Category Archives: Uncategorized

The String Quartets of Liz Johnson

We can be so surrounded by a sea of music. Never has so much music been within the grasp of ear and eye. We can so easily miss new stars rising in the firmament of music composition. But for me, unexpectedly, out of the ether (of BBC Radio 3) dropped a 4-minute jewel of a string quartet, and with a title that was hard to forget, Tide Purl by Liz Johnson. It was played by the Fitzwilliam Quartet as a trailer for a concert to launch 2-CD retrospective including all this composer’s work for the string quartet medium.

Part of the MS Sketch of Sky Burial for voice and string quartet

Part of the MS Sketch of Sky Burial for voice and string quartet

I was a thoroughly captive audience at the time, quite seriously ill in hospital, and this tiny piece broke through the miasma of mental lethargy and physical discomfort. I was immediately hooked, and as soon as I could, traced the new CD set on Spotify and began to acquaint myself with what I now think (after several ‘listenings’) is a significant body of English music for string quartet. This essay will discuss Liz Johnson’s four string quartets, in particular a most ambitious and striking work for soprano and quartet.

Looking through the excellent booklet of liner notes of the CD production my eye was immediately taken by the title of Johnson’s Quartet No.4, Sky-Burial. This is the title of a narrative poem by Kathleen Jamie, a poet I have followed as much for her beguiling and beautiful prose as her award-winning collections of poetry. Jamie represents a significant voice in and beyond what has come to be called ‘the new nature writing’. In her books of essays, Findings and Sightlines, she has engaged with the natural world of her native Scotland in a powerful and very individual way.

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Music and Painting

Looking briefly at recent writing on music and composers there seems to be a preoccupation with what a piece of music is about, rather than what a piece of music is.  This isn’t helped by the titles composers give; they lead you in a direction, they are often meant to lead you in a direction, towards a right state for listening. After all, so few of us now begin our experience of new music from studying or playing a score. We come to rely on the programme note, the spoken introduction or interview.

Attempting to write about music and composers begs questions and seeks answers. As a listener it isn’t so much an analysis one is after, more often a way into the mystery that is the experience of something newly heard. There is much music today that because of its surface, organisation of sound, and musical grammar reveals itself immediately to the listener who is musically literate. I read books of a certain type because I possess a history and knowledge of literature, and I enjoy the frisson of something new, something I have not seen before on the page. Looking at a painting is just the same; that joy of a first encounter, that taking in of what one thinks is the whole effect, even essence, but, of course, is not. But we may not feel we understand the words on the page, the image on the wall, even with our past experience of previous reading and looking. Perhaps we seek meaning, and meaning does not always reveal itself immediately, even after repeated attention.

Harmony of the Northern Flora - Paul Klee (1927)

Harmony of the Northern Flora – Paul Klee (1927)

For many years I have struggled to find meaning within the music of Harrison Birtwistle. He is a composer who fascinates, a composer whose prestigious and varied output of scores I find extraordinary and challenging by turn. I have written about his work previously on these pages – on his early composition Refrains and Choruses and its connection with the artist Paul Klee. I have sought to understand something of his music through acquiring scores and recordings, and studied the several available monographs on his music and musical ideas. I listen to his work and I do achieve moments of illumination, entering a world of music that carries a sense of wonder and mystery. That said, much of what he composes still seems to hold me at arm’s length.

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The Recent Music of Michael Hersch

Writing serious critique on music in our time does not always enjoy the same opportunities afforded to those writing on the visual arts. True, there are programme and liner notes that can go someway to match those gallery exhibition catalogues, but they are rarely able to cover the critical and interpretative ground expected by those attending major exhibitions. Look at Sarah Churchwell’s extended and illustrated essay The Reality of American Gothic for a current example, or, topical and valuable to my own current project (see the end of Blog #63), Adrian Searle’s keenly critical newspaper article on David Hockney.

The opening of a movement from 'End Stages'

The opening of a movement from ‘End Stages’

In the USA there has been a slew of journalistic writing about the phenomenon that is Michael Hersch, composer and pianist, just as there has been similar writing in the UK on his exact contemporary, Thomas Adès. The exceptions, with Adès, has been an excellent and yet accessible journal article on his music by Christopher Fox – Tempestous Times: The Recent Music of Thomas Adès. and a book of Conversations with Tom Service. I’m hoping to go into the music of Hersch by standing on the shoulders of two established critics, Andrew Farach-Colton  [The Vanishing Pavilions (Vanguard Classics/Musical Concepts)] and Andrew Druckenbrod [Hersch/Josquin/Rihm/Feldman (Vanguard Classics)], who have contributed fine liner notes to Hersch’s early CD recordings. Both these writers have written effective guides to listening, and listening to demanding and unusual music. What I hope to do is a) examine something of the relationship of Hersch’s music to both the written word and the visual image, so important a trigger or base layer for much of Hersch’s output, and b) start to look at the musical mechanisms that result.

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Do Composers Read?

Perhaps we take for granted that composers read, and spend time with books (as well as scores). People do. It is part of belonging to a culture, though the physical book may appear to be in decline as the on line presence of the word takes precedence (though sales figures for 2016 show digital sales at £554m against print books at a healthy 2.76bn). There is no need to surround ourselves with texts laid out on shelves – so that as the eye quickly scans the tale told of how we view the world. Our choice of reading can become known (to on-line companies such as Amazon who collect our search data) or via our blogs and Facebook pages. Want to know what Brian Eno is reading (and has read)? Very easy.  Just look here.  So much of our nature, knowledge and imagination comes out from what we read; a list or a sight of books that belong to us, can say so much. Biographies are often measured in books read, books absorbed, books returned to, books loved and remembered.

The poet Kathleen Raine, upon launching her research into the visionary art of William Blake, set out to read all that Blake read – and what an astonishing list that seems to have been! As I began studying the life and work of Beethoven, with particular reference to the reverence Beethoven has engendered from the Chinese, I sought to discover what that composer might have known, and that means might have read, about that very distant mystery that was China in the early years of the 19C (Further background on my reasons for doing this can be found here). And to do this I was to find that Beethoven’s library was currently being reconstructed. Here is a statement of intent from the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn:

Biographical and composition-related studies have always raised questions concerning Beethoven’s mind and the mindset of his environment. What influences was he exposed to? How did he educate himself? What principles and rules of thumb did he follow? In order to study Beethoven’s intellectual interests, all books and sheet music the composer read, studied, copied, extracted, put to music, owned, borrowed and lent, gave away or planned to buy need to be identified. The result would be a long list. However, even Beethoven’s core belongings, his own book and music sheet collection, are only known in parts. In a joint effort, his library is now to be reconstructed. Librarians and scholars contribute their knowledge and antiquarians and private collectors sell their books granting special conditions. Friends of the Beethoven-Haus can contribute, too, by adopting books.

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 11.31.15Looking through the already assembled list of publications we see a composer who read widely, not just the latest treatise on music, but on the sciences, the natural sciences, travel and explorations, theology, poetry and the newly emerging medium of fiction. He even owned some cookery books! Does this matter? Did his engagement with books affect what Beethoven thought and wrote? Of course, but only a close attention to his letters, diaries and sketchbooks can begin to tell us how. As soon as one begins to look at, for example, the collections of poetry he possessed, a world opens up that we might not have imagined.

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