Monday, February 10, 2014

B is for British

I started to write a item with this title, in response to a request.  It ended up longer than it ought to have been and, in the end, was less about British music than about my inability to understand, strike that, follow much of it.  Setting aside, for a moment, the reservation I have about a common passport among composers as a meaningful musical marker,  I have reliably found the energy and invention among the [experimental*] and [complexity*] scenes in Great Britain often to be remarkable, and reliably more interesting than the more establishment mainstream.** I have also long puzzled why these two factions are so often factious, when they really ought to be complementary allies in matters of musical politics and resource allocation (but then again, who should be surprised by factiousness among musicians, passionate and materially impoverished profession that it is?), but then again, two composers I admire very much, Christopher Fox and Richard Ayres (the former also one of the better writers on new music and the latter the most astonishingly inventive orchestrator of our era, particularly his uncanny sense of orchestration as essentially a continuity rather than a simultaneity element) seem to me to be resolving any such divide in their own work quite nicely, thanks. My own natural sympathies are with the experimental scene, that described in Nyman's book (I bought a copy the year it was published), but also work that has been done since in its tradition (yes, the idea of an experimental tradition is something of a non-sequitur, but it's a non-sequitur that's been musically productive for a damn long time) as well as work that didn't get caught in Nyman's net at the time, particularly that of independents like Annea Lockwood, but my admiration for many of the [complexers] is an honest one.  (As I've pointed out here before, experimentalists are also wildly interested in complexity.***)   In 1990, my summer of commuting between the Darmstadt courses and teaching English to brokers and bankers, I watched Brian Ferneyhough**** and Richard Barrett give their chalk talks; Ferneyhough's description of successive transformations of a rhythm or of couple of measures was a spooky echo of Lou Harrison describing his transformations of phrases with permutated measures, and Barrett's proportional description of his string quartet similarly recalled John Cage analyzing his String Quartet in Four Parts to me in a Houston hotel room. So while I was prepared, technically, to get into the music I found myself somewhat shut out because the actual materials used, in their acoustic character, internal relationships and external associations, were often completely opaque.  (Coming from a long deep study of alternative tunings, I was also frustrated by the haphazard — in terms of sensory consonance and dissonance — approach to microtones: merely using a highly variegated pitch vocabulary doesn't necessarily lead to a proportionate extension of pitch relationships.)  I was also troubled by the distinction made between accurate and "faithful" interpretations of the notation.  But mostly, it was a very strange, if not foreign, way of putting tones after one another and together. I couldn't follow, but I'm still trying because I'm still fascinated.

* contentious terms resting in hard brackets: [ ].
** no, I can't take the 20-minute Proms piece seriously.  And yes, Thomas Adès strikes me as a Wolfgang Rihm-ish figure, an amiable, musical guy, who is extremely fluent at a kind of approximation or simulacrum of serious modern music, but not music I can personally go into any depth with.
*** see, for example, this essay (scroll down a bit) by David Feldman on some of Tom Johnson's music.
**** Anyone else tried reading the new Lois Fitch monograph on Ferneyhough with an e-reader?  Above and beyond the surprising amount of text dropped or otherwise corrupted, it's disappointing because much of the action in the music under discussion, even when that music celebrates its own less-than-clear character comes about from a small body of techniques that could be described much more clearly.  I would think that a very useful little book could be written setting aside all of the broader cultural themes which have engaged the composer and just describing a number of F's techniques and considering their potentials, alone and in combination, in real musical contexts. And yes, please, let's get rid of this "irrational time signature" business!

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