It’s been an embarrassingly long time since The Impostume suggested that my motivation for footnoting a certain frustration with Woebot’s FACT review of One Foot Ahead of the Other was paranoia over one of Woebot’s blogposts having been about me, that the contempt of classical music, notational scores and roles for musicology in music journalism he’d expressed had been something to do with my own critical approach (having transcribed and done a detailed commentary of Zomby’s Kaliko, likened it to Ligeti etc.). Well firstly, it clearly wasn’t, and secondly it hadn’t crossed my mind as I’d hoped that ‘Loving Wonky’ wasn’t seen as erroneously peering through the lens of a stuffy, classically-minded musicology at the nobly savage sounds of da kids – after all, that’s a dichotomy I think has had its day and an objection I’d anticipated. Classically-minded or not, I can understand why people consider this blog to be musicological work, but I don’t see it that way. Does a discussion of music somehow surpass criticism and start being ‘musicology’ or ‘analysis’, terms most people associate with studious academic exercises in objective interpretation, if crotchets, quavers, tonics and dominants start coming into it? I think that’d be a shame. On this blog it’s always been my intention to aestheticise, to write aesthetic propaganda, rather than to analyse, explain or interpret with an academic objectivity, but I’ll grudgingly accept that since what I argue draws on detailed musical description it resembles musicology relative to most criticism in magazines or online. Anyway, many of The Impostume’s occasionally presumptuous but appealingly cynical observations were not undeserved.
To say the least, Woebot had expressed unease with contemporary classical music and its discourse (represented in part by the influence of critic Alex Ross), and particularly the idea of any of that contaminating (popular) music journalism. A similar antipathy regularly crops up in general discussion of music both historical and contemporary. Woebot’s thoughts were prompted by music critic Paul Morley evaluating his experiences of learning composition at the Royal Academy of Music, which were edited down for How To Be a Composer (click the link to watch it on Youtube), one of two remarkably similar recent BBC documentaries (the other being the more family-friendly Classic Goldie) that saw proficient but notation-illiterate figures known for their relationship with popular music ‘faced with the challenge’ of having to ‘compose classical music’, resulting in, it’s supposed, a struggle notable enough for two hours of TV. To a certain extent, these two programmes demonstrated that even though the words ‘composer’ and ‘composition’ are actually very broad, basic and flexible terms, they do nonetheless conjure up very narrowly specific sorts of musical practice in the popular imagination – typically involving stories of long dead white male geniuses in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century getup scratching away with quills, up to their powdered wigs in the complex deliberation apparently involved in designing a masterpiece. The musical style such words evoke is just as limited – the word ‘composer’, though it could and perhaps should refer to anyone who creates music of any sort, invariably implies the restricting prefix ‘classical’ and all the cultural baggage that goes with it. Like many others, Woebot seems to agree with Morley’s defining characteristics of classical music, that it’s essentially ‘of the past’ and predicated upon the notated score. This pairing is what causes Woebot to exclaim, ‘And the whole thing about scoring music is this anachronism writ in 20 foot tall neon writing. Who the hell would attempt to do something as inane as scoring music? In the 21st Century it’s an utterly nonsensical exercise.’
Illustrative listening scores aside, it’s easy to sympathise with this reaction, what with concrete music (I use this as a broader term than ‘musique concrète’, referring to all music whose sole or primary intended mode of existence and consumption is as a completed recording) and its superior levels of sonic-textual possibility and control now being the dominant musical format of the developed world – and that’s no longer an optimistic, progressivist appeal to ‘relevancy’, it’s a statement of fact. But it’d be a shame to relegate notated music to anachronism, and not just for the sake of the re-performance of historical music or the currently receded ‘contemporary classical’ arena where Morley and Goldie’s challenges took place. Music performed from a pre-established, possibly aging text is just as much a lasting aesthetic possibility as live theatre is, for example, and though film (which could be thought of as a kind of ‘concrete theatre’) is the more powerful format, a smaller but important theatre-going audience still appreciates the unique experience of seeing plays (re-)performed. Part of the appeal of text-based formats is, or should be, in the obligatory reconstruction and reinterpretation of works posing an alternative to the degree of prescribed inflexibility in concrete forms. They allow the act of reading the text to occur at the level of performance as well as listening, so that the two activities begin to merge.
