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Talking and Writing about Music

Do we compose music so we can talk about it?  The late composer and theorist Milton Babbitt suggested this. Can music (or organised sound) stand on its own, without explanation? Should we perhaps discuss music with music? Hans Keller proposed that possibility – and tried it (see about wordless functional analysis in his book Criticism)

Such questions have been troubling composers for several centuries. I often go back to Thomas Morley and his delightful A Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music where Philomathes tells Polymathes that ‘ supper being ended and music books being brought to the table, the mistress of the house presented me with a part requesting me to sing; but when, after many excuses, I protested unfeignedly that I could not, every one began to wonder; yea, some whispered to others demanding how I was brought up, so that shame upon shame of mine ignorance I go now to seek out mine old friend Master Gnorimus, to make myself his scholar.’ And what follows is an intriguing discourse on the rudiments of music. Continue reading

Rolf Wallin Returns to Fractalising

During the month of August not only does the UK enjoy the Promenade Concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall but there’s another festival going on at the same in time – in Edinburgh. Radio broadcasts from the Edinburgh Festival tend to be recorded and broadcast during September, which is when I was able to hear a concert by the excellent Danish String Quartet. This is a quartet who were, until recently, BBC New Generation Artists,and as such were regularly broadcasting on Radio 3 during a two-year residency. I first heard them first playing Hans Abrahamsen’s first String Quartet, which has become one of their calling cards and features on their first CD (just released) with ECM.

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Steve Reich at Eighty

With Steve Reich reaching his eightieth year 2016 has seen an extended celebration of his work worldwide. There have been so many opportunities to experience the still joyful impact of his music in a live context. At the BBC Proms 2016 there was a particularly convincing performance of his rarely played Music for Large Ensemble by members of the Multi-Story Orchestra, and yes they do play in a former multi-story car park in Peckham, London.  This is the sort of venue I’m sure Reich would have felt most appropriate to a music that has its roots in a wholly different performance tradition, one that belongs in the open air, is not surrounded or constrained by the formalities (or the ‘dead’ silence) of the concert hall. This Saturday afternoon performance (Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic had the Albert Hall that evening) showed that young musicians of today take this music very much in their stride whereas back in the late 70s early 80s it seemed to need the composer’s own ensemble to realise this work convincingly.

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China in Beethoven

Holiday time often provides spaces to take on a project or two that is speculative. Away from home and the desk there can be unscheduled time to study and think.  I say I will compose during the two weeks ‘away’ during the month of August, but time is not wholly my own – unless I get up very early! This holiday I’m in the Outer Hebrides with Beethoven. In spirit of course, and to be precise, the three volume critical biography of Thayer, a few carefully chosen recordings (Alina Abramigova playing the complete violin sonatas live at the Wigmore Hall) and scores of his early compositions (thank you IMSLP) up to and including the piano sonata op.53 in C ‘The Waldstein’.

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Making Time and Rhythm Move

At one time or another most of us have used this technique, and perhaps without knowing what the technique was called. In the simplest form it is when a musical metre, such as 3 / 4 needs to become 6 / 8, and we want the shared and underlying 1 / 8 to be continuous and of the same value. If we’re cautious we put 1 / 8 = 1 / 8 (or the rhythmic symbols are better) between the two bars where the metre change occurs. However, we could put 1 / 4 = 1 / 4. (a quarter = a dotted quarter), and we get something quite different! Fundamentally, both examples produce a metrical modulation (MM), a technique the contemporary composer tends to associate with the practice of Elliott Carter.

I’m focusing on this technique or device because I use metrical modulation in my scores from time to time. In completing my first Chicago Quartet last week I’ve used MM, subjecting the first 16 bars of the rhythmic and metric structure of a Telemann menuet to a rather wild distortion.. Distortion of parametric elements is one of the threads running through this six-movement work I have been sharing in these pages – as it was composed. In movement 5, a sarabande marked triste, it was the harmonic parameter that came under scrutiny, and before that, in a gavotte marked vite, it was metre distortion, and so on. Continue reading

Michel Van der Aa is ‘not a composer of just notes’

Musical listening is dominated during August by the BBC Promenade Concerts, this daily festival of concerts from late July to early September in London’s Royal Albert Hall. The festival expands every year with late-night and afternoon events, midday chamber concerts, lectures, jazz and poetry. I’m in London this week to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Oliver Knussen play Brahms (the 2nd Piano Concerto with Peter Serkin) and the first UK performance of The Night Wanderer by Reinbert de Leeuw, the subject of last month’s blog.

