, the story of the Quakers after the Restoration is of the gradual move towards discipline and respectability – which no doubt enabled the movement to outlast the other sects of the Republican years, such as the Ranters and Muggletonians.

In the centuries since, Friends have had a ‘precarious’ relationship with music, as an American exhibit from 2004 has described it, and one which very slowly moved towards acceptance. At the same time Quakers came to be associated with other moral causes, in particular the long struggle for the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the story of Eccles and Fox demonstrates that this moral stance evolved too.

In 1671, Eccles was one of several companions on Fox’s mission to the American colonies. Quakers had already reached the ‘New World’ by this time, and some of them even owned slaves.

After weeks at sea Fox’s ship landed in Barbados. Here his men held meetings, including among some of the plantation slaves. As another Quaker on the trip described it:

Solomon and I have had several meetings among the negroes in several plantations, and it’s like must have more yet. […] we feel the Lord’s presence and power in that service, as well as when we speak among the white people.

Fox clearly was troubled by the enslavement he saw in Barbados, and his subsequent travels to Jamaica and Maryland. He spoke out against the cruel treatment of slaves, and emphasised their equality before God.

But he also criticised the ‘loose living’ found among them. It seems Fox wanted slaves to live as Christians and to marry. He clearly felt compassion towards them, and at one point he even suggested freeing slaves after a time served – perhaps 30 years. But he did not go so far as to say the institution of slavery was itself immoral.

There was resistance from slave owners nonetheless. Quakers were accused of encouraging slave rebellion, and in 1676 a law was enacted in Barbados to prevent them bringing Blacks to meetings.

You might well ask how anyone could decry organised music making but see no wrong in organised human trafficking and exploitation. It is certainly hard to understand. But perhaps we can say that the strange forms of Quaker radicalism that emerged during the Republic helped to pave the way for the later victory against the enormous vested interest of slave owners.

Dissenting movements are frequently messy and inconsistent, but they have a vital potential to re-imagine the world, both for good and ill. And as much as we can take it for granted now, Abolitionism would once have seemed as radical to many people as a musician destroying their instruments.

Eccles returned from the colonies to London, and died in 1683. His story is an unusually vivid example of Puritanism in England with regards to music, but thankfully his attitudes didn’t catch on. Nothing illustrates that better than the fact his sons John and Henry, both born after his conversion, went on to be composers.

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Through The Looking-Glass

A few months ago, I bought a modern edition of Thomas Morley’s Elizabethan music treatise A Plaine And Easie Introduction To Practicall Musicke. Before you get to Morley’s text, there is a reproduction of its original eye-catching engraved title page. I was immediately fascinated by the scene it presents, which surrounds a grand cartouche containing the title information.

It’s laid out like the floor-plan of a basilica, with an apse at the top. But perhaps it looks more like a ceiling painting, as its backdrop is filled with billowing clouds.

Upon these clouds sits a pantheon of figures, most of whom are labelled and hold various instruments of measurement, or tools of learning. Looking closer, it’s clear they are a mixture of the real, the mythological, and symbolic personifications.

But only one of them has an obvious connection to Morley’s book: a woman representing Musica in the bottom-right corner, playing a lute. So how does the rest of this image relate to the contents? I decided to do a little research.

It turns out that this woodcut was not designed for Morley’s treatise at all. The central title panel could be swapped for different books. In fact, as Stephen Orgel has written, it was used for a remarkably large variety of publications in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: Euclid’s Elements, Sidney’s Arcadia and a biography of King Alfred all featured it, as did Dowland airs and Sternhold and Hopkins Psalm tunes.

However, the identity of the figures shows that it was originally designed with one book in mind.

The four labelled women in the bottom half represent the ‘Quadrivium’ of Renaissance education – geometry, astronomy, arithmetic and music. These were commonly portrayed as female figures in Renaissance art. But above them, the six labelled men – Ptolomeus, Marinus, Aratus, Strabo, Hipparchus, Polibius – are all real authors from Classical antiquity, associated with charting the heavens and earth.