This is a rich and currently pretty esoteric area of aesthetic possibility, with few listeners appreciating music in this way. Deliberately collecting multiple recordings of the same work so as to chart their different interpretations, for example, is seen by the majority of listeners as a bit on the fussy side. It’s also disappointing that this re-interpretive performance of scores is rarely very liberal or adventurous today (as it can be in contemporary theatre), and on a broader level it’s disappointing that alternative musical text-based formats are so uncommon, their detailed possibilities as manifested in a handful twentieth-century experimental musics remaining marginal (Cornelius Cardew’s elaborate graphic score Treatise is a great example of an alternative text-based format, being a fascinating meditation on the assorted aesthetic (im)possibilities of scores, suggesting among other things a music whose final aesthetic existence lies in its visualised potentiality, its ultimate inability to become singularly realised: a tragically quiet, imaginary music – it’s pretty stunning and you can go and have a look at it in the Barbican Music Library). Such formats could offer radical new ways of consuming art and ‘musicking’ beyond the limited, unchanging contours of concrete forms. Such radical new consumptions could come to enact metaphors for new social relationships, for more interactive, participatory social activity and organisation, providing politically resonant alternatives to art-forms in which freedom is limited to the subject position of the mute reader-listener or the ontologically distinct ‘cover versions’ of other creators (more on this over the coming months, hopefully).
One must be Educated in the Proper WaysBut of course, the setback inherent in any kind of musical notation is that it has to be read, and sadly the general perception is that if you want to be involved in ‘proper’ music, you’d better learn how to obey the strict rules governing musical reading and performance. This sense of obligation is the basis of Morley and Goldie’s TV challenges and the source of much anxiety over the perceived elitism and hermeticism of classical music past and present. Along with its often unnecessary political and historical connotations, this knowledge gap has led both to an unfortunate distrust of classical music (‘we’ve been getting along just fine without your elitist, aristocratic/bourgeois crotchets and quavers, thank you very much’) and an equally unfortunate submissive, humbled deference of the uninitiated toward the assuredly glorious, please-do-not-touch Classical Tradition, with Morley and, gratifyingly to a much lesser extent, Goldie falling very much for the latter, constantly surrounded by the High Priests of the Classical Church as they were. Given the latent social and cultural divisions between the classical establishment and its guests in the programmes, it was dispiriting to see the two independently accomplished musickers apparently capitulating to what is ultimately only the aesthetic power of those classical priests (i.e. the composers, teachers, musicians and conductors).
Fear of classical music, whether it manifests as distrust or humility, is often the fear of doing things ‘improperly’ – unnecessary, you’d hope. Regrettably, Morley and Goldie accepted it when they were told that they were improperly educated in music, in fact their ‘uneducated’ state is precisely what their TV challenges were predicated upon. This scenario seemed to make them look and even act like children: note that Goldie (whose refreshingly unbuttoned demeanour shouldn’t, of course, be taken as infantilism) was described by others and later himself as a kid in a candy store. One of Morley’s teachers, Hannah Riddell, seemed to behave as if she were teaching a Dickensian street urchin about polite society when going over the notational basics with him – I’m not sure if it’s editing, but you can imagine that her mildly primary-school tone was the result of her inexperience with an adult who couldn’t read western classical notation. Elsewhere, seeing Goldie’s playful energy and the fondness of both composers-in-training for greeting and celebrating with great big hugs (again, not infantile traits) catching the classical types off guard was amusingly instructive. Good for them for retaining and acting out that aspect of their personalities in a situation that could have dampened it.
However, in an especially crushing scene towards the end of Classic Goldie’s first episode, Goldie was practically forced by conductor Ivor Setterfield (his chaperone, who seemed to muscle in at every step of the creative process) to harmonise his melody, a task that was clearly very frustrating for Goldie and, one could argue, quite unnecessary. Why should harmonisation be an unquestionable compositional must for an orchestral main melody? Though the matter wasn’t ultimately resolved onscreen, Goldie did seem to give in, but we can be grateful that he didn’t finish out the show brainwashed, his spirits broken and a glazed look in his eyes, answering Setterfield’s sinister questions on the Rules of Harmony with exactly what the Party member had demanded to hear, while the orchestra rehearsed for Classic Goldie’s soulless Bach chorale pastiche in the background. I for one would have been right behind the drum and bass producer if he’d reacted with ‘who are you to say this has to be harmonised? D’you know who I am?’. Instead, he got agitated and threatened to ‘kick the piano in’. Actually an enraged Goldie violently and noisily destroying a concert grand out of frustration on stage at the Proms could have been a far more radical and meaningful gesture than the attractive and deserving but fairly predictable Mahler-Holst-Gorecki puppet tone-poem that was eventually performed (if unduly critical and defeatist perhaps, putting the nippers off ever approaching classical music were it seen as a gesture of finality).
