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.
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.
In reading about the background to Birtwistle’s way of thinking and doing I have returned to Harrison Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music by Jonathan Cross. One particular aspect of Birtwistle as ‘mind’ has been the composer’s acknowledged interest in painters.
Cross lists Birtwistle’s ‘favourite’ painters – Piero della Francesca, Bruegel, Vermeer, Cézanne, Picasso, Bacon, Klee, Rothko. He then reports Birtwistle as saying of these artists : . . I think that’s there’s a formality; they all use the subject matter to express paint and painting, rather than the other way around. It’s something you wouldn’t get in Rembrandt for instance. I’ve never consciously formulated it, but I’m absolutely fascinated by it, and I’m much more interested in it than a lot of things in music.
I feel ashamed to have read that quotation many times and not properly unpicked what Birtwistle is saying – until now.
A Painter paints a picture, a still life, and the picture (the subject matter) expresses the very paint being applied and those actions of the painter required by painting (a still life). So a Composer writes a score of a string quartet, and the score (the subject matter – a string quartet) expresses the parametric elements being applied (through notation) and the very action(s) of composing music (i.e. imagining sound, structuring of those parametric elements).
Birtwistle says he is fascinated by the very paint and painting of a work by Paul Klee, not its subject matter. So in listening to a composition, by composers Birtwistle acknowledges as particularly influential, Stravinsky, Messiaen, Varese, one might say it is the sonic elements and the organisation of The Rite of Spring that fascinate him rather than the affect of the subject of the piece or its narrative.
This seems a wholly different way of perceiving musical creation; that a musical work might be considered so. And for me, it begins to reveal some of the answers to the questions my listening to Birtwistle’s music begs.
Such questioning connects with my current composition whose subject (if only because of its title) is based on a series of 51 paintings by David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate in East Yorkshire 2011 (two thousand and eleven). As I expressed in the prelude to my recent essay on Michael Hersch, visual artists enjoy a level of critique that is rarely available to those listening to new music. So the composer perhaps has to provide her/his own critique or commentary to new work. And, inspired by Birtwistle’s inversion of the usual way of thinking about subject matter and the artistic object, I’m offering some thoughts about how a large sequence of images might become music.
Composers are often asked about how the idea of piece comes about. With the Arrival of Spring walking into the gallery at Salts Mill in West Yorkshire, a gallery that could have been designed for Hockney’s work, was enough; and then triggering of the many implications and associations with its subject. The very idea that an artist should seek to capture something so ephemeral as the arrival of spring was itself a dynamic thought. Living within 50 miles of the very lane Hockney focused upon meant I could experience it at first hand, which I have done repeatedly as the seasons change.
I found the subject and its treatment had a particular innocence of intent. Certainly something an artist might think about doing, but the sheer commitment and mechanisms involved would normally be prohibitive. The international recognition of Hockney has made even his more wilder ideas possible. Although we are used to time-lapse images revealing in microcosm long periods of growth or change, the very physical ‘work’ of painting change over so many pieces, and in such detail, is still unusual. Hockney’s use of the iPad tablet and large-scale digital print surmounted many of the practical difficulties as well as creating some unique textures and detail.
To arrive at a musical approach I examined the frequency of images over the five month period. January starts with eight images; February has just three. March contains ten, but as April begins the frequency of images explodes, with fourteen in April and fourteen in May. And Hockney delivers: in capturing the incident and fecundity of change. As we reach viewing the images of May, and his ‘action week’ when spring seems to burst into life, the viewer has already encountered the locations of many of the images – and can appreciated and further enjoy the transformation. So the progression of music to image is governed by a monthly duration making for a parabola of musical action.
The musical underpinning of this work – for wind quintet – is partly a response to the nature of the medium. Harmonie was a term given to the performance of music for a wind ensemble suitable for performance in large space or outdoors. The Arrival of Spring is imagined for performance in the very extensive gallery that houses the 51 prints, part of a floor in a former textile mill. It further imagines a perambulating audience. Each image is associated with a unique 5-part chord, which supplies the equivalent of a background tone present in each digital image. This has the effect of setting the light associated with the weather or time of day the paintings capture.
The choice of a wind quintet was partly governed by the observation of a wind player of the very dearth of serious repertoire lasting more than fifteen minutes. There is also a common association with music of a lively and decorative nature that seems synonymous with the wind chamber music. Whilst The Arrival of Spring contains very lively and intensely decorative music this is set into a context of a long period of gradual growth and development. The music of January and February has a relatively slow pace and focuses on the lower end of the ensemble’s compass with alto flute, cor anglais, and bass clarinet used throughout this first part of the score.
The music is in no way representative of each image, but seeks to be more about the sounds and attributes of the wind ensemble. It is also about the very composing for this ensemble within the confines of the sequence of chords and their respective durations governed by the position of each image within a calendar month. For the listener the music may be entered anywhere; its starting point being reimagined for each image, each change of reflection and perspective suggested by the paintings. Hockney does adopt five quite distinct motifs, and paints sur le motif as his design rationale. Musically, the repetition of motifs (a tree stump, a road, a wall being the most common), is mirrored in the musical sections, but whilst the context may be similar, the detail (the growth) is different.
Each month holds to its own treatment of the harmonic backdrop. In January the chords are explicitly sounded at the beginning and end of the duration given to each image, so the music is a series of ABA structures. In February the harmonic treatment becomes much loser, and indeed richer, using some novel devices that mirror the kind of re-entrant tonality shifts found in folk music on the guitar. This is where pedal notes (open strings) are maintained throughout chordal shifts creating vividly new (unusual) harmonies whilst maintain a basic chord ‘shape’. This was a favourite device found in the music of Villa-Lobos.
It is in February the ensemble fragments into a duo and a trio before re-combining its 5-part form for the final image of February to prepare for the four images of March as a quintet. The Arrival of Spring (January and February) is now available as a downloadable performing and study score. It is one of a number of works in my catalogue created using interaction with the algorithmic software Symbolic Composer. Another wind quintet, Seven Archetypes, was composed in 2016 as an upbeat to The Arrival of Spring expressly for an ensemble of players from Opera North, Leeds.
Reviewing Harrison Birtwistle’s writing about his own relationship with painters made me return to listen to his orchestral score The Triumph of Time, one of the few scores that acknowledge a direct connection to an artwork. This dates from 1972 and firmly established Birtwistle as a serious figure in British music. It takes its title and (perhaps) its inspiration from an etching by Pieter Bruegel the elder dated 1574. It is a deeply disturbing picture made up of seemingly unconnected objects, but one that calls forth an impassioned adagio, a slow procession in two waves of movement. Birtwistle says that ‘this piece is the sum of musical objects, unrelated to each other, apart from one’s decision to juxtapose them in time and space’. There is also a vivid foreground (time passing) and disturbing background (time permanent). Birtwistle says he didn’t discover the etching until he was well advanced with the music’s composition. In a more abstract sense it does hold to his association with Paul Klee and that artist’s idea of the walking line as a metaphor for the movement of the body across time and space. The Triumph of Time is rich in long melodic lines, notably by cor anglais and amplified soprano saxophone.
Perhaps this is an image to hold in front of you as the music plays, though I feel it soon becomes redundant as one enters into the very particular play of musical sounds and forces that this music achieves. If this is music that comes from a close study of paint and the painting (whatever its subject) it has something necessary to tell the listener about the mystery of formal creation linked to the disciplines and imagination of the visual artist.