That’s because this page was engraved for William Cuningham’s The Cosmographical Glasse, conteinyng the pleasant Principles of Cosmographie, Geographie, Hydrographie, or Navigation. It was printed in 1559 by John Day, almost forty years before Morley’s book, and the signature of I.B. on the picture may refer to the artist John Bettes.

Cuningham’s title page includes a poem, which gives an indication of his aims:

In this glasse if you will beholde
The Sterry Skie, and Yearth so wide,
The Seas also, with windes so cold,
Yea and thy selfe all these to guide,
What this type meane first learn aright,
So shall the gayne thy travaill quight.

Cuningham intends to teach the reader about the world and aid their travels across it. The engraving certainly illustrates the poem’s sense of wonder and fullness – it’s crammed with detail. Peeking from behind the clouds are stars, the sun, and a comet. The labelled figures are elegantly finished, and many of them are themselves engaged in the act of close looking: either at their instruments, at each other, or pointing mysteriously off the page. (See the original Cuningham front page here.)

What’s more, the design is clearly arranged with an eye for symmetry, and dual opposites. Framing the top are reclining figures with sun, moon, a lion and a shellfish – day and night, land and sea.

Between them in the apse are the ‘three ages of man’, plus a winged satyr who holds a scythe. Orgel speculates that this may be Saturn – associated with time – and that his satyr-like appearance could be a rare pun, a false etymology for his name.

Either way, the characterisation here is delightful. The adult is led by the hand, while the satyr gazes down at the care-free boy, who holds aloft the stick of a whirligig. This is echoed by the old man who now walks with a stick, scratching his head and looking tired.

If the satyr is Saturn, it would strengthen the symmetry with Mercury, who is bottom centre. As messenger of the Gods he has many associations, but he surely represents eloquence here. With one arm raised and mouth open, he appears to be holding court (though unusually his staff – the caduceus – is shown his right hand, when it’s normally in the left). On either side of him are the zodiac signs he rules over, Gemini and Virgo.

Supporting the cartouche are two statues in profile, possibly references to the telamon and caryatid of Classical sculpture, as they seem to act as pillars (their arms are missing too, perhaps in a ruinous Venus-de-Milo style). The male statue has a Pan-like face.

Above the title and beneath the globe is the motto Virescit Vulnere Veritas, which could be translated as ‘truth strengthens by her wound’. Or in other words: knowledge is hard won. (Incidentally, this motto was later taken up as the trademark of the printer Thomas Creede, with a very literal illustration of Truth as a naked woman being flogged!).

As Orgel explains, there’s no consistent theme to the books that Cuningham’s engraving was re-used for, and after Day’s death in 1584, it was passed on to at least two more printers. The simple fact of its elegance may have been more important than its representational scheme, and naturally it would be cheaper to use an existing woodcut than to commission a new one, even if it was decades old.

But the idealised vision of Humanist learning in the picture does reveal something about Cuningham’s text. Alan Salter has described how ‘diligent observation’ is key to the book’s thesis – and that’s depicted quite obviously. Familiarity with Classical antiquity is clear in the text too: at the very start Cuningham invokes Daedalus, who ensnared the ‘monster ignorance’ in his labyrinth. Those who keep this monster’s company are ‘brute beasts’, he writes. In later pages we can see how this view morphs into unpleasant prejudices: ‘brute beasts’ are the same words he uses for Native Americans, while the people of Ireland are ‘savage, wilde & beastly’ too.

One interesting feature that unites Cuningham’s and Morley’s books is that they are set out as dialogues. The characters have tellingly Classical names: Morley’s men are Polymathes and Philomathes, while Cuningham uses Spoudaeus and Philonicus. Hardly the folk of the local Tudor tavern! The conceit of explanation-through-conversation would probably seem silly if used today, but it was widespread in English books of the time. Cathy Shrank has written that it may have derived in part from the Medieval practice of Catechism, and the teaching of ancient writers of dialogue as models to emulate, such as Cicero.