Unfortunately though, if there’s another defining characteristic of classical music other than its historicity and its use of a score, it’s that classical music is a studiously harmonised music. The Story of Classical Music usually begins with the earliest forms of sacred polyphony, associated with the Notre Dame school once upon a time in the twelfth century, and continues through the various subsequent codifications of harmonic theory and practice by the likes of Zarlino (le Istitutioni Harmoniche, 1558), Rameau (Treatise on Harmony, 1722) and Schoenberg (Harmonielehre, 1910). Without having to observe the most basic conventions of textural harmonisation central to classical music, Classic Goldie would have been ‘Orchestral Goldie’, and How To Be a Composer would have been ‘How To Get Groups of Twentieth-Century Western Instruments to Produce Ordered Sound’. Neither of these would have given the documentary-makers or their mainstream audience the black-cop-meets-white-cop, culture-clashing, we-all-learned-something-today journey of discovery they were probably hoping for.
This TV-friendly culture clash fed off a popularly imagined construction in which a certain set of particular instruments, design conventions and rituals are bundled together into a socially and aesthetically delineated and constrained ‘classical music’, such that fresh, new avenues of musical exploration making use of the multifarious resources contained therein are foreclosed, unimagined. We can see this bundling-together at work in the interview with Goldie about the whole affair conducted by Morley: Goldie himself claims that orchestral composition is ‘by default’ classical composition (again, why should it be?), which is one more example of the many normative aesthetic conventions imposed implicitly on this sort of music today that deserve to be illuminated and have their dominance challenged because of the role they play in closing off areas of the aesthetic imagination for both composers and listeners (and of course this is a debate separate from the simpler issue of whether classical music past or present ‘is good’ or ‘is bad’). In fact, contemporary classical music seems more aesthetically specified today compared with the history of classical music taken as a whole, despite the overtures of compositional emancipation made by twentieth-century musical theorists now having supposedly reached a point of naturalisation.
Fixed CanonI was sorry to see the postulant Morley lapping up the religious mythology that often surrounds the Holy, Mystical and Profound Secrets of Classical Music in its most intense, innovation-strangling forms, even though he seemed to acknowledge such an atmosphere. Perhaps this is the combination of his veneration of canonical pop heroes with the apparent (and widespread) belief that classical music is a nobler, more sophisticated art than pop music: we see him describing classical music’s shadowy, ancient hermeticism, calling it ‘proper’ and ‘serious’. It’s almost as if Morley has become a monk – having entered the monastery and been purged of his natural sinfully unclean and ignorant state he wanders the cloisters with his head bowed, genuflecting before icons of the musical saints, wishing he were a fraction as wonderful as they were (icons are tendentiously limited symbolic representations, remember, not real people). Though it’s an interesting and touching article, his hymn of praise to canonical Genius Composers for the Observer demonstrates a classical music completely drenched in Romantic aesthetics. The music that comes out of Morley’s faithful worship might be inspired and accomplished – and fair play to that, his string quartet is a fantastic achievement and will hopefully turn people on to classical music – but he’ll find it difficult to produce anything particularly groundbreaking until he can balance such canonical figures within a broader and more flexible musical-aesthetic perspective, and that goes for any novice musicker, really. It’s the continuing persistence of a particularly canon-entrenched aesthetics of Classical Music that catalysed that tradition’s becoming eclipsed as the West’s leading musical form by more popular (as in both origin and destination) alternatives in the twentieth century.
As it happens though, this inspiring but ultimately limited way of looking at classical music actually didn’t seem entirely reflected by composers, teachers, musicians and conductors surrounding Morley and Goldie (not the open-minded, John Williams-loving Christopher Austin, not the down-to-earth Anna Meredith), but a headlock of this reverent romanticism, an austere and hackneyed ‘modernism’ (hm) and its only visible alternative, cheesy postmodernism, is definitely a major feature of what I hesitate to have to call ‘contemporary classical’ music (i.e. orchestral music distinct from the re-performance of historical classics), a term which you’d hope would be paradoxical.