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Reinbert de Leeuw and The Night Wanderer

This week I was able to spend a whole hour in London’s National Gallery. Visits to London rarely allow for such pleasures, and though the gallery was busy with visitors so big is the collection it was possible to stand before a painting and spend time looking properly rather than glancing and having to move on. I had been reading a historical study of the 17C poet George Herbert so I thought I would concentrate on the painting of that century.  What was soon obvious is that the collection of that century is so rich in the painting of artists from the Low Countries, particularly Holland. There is Rembrandt of course, and a room that contains some of his most celebrated and yet very different portraits. There are those interior domestic scenes, and many connect with music like Vermeer’s women standing at a keyboard instrument, or taking part in informal music making. There are copious landscapes of town and country, and seascapes rich in wild, wide skies. But I did discover something new to my experience: Dutch paintings of architectural fantasy, imagined collection of buildings often peopled by figures painted by a different artist. The painting I stood and studied was this, by Jan van der Heyden.

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The Heterophonic World of Julian Anderson

In this year’s Hesse Lecture at the Aldeburgh Festival composer, teacher and programmer (curator of concert and broadcast programmes) Julian Anderson gave his personal take on contemporary music, its audiences and those who work professionally in the field. It was a brave and rather surprising address, liberally illustrated with music and sound examples. In fact there were a surprising number of examples of electronic music from a composer who doesn’t compose such music, but is, like me, devoted to creating new music for human performance and using computer-assisted means. His area here is spectral analysis from which he often derives the material he makes use of in what is now an impressive series of orchestral music. He does however compose imaginatively in vocal and chamber music, and his small-scale works, as this essay may illustrate, are often ways in to his more spacious and lengthy works.

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Back to the Future

At the close of a radio interview in 2014, to celebrate his 80th birthday, composer Harrison Birtwistle said about his future plans that he simply wanted to write ‘the next piece well’. Since 2014 he’s written several ‘next pieces’, and some remarkably well! His piano concerto Responses: Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless for Pierre-Laurent Aimard is a particularly fine achievement, and when we hear him describe the ‘questions’ of the piece, as he does in this short video, it’s not difficult to understand how composing new work, even at 80, can still be a business of seeking problems that define the conditions surrounding a new work, and then working to find solutions. He says in the video: ‘of the main questions of the piece, and the one that gave me the most trouble, is the relation between the piano as solo and the orchestra as tutti. In the music of the 19C the piano usually plays something and the orchestra repeats it, or the other way around. In this case it’s a dialogue in which questions are asked. Then, there is the question of the orchestra, the tutti, the crowd, a big body in which there are many soloists – so the dialogue between soloists and orchestra becomes a very complex conversation.’

Those who have read the introduction by John Cook to my book Parametric Composition may have been a little bemused that the author is a Professor of Information Science and Knowledge Management. What does such a person know about composing music? What’s he doing introducing such a book? True, John Cook happens to be enthusiastic jazz bassist, but his PhD thesis focused on music composition as an example of a very particular area for knowledge acquisition in the field of guided tutoring, in looking at how machines (computers of course) can support ways of helping fledgling composers (in his case-study undergraduate composers) to become ‘reflective about intention’. This study proposes that in any creative activity we should be able to think about what we do before the ‘doing’ of composing music. Music is rarely ‘radio in the head’. To enable such ‘reflection’ a human teacher would set up a dialogue with a student to ‘pose the appropriate questions’ that are necessary before any answers or solutions can be arrived at. To do this by machine (to undertake computer-guided tutoring) requires a very special approach and understanding of those possible questions, and one that has to make use of aspects of artificial intelligence.

I fully expect that composers who read this will know about that curious period of time between the completion of a piece of music and ‘starting the next piece’. For me it can be wonderfully liberating – after months of carefully bringing a new piece from idea to finished score and that first rehearsal. Even with another commission to go on to, there lies the hope and possibility that this ‘next piece’ could be even better than the last.  It can be a kind of clean slate; I know I’m rarely completely satisfied by the latest piece I’ve managed to finish.  This is what keeps me in good company with Harrison Birtwistle!

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Touching Music

Once you’ve heard him, listening to Bach (and not only to Bach) can never be quite the same. He often sings as he plays; there’s this humming in the background, and yet it seems so entirely right. After all, it is the sort of thing that happens when you really know and love a piece of music. And he did: know and love the music he played – except Mozart, which he says he played under sufferance. You hear music in your head, you internalize it, and the sound of it just has to come out. Like a momentous public event (the moon landing perhaps) you probably remember exactly where you and when you first heard that touch, that magical presence coming across from a recording, probably on a vinyl disk, as it was for me. I was in a room of a Cambridge college, it was a late afternoon in November just prior to having dinner with a colleague, and she put this record on and said ‘I’ve just heard this, and I can’t stop listening to it’ . . . and I was absolutely transfixed . . . it was the Bach Toccata in G major BWV 916. You must have guessed by now – surely.

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