The Cosmographical Glasse features more lavish engravings, including a portrait of the author, Atlas carrying a globe, and a large map of Norwich. You can peruse the whole book in an online scan here.

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Motorways And Music

Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station next to the A453 Remembrance Way. Photo by Crep171166, Wikimedia Commons (colour original).

By Kate Romano

It’s 4pm on a grey, rainy Thursday in November. I’m heading north, alone, on the M1, listening to Brahms’ 4th Symphony. As I drive, zipping under concrete arches, cantilevers and interchanges, Brahms’ symphony starts to do something extraordinary. The running quavers are a river of asphalt, sweeping us all – cars, vans, lorries – along the same trajectory into the foreboding night. Fanfares signal danger and triumph…overhead cables carry the sound of a million troubled voices along a crackling, fizzing highway of super-power…the eight gigantic cooling towers of Ratcliffe Power Station rise up like dystopian monsters. We are all cogs in a vast symphonic machine.

This happens every time I drive and especially on the motorway. Day or night, Brahms or Berio, Schnittke or Schumann…it doesn’t matter when or what I am listening to. Driving with music makes my imagination run wild…a waking dream in which a new quotidian fiction occurs. I hear things I have not heard before, I make new connections and I have strange ideas. In this semi-fictional state I’m somehow able to stay alert to the road whilst closing off the present and being ‘in the story’. It’s a potent phenomenon and one of the most liberating kinds of listening I know.

Are my trippy, cinematic adventures in the car simply the product of an overactive imagination? Or is this a modern, valid way of listening that might be useful to understand?

Motorways…mundane, in-between non-places. Stretching over the landscape like an urban welt, the motorway is the relationship between a here and a there. It has no edges or boundaries. We move within it in a small steel bubble (the car) experiencing a contradictory sensation of being sedentary (sitting driving) within a place that must involve constant movement in order to remain in it (the motorway). I love the anodyne, anonymous solitude of this ‘non-place’, and the illusion of being somewhere that is simultaneously tiny and intimate and part of a vast, global scheme.

For Margaret Morse, motorways (or freeways in her book An Ontology of Everyday Distraction) are ‘a loss of touch with the here and now’. Morse suggests that freeways facilitate a fluid exchange of unconnected – even incommensurable – facets of life in different dimensions. She cites language, images, and the built environment as examples. These unconnected things start to work together, she says, in a ‘liquid system of mutual reinforcement’, each benefitting from the others strengths. ‘In the time spent in-between’ she writes, ‘a miniature idyll with its own controlled climate and selected sounds is created’.

David Brodsly, author of LA Freeway, calls driving ‘detached involvement’ – an awareness of the outside environment mixed with an intensely private world within the interior of the car. He disagrees with New Yorker writer Christopher Rand who claims that driving on the freeway is ‘time lost’. It is not, says Brodsly, it is a scheduled opportunity to do nothing, like an urban form of meditation bookending each day.

So it seems plausible that the idea of listening to music, alone, in this ‘non-place’ could be a distinctive and unique experience. It’s not the same as listening alone in your house (a known place) and quite the opposite of a Concert Hall (a destination and a shared experience). House and Concert Hall might have beautiful, comfortable or familiar surroundings in which music is placed, but the motorway provides a setting of inertia and emptiness for music. Without a more conventional setting for music, our imagination is able to create spaces and places in which to put it, conjured up by the banality of the roadscape. It is this duality of environmental emptiness and imagination catalyzed by it that makes it so easy to slip into other-worldly spaces of the mind.

These are personal fantasies. Safe from communication with other people, my car-world sanctuary is a place to imagine and dream, uninhibited. The fantasy-worlds are powerful enough to be quite divorced from what I might already know about the music through performance, study or previous listening; at most, any existing knowledge is reduced to a hazy dream-like nod to its origins. Musical ideas leak from César Franck’s Violin Sonata and run beneath the surface of the road in a constant state of metamorphosis, bursting through the tarmac in the shape of orange light pools, glittering steel, sinuous distant trees…Britten’s Sea Interludes is huge pebbles dropped from bridges, each one causing centrifugal ripples across the vast radial network of motorway lanes and interchanges. Motorway-listening tells us far more about ourselves than about the music itself.