Dressing music upNot that clothing is necessarily an outward manifestation of inner attitudes (or anything to berate someone about, at the end of the day), but I do feel drawn to the idea that the way contemporary classical composers present themselves or are presented visually tells us a lot about what people think classical music is, as if something outside of the supposedly absolute, pure, abstract, non-visual Music they seem to believe in is anarchically, ironically leaking in to the experience, demanding to be heard. Despite the fact that awkward press photographs of contemporary classical composers (in which they’re invariably alone) can always be found, their appearance almost always seems to speak of a deeply serious person and his deeply serious music, a person with little care for the frivolities of outward appearance – the idea, being, you see, that we note in their dishevelled or minimalist appearance their unswerving dedication to profound abstraction, in the mould of the Great Beethoven’s darkly expressive, not-of-this-world disrepair. The undergraduates and the general public are supposed to whisper at the back of the hall, ‘I can see why he looks like that, what with his brilliant mind constantly striving towards Higher Things and maths and that’.
I’m being cynical and presumptuous, but the rules for a contemporary classical composer’s clothing do seem oddly specific: a little too smart, almost certainly largely black in colour, either shabby or a subtle, minimalist chic (more usually a mix of the two) but none of this in an everyday way – the suits, roll-necks and weird collars could almost come from a specialist shop with a clothing line intended for the contemporary classical composer. In photographs they very rarely smile or when they do it’s not particularly warm, their hands frequently grasp their cheeks or chins in contemplation (I really dislike the term, but in many cases they’re literally ‘chin-stroking’) and the time-honoured cliché of symbolising the occupation and dedication of the great composer by picturing him (cos it’s still a lot more likely to be a him isn’t it) next to a score or a classical instrument is alive and shockingly well. Like the composers they must obey the typical contemporary classical music ensemble also performs in black or smart minimalism – like kabuki stage hands, we’re not supposed to see the workers, everything magically happens. Such images tell us a lot about the sort of tiredly purist, exclusive, austere (ascetic – monks again) aesthetic and socio-cultural goals contemporary classical music is supposed to have: the pictures scream out to us ‘this is what a composer is, this is what composing is’. Thankfully the number of exceptions seems to be on the increase, but Morley seemed to conform to these stereotypes with a hilarious precision (see photo at the top). He wore black almost exclusively, was often seen in a huge, shapeless duffel coat of the exact sort Harrison Birtwistle used to wear (its large hood making him seem even more like a monk), and facially, with his short hair and greying, all-over stubble he was the spitting image of Mark-Anthony Turnage as he appeared in Classic Goldie. Oh for a classical composer wearing jeans, a T-shirt, sportswear, colourful glad rags, an orchestra performing in non-uniform: music as inclusive, down to earth, multifarious, even fashionable… but ultimately, accessible.
Speaking through the scoreI’ve already touched on one area in which musical possibility is foreclosed – the uses and meanings of the score. One of Morley’s younger colleagues at the Academy discussed this as the ‘fetishisation’ of the score in classical music. Both Morley and Goldie seemed on the whole to proceed with the assumption that the score was a direct, transparent window onto the music that was intended to arise out of it, as if it were like a CD to be inserted into a machine rather than the starting point of a process of inevitable change and difference mediated by performers and their interpretations (Morley speaks of scores ‘transmitting’ meaning), and this is an assumption that does persist in contemporary classical music. It often seems as if composers are trying to write concrete music in a non-concrete medium, not only failing to achieve that task but missing out on the many possibilities of non-concrete music. This is typical of an atmosphere in which the performance of classical music is generally ruled by The Composer’s Intention, whether s/he’s alive or dead. Especially if s/he’s alive and on the same continent, though, all agency is turned over to her/him if possible, a constant dialogue is maintained and the absurd reifications of ‘what s/he was trying to do or say’, or the ‘sounds in her/his head’ have to be fully ‘realised’, especially concerning a premiere, and this was an assumption that Goldie very clearly took on. Undergraduate composers are constantly nagged to saturate their scores with the dynamics and slurring ‘that they intend’, to leave no room for ambiguity or the musician-machine’s disastrous programme-error doubt in what seems like an orgy of positivistic notation-worship. Even historical classical music wasn’t always like this. Besides, a single composer imposing concrete-music-style totalitarian control over a submissive musical workforce seems a bit like a grossly unequal society, don’t you think?
One way out of the constraints imposed on performers is the use of improvisatory techniques, but in so many cases this too is an act ruled over by the composer, something that is permitted rather than a performer’s natural right. Living contemporary classical composers are constantly required to explain and, preferably, lecture about their ‘intentions’, and many of them accept this ritual eagerly. One evening I was listening to the unsmiling, hush-please self-contemplations of one composer (I forget his name, but he was dressed completely in black) whose style was characterised by controlled improvisatory techniques and whose regularly invoked patron saint was Derek Bailey. Outside of the lecture hall, some younger students had gathered who were laughing and joking around quite audibly but not very intrusively. After a while the Master of Sounds stopped, and, eyes downcast, addressed the subservient convener of the event, artfully intoning, ‘can you make them stop that… it’s really… quite… annoying.’ I’m not saying someone having their say ought to suffer all disturbances, but it was a fitting metaphor for the irony of much contemporary music – the adventurer in spontaneous sonics proved remarkably unsympathetic to sounds that were beyond his general control.
John Cage, a leading figure in non-jazz improvisation, chance procedures and compositional philosophy, said ‘everything we do is music’, and his career represented that. Also liberating would be the related notion that anything we do is music, but many contemporary classical composers don’t yet seem ready to embrace such an emancipation – for them music, and by that they specifically mean Composition, remains an activity constrained by a number of naturalised aesthetic assumptions.
The Rational Science of Abstract MusicIn the Middle Ages, music based in academies and universities was considered a science, but as time wore on, music as a whole was seen far more as a humanist art. Today’s contemporary classical music, a large proportion of which is based in and reliant on academies, often seems to turn back to the medieval view of music as a science. This is might be because academic surroundings imply that study should be rational, complex, objective, a scientific endeavour distinct from everyday thought and existence – rather than messily human, the sort of thing that you’d find on the other end of a anthropo-musicological study. You’ll notice that some of Morley’s comments have this flavour, indeed, like his new mentor Peter Maxwell Davies he was drawn to the math-like procedures of medieval isorhythm, and Goldie notes the famous phrase ‘music is math’. The idea of composition as high science does result in interesting music, for sure, but it’s usually a heavily controlled music that requiring detailed explanation far beyond the scope of the average listening guide, often necessitating an instructive lecture with annotated examples and a full copy of the score to listen with (so if you don’t have at least an A level in music, forget about it).
When I first listened to Peter Maxwell Davies’s series of Naxos Quartets I didn’t notice that passages in one of the quartets were constructed using to mathematical magic squares, but then again I wasn’t constructed by IBM and I couldn’t touch Garry Kasparov at chess. After reading the liner notes and reading with interest about the magic squares and how they worked I listened again, and didn’t quite hear it. At that point I could have gotten hold of the score (very difficult and costly, probably), and attempted to analyse those complex compositional computations myself in order to appreciate them (most probably I would have failed despite my above average musical education), or I could have written to a musical analyst or the composer himself. Needless to say, I left these celebrated magic squares be, a little disappointed that they didn’t offer a less remote aesthetic experience, even if the sounds the quartets made as a whole were, relatively superficially, appealing enough to my ears.
I’m not going to suggest that music appreciated in these most complex, scientific sorts of ways is ‘wrong’ and deserves extinction, of course it doesn’t (though the issue of its funding could become part of a debate) – if you like that sort of thing and you’ve got the mind and patience for it or you enjoy composing it, good luck to you. But of course music can be so many, many things other than math, ‘rationality’, formalism and the arguably impossible dream of pure abstraction. I’ve seen undergraduate composers assume this prevalent poetics of composition unknowingly and unquestioningly, only to find their passion for music in a cul-de-sac. I’ve seen parties of schoolchildren at concerts, probably brought there by a teacher eager to feed them a bit of a different (hopefully it wasn’t ‘high’) culture, fidgeting and sulking through performances of this sort of music, even though the composer had treated them to a highly technical twenty-minute lecture on the structural procedures involved (what more could you ask for?).