I was pleased to discover that it wasn’t just me that did this. You can find descriptions of the emotional component of driving and this kind of detached experience dating back to the 60s when motorways were first introduced. Complex relationships between drivers and cars were examined by Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, who saw the car-plus-driver as cyborg figures – a conflation of car and person. In 1963, Roland Barthes recognised that it was ‘no longer the car’s forms and function that call forth human dreams but, rather, its handling, and before long, perhaps, we shall be writing not a mythology of the automobile but a mythology of driving’. Mimi Sheller has noted that feelings and emotions about driving are instinctual but also bodily and collective; they are not to be dismissed as the feelings of one person, ‘but have real substance and might have historical worth’.

It’s hard to explore these fleeting, ephemeral feelings. Motorway-listening only occurs whilst driving and the fantasies take place in the moment and quickly vanish. Early morning on the A1M in Bedfordshire, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is a majestic paean-to-the-earth; it is the song that rises up through the wind turbines in the flat fields, their giant arms outstretched, slicing through low-hanging mists. But back in my study again, the wind turbine fantasy seems clumsy and foolish; Palestrina’s Mass has retuned to its status as a masterpiece, a sublime Renaissance marriage of words and music.

If wind turbines are new structures in old views, motorway-listening is old music in new horizons, ones that are created by the habits and routines of our daily lives. It’s an encounter that skirts around things we often find uncomfortable, asking us to value our sensitivity and intuition and open these up to explore ourselves. Perhaps most interestingly of all, motorway-listening is a shift away from history and iconography and towards the ears of the listener. Experiencing music in this way is an untrained faculty; spontaneous, accidental, spur-of-the-moment, thrilling. It democratises scholarly ideas about music by allowing it to seep into everyday life. How are we hearing? What do we hear? Might we hear differently? Motorway-listening transforms the idea of listening from that of a receptive vessel for music into an act that is constituted by everyday life itself.

Kate Romano is the CEO of Stapleford Granary. She is also a clarinettist, producer and a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3.

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Francis Pott: At First Light, Word.

By Catherine Coldstream

Already a doyen in his field, Francis Pott (b. 1957) has been building on an early musical training in the English Choral Tradition, weaving polyphonic structures and contrapuntal edifices that go far beyond the limits of the ecclesial, for over four decades. Known as much for his epic conceptions as for the intimacy of his voice (as he articulates the intense particularity and even loneliness of the human ‘soul’) his music is difficult in the very best sense of the word. It repays repeated listening and, yes, chewing over.

Complex, many-voiced, vigorously layered, and unfailingly nuanced, Pott is a master not only of musical form but of emotional ambiguity. Sometimes dark, frequently dramatic, and often overwhelmingly powerful, in his latest CD, which was released by Naxos last July, there is also an all-encompassing luminosity to the music that is difficult to resist.

Word, written in 2012, to a commission by The Rev’d Dr Nicholas Fisher, sets verses from St John’s Prologue, interspersed with poems by RS Thomas. As the programme notes tell us, Fisher’s intention was to ‘enable contemplation of the Gospel’s significance in our postmodern cultural epoch’. Certainly, the juxtaposition of words that come laden with centuries of sacred tradition, with the exquisite shafts of Thomas’s less familiar glimpses of transcendence, triggers intimations of eternity and invites a sense of openness to the divine. The words of the Welsh priest come close to echoing those of the Evangelist, but engage no less with fractured and distracted modern humanity.

Pott, a former Anglican chorister, now a self-confessed agnostic whose music nevertheless sits firmly within the Christian tradition, is extraordinarily well-placed for bringing together these two complementary strands, which he does with formidable skill and insight. In this recording by the Oxford-based choir, Commotio, under their conductor Matthew Berry, the verses are given startling life and immediacy, in singing that is as beautifully articulated as it is pure and agile. An amateur choir singing to professional standards, Commotio has a distinctively ethereal sound, which works dramatically well (and occasionally produces fireworks) when combined, as it is here, with the virtuoso organ playing of Christian Wilson.