Another widespread notion that results from the musical-composition-as-high-science paradigm has it that composition is problem-solving, again something that Morley and Goldie seem to go along with. That’s a weird one if you think about it – surely there are a dizzying number of criteria by which musical ‘problems’ can be invented and solved? And who says problems need to be solved? Some of my favourite music can be seen as creating irresolvable problems. Problem music is fascinating. Morley talks of having to solve the ‘conundrum’ of a small ensemble featuring a tuba and a harp – couldn’t the disjunction between the two instruments be just as interesting as one particular solution? And why put such an obscure problem on the table in the first place?
That classical soundThis brings me to another largely unchallenged status quo in contemporary classical music: its instruments and timbres. In an age in which practically any sound can be generated through electronic synthesis, it seems absurd to me that contemporary classical composers habitually remain with the classical orchestra, regularly achieving their ostensible goal of finding interesting new ways of doing things by manipulating those same old instruments in different ways. The innovation quota (a now-meaningless vestige of modernism which corresponds to the marking criteria of composition portfolios in many degrees) is apparently fulfilled by writing for unusual combinations of instruments and getting musicians to bang on the lids of pianos, knock on the sides of violins, turn bows upside down, hold down unconventional but mildly fortuitous combinations of keys, blow soundlessly and so on, and we saw Setterfield showing this sort of thing to Goldie. Now of course, any sound is valid in music, and in the pre-electronic world of Henry Cowell and John Cage, the playing of instruments in new and unintended ways was a sonic and symbolic revolution. Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Piano call for various objects to be inserted into the piano strings to alter the instrument’s timbre, and in this instance the piano was elegantly and very carefully re-engineered. But now that a whole universe of sound is at composers’ feet, why turn, if the goals are to be modernist, to the sounds that instruments simply happen to make when manipulated in ways and combinations that were unintended when their design was finalised a century ago? Imagine how amazing intended sounds could be if such composers were inclined to work at finding and using them with the same loyalty, patience and dedication they show to wood, brass and vibrating wire. Like its canon and the attitude towards its score, the traditional instruments of classical music have become a fetishised permanence, a fossilised faith, and a limitation.
Admittedly it’s not as easy to invent new sounds as it is to write for existing instruments, but it’s nevertheless a shame that the invention of new instruments has slowed and stopped (though Messiaen put them in the orchestra, the theremin and ondes martenot never got a foothold). Perhaps this is down to a belief that the orchestra cannot be improved, but it’s also likely to have a lot to do the professional specialisation of musicians today. It would be a problem for professional musicians who played a single instrument (not to mention costly and demanding for composers) if new musical compositions came complete with entirely new instruments, but only if you believe that the only acceptable musical performances come from musicians who have dedicated their lives to perfecting the performance of a single instrument. Would it be so heretical for musicians to perform new music on a new instrument they’d only been using for a few months (which does happen occasionally)? In previous centuries it was thought that the more instruments you could play, the better you were at music in general. In fact because modern-day percussionists already play a range of instruments, that area of the traditional orchestra has actually seen a certain amount of new equipment. Composer Harry Partch invented an entirely new ensemble that offered not just new timbres but a new division of the octave, taught musicians to play the instruments, and did all that before technology could have given him a major shortcut. Relative to that ear-opening achievement and the even greater prospects on offer today, where’s the inventive musical richness in patting a cello on its backside?
‘Orchestral music’However, if we’re to retain the orchestra as a musical tool, it’s because of the generally compulsory association of that certain group of instruments with the social and aesthetic parameters I’ve described above that I feel we should replace the loaded term ‘contemporary classical music’ with the broader ‘orchestral music’ (in the same way that you sometimes hear the term ‘guitar music’ instead of the more limited and culturally loaded ‘rock’), which would describe not only music involving an entire orchestra but also any music written to be performed on instruments associated with the twentieth-century Western orchestra. Such a re-branding would allow contemporary music-makers to use the twentieth-century Western orchestra (a highly-developed musical tool that may deserve to be stepping aside but doesn’t deserve the dustbin of history) without feeling yoked together with the prescriptive canons, conventions and expectations of the Western Classical Music Tradition. Of course there would be a tradition of orchestral music that included classical music as a sub-category alongside other sub-categories like film music, jazz and some instrumental folk musics for composers to draw inspiration from, but ‘classical music’ and its parameters would amount to a specific meta-style of music associated with a certain tradition that needn’t necessarily be privileged when it comes to the production of new music. There are already many examples of ‘orchestral music’ that could not easily be called ‘classical’ music (or even ‘jazz’ or ‘film music’ either), and there are more examples every year. The music of bands like Rachel’s, for instance, uses orchestral instruments without also taking on any strictly classical stylistic conventions along with them. Classical Music, ‘Orchestral Music’ and sometimes even notated music too are often thought of as being more or less the same thing, but classical music and its constituent genres can be thought of as just smaller categories contained within much broader and mostly unexplored categories of musical possibility.
What is a composer? I hope it’s becoming clear that according to its most prevalent definition, a ‘composer’ – and remember that invariably implies a ‘classical’ composer – is limited by the creative and aesthetic constraints imposed on classical music. Why should they be? Nowadays there are many terms for the people who make music either by themselves or as the figurehead of a collective enterprise: composer, artist, producer, singer-songwriter, sound artist, music-maker, recording artist, front man, instrumentalist, and so on. There seems to be an assumption that these are all distinct occupations, and they needn’t be – they’re all composers of sonic events, they can all be thought of as composers. Allowing the word ‘composer’ to mean something broader and more inclusive than its classicalised definition would even out the cultural playing field, bringing the canonical composers of the past down from their dusty pedestals and out of their tiny icons (so we can get a better look at them) and bring musical artists who are considered culturally second-class to enjoy a chance at the levels of respect and prestige previously reserved only for their ancient counterparts. ‘Composer’ should be the name given to anyone heading up a musical project, and in this all composers are equal, all subject to an aesthetic, social and cultural playing field that ought to be as large as the human imagination will allow.
Classical composers, general composers and composers in betweenWhatever name they’re called by, many different sorts of composers work in and around this meta-style everyone calls ‘classical’. In Morley’s opinion, it seems, and in that of many others, the king of British contemporary classical music (and possibly all contemporary classical music) is Peter Maxwell Davies. Known as ‘Max’ to the courtiers, Maxwell Davies is the Master of the Queen’s Music and represents an aging generation of post-war British composers that succeeded Britten, Walton and Tippett. Much of Maxwell Davies’s music is highly worthwhile – in the sixties, along with Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr, he brought fire and imagination to a classical music scene that had been running on sentimental nationalism and comparatively conservative harmonic idioms for a number of decades. Like the generation they succeeded, however, the aesthetic outlook of Maxwell Davies’s generation can now also seem limited and conservative, and Morley’s interview with the Master Composer inadvertently brought this into the glaring light.
When asked about his opinions of pop music, Maxwell Davies makes the typical hollow concession to musical relativism by noting the abilities of pop musicians ‘from Gershwin, to John Lennon, to McCartney’. Wow, all that way? I’ve seen composition teachers use Lennon and McCartney in this way, always presented as little other than skilled scientists of musical structure – not cultural iconoclasts, not stylistic pioneers, not figureheads of a youth movement and certainly not pop stars. And it’s never The Beatles, either, but Lennon and McCartney: canonical, surname-basis composing individuals. The other thing of course is that if you’ve heard of pop music you’ve heard of The Beatles. They’re by far the most visible pop band in history and it would have been astonishing to live through the sixties in the developed world and not have heard of them. Composers of Maxwell Davies’s type rarely mention slightly more recent or less well-known pop acts, not even Bowie or Eno let alone your Scritti Polittis, your Aphex Twins, your Burials or anything from black non-jazz pop traditions.
The saddest aspect of Maxwell Davies’s attitude to popular music is one that is typical of veteran musickers of his generation – that contemporary pop music is distastefully loud. Firstly, Maxwell Davies believes that he should listen to pop music at its supposed original ‘loud’ volume (like many of his generation he sees live performance as the only true musical format) so as to appreciate it As The Composer Intended, except he doesn’t because he fears for his delicate, finely-tuned composer’s ears. Secondly, what he refers to as the loudness of the music, to the extent that it even actually applies, is a surface characteristic so basic and superficial as to be practically absent to fans – Maxwell Davies’s complaint is in the same bigoted mode in which many people resist music they say ‘sounds classical’, ‘sounds weird’, ‘sounds council estate’ (as someone actually told me once) or ‘sounds ethnic’ because of basic surface features. Maxwell Davies then sneers at ‘all the hype’ that surrounds some of these newfangled pop stars. He himself owes an awful lot to hype, both back in the day and in his music currently being fed to students as part of their education. And again, this sneer at hype reveals the assumption that music should be abstract, pure, ‘only about the sounds’ rather than what it is: something that is appreciated in a human socio-cultural context, anchored in real life. To a greater or lesser extent the hype, the image, the mythology, the context, the extra-musical socio-cultural meaning, whatever it is – the human ritual – is always a part of the overall aesthetic package of musicking. There is no music without it, only sounds.