At First Light (2018) is what Pott has described as ‘a Requiem in all but name’. In it the choir is joined by the cellist Joseph Spooner, a lone wrestling figure, whose agonised soliloquies seem to represent the individual soul, variously the griever or the grieved, against the backdrop of Commotio’s radiant, serene singing. Unusually for Pott, known for his counterpoint, the choral singing is often (although not always) calmly homophonic in this deeply meditative composition, suggesting an eternal and unchanging order, or simply the strength and cohesion of a community united in grief.

The work sets ‘a collated mosaic of texts’ including verses of poetry from Thomas Blackburn (a line from whose poem, Daybreak, supplies the title), Wendell Berry, Kahlil Gibran, and sections of the Hebrew Bible, set here – surprisingly – in liturgical Latin. Commissioned by Eric Bruskin, in memory of his mother, the work attempts universality while acknowledging the Jewish faith of its commissioner, and strangely, elusively, seems to succeed in drawing a number of threads together. Both elegiac and full of hope, the piece moves chiastically from its opening antiphon to its centrepiece and back, coming full circle to the words Requiem aeternam at its quiet conclusion.  In the central movement the cello falls silent, and the choir takes over in a gloriously celebratory setting of Psalm 150, an a cappella treat for fans familiar with Pott’s more complex, polyphonic mode.

This is a new release that brings together two commissions, both world premières, and shows us Pott at the height of his formidably accomplished powers. The cello playing is magnificent – angular, intensely expressive, deeply resonant, and dramatic – while the organ playing is nothing short of sublime. But this is above all a choral CD, and one which would grace any library of contemporary sacred music. The quality of the singing is luminous, the occasionally over-bright sound of the top line being balanced by the beautifully blended tenor and bass sections. Solo passages are sung sensitively and meditatively, with no trace of ego. This is a choir with an already solid reputation (this is their 7th CD) but nowhere does one sense the intrusion of vanity or empty show.

If you like your choral singing clean and bright – and in this recording the sopranos are almost piercingly chaste – Commotio is certainly a choir I’d recommend you add to your collection. Matthew Berry, their founder conductor, has a genius for programming new and often wonderfully uplifting sacred music, each of their albums having a distinctive theme or character. This CD, encompassing two masterpieces, Word and At First Light, is all about beginnings and endings. For people of faith, of course, the two are often more or less inseparable. Dark and dawn are only ever a short space apart.

Whether you are starting out on an adventure in contemporary choral music, or well on your way to building a library, Francis Pott is definitely a composer worth taking the time to get to know. More suited to contemplative listening than to active participation (the music requires a high level of technical skill and is not written with an untrained laity in mind) this is abstract yet vivid music, that taps into something universally acknowledged, a sense of timeless presence and transcendence.

In this, the second of his CDs to have been released by Commotio (the first was In The Heart of Things, Naxos, 2012) and one of at least six CDs of sacred music (including the virtuoso Organ Works, played by Christian Wilson, Acis, in 2017) Pott brings a penetrating and erudite musical intelligence to bear on the great themes within the Jewish, Catholic, and secular humanist cultural traditions. Yes, it is eclectic, and yes, technically demanding. It won’t make the top of the list for those seeking ‘smooth classics for the soul’ or easy interpretations of the sacred in music. But, for those willing to put in the time, there is much food for thought in this new release, which invites the listener to full attentiveness and, in return, yields a rich and invigorating experience of – well, let’s just call it mystery.

Catherine Coldstream is a freelance writer, editor, and interviewer, currently working towards a doctorate at Goldsmiths. She studied theology at Oxford, creative nonfiction at UEA, and has a diploma in viola performance. She drinks green tea and turmeric by day, goes for solitary, music-powered walks, and has been known to write all night, which is when she is most awake.