So these, I’m sorry to say, are the attitudes of the Master of the Queen’s Music. Not the Master of the Queen’s Classical Music, not the Master of the Queen’s Orchestral Music, not the Master of the Queen’s (horrible words) Serious or Art Music (whatever that would mean, note too that the epithet ‘Queen’s’ is going to narrow the field considerably) – again we encounter the assumption that music, and here the most valuable, nationally sanctioned music, is always already classical music. It makes you wonder whether a load of ravers should crash a concert at Windsor Castle. Well, relative to the diverse aesthetic achievements and possibilities of music as a whole, Maxwell Davies’s patch is very, very tiny.
Happily, a much younger generation of composers is beginning to inch away from the stagnant aesthetic prescriptions that dominate the upper echelons of contemporary classical music. Among them is Anna Meredith, the stereotype-smashing orchestral composer who appeared on camera helping Goldie with his composition. I first heard her work at a South Bank concert a few years ago that ended with her flak, a gripping torrent of sound incorporating electric guitars and an array of tom-toms performed amid strings of orange flashing fairy lights. Meredith’s sound isn’t always startlingly new, it often recalls the pointillist-minimalist textures of seventies/eighties John Adams and the violent, irregular modernity of some inter-war European classical music, but there’s a lot more of her career to come. Overall, Meredith’s work offers an earthier, more visceral experience of the senses rather than a specialist science of composition, and that’s a very timely breath of fresh air. One listener tellingly ***commented, ‘Meredith’s music sounds like bang smash crunch – but she doesn’t demand you treat it as the pronouncements of a guru. It’s only sounds – enjoy it!’, an opinion reflecting the more liberated aesthetics of John Cage, and about time too.
It’s nice to see that Meredith has a myspace page you’d imagine she maintains herself: top friends include Björk and The Postal Service, and some examples of a dabbling in electronic music can be heard there. It’s difficult to get as enthusiastic about these pieces as with her orchestral music, especially if you’re acquainted with the kinds of complex, inventive energy more popular electronic music styles have offered, leading one to wonder if a reciprocation of Classic Goldie is in order, seeing Meredith ‘faced with the challenge’ of producing material she’d have to mix into an hour-long DJ set, with a little help from Goldie along the way. Actually you feel it wouldn’t be all that tough for her, but if Goldie’s ‘mentor’ Ivor Setterfield were put in that position, well, that would be an interesting turning of the tables (BBC, if you’re reading…).
In 2003 Meredith and a few like-minded colleagues also born in the late seventies / early eighties, Emily Hall, Charlie Piper, Mark Bowden and Chris Mayo (who was also helping Classic Goldie out), founded the Camberwell Composers Collective, which, in a departure from the usual structures of classical performance, ran a night at the Crypt jazz club in Camberwell. Recalling the New Music Manchester group that included Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, the move does have a fresh sense of camaraderie in a context where composers only ever seem to come one at a time. Like Meredith’s website, the collective’s myspace page and camberwellcomposerscollective dot com is decorated by Anna’s sister Eleanor Meredith, and makes a U-turn away from the slick, funereal austerity and tediously predictable use of notational iconography that invariably forms the visual language of New [Classical] Music flyers and websites (as if music, as Stravinsky and Eduard Hanslick blinkeredly argued, connotes nothing but itself, its own textual specifics), even if the collective’s musical style itself doesn’t make such a U-turn, or not nearly as a dramatically.
Meredith and the Camberwell Composers Collective ought to discourage the growing sense among young composers that anyone who wants to get somewhere interesting should jump the apparently sinking ship of the British contemporary classical music establishment and put their hopes into jazz or record labels and their networks (John Zorn’s Tzadik label is a great place to find alternative composers, for example). One could argue that the change they represent within the establishment doesn’t go far enough, that it’s too subtle compared to the radical rethinking that’s necessary, but hopefully a new generations of composers will be inspired by their work enough to bring its relatively broader outlook with them to the academic study of composition.
If we discard the notion that Classic Goldie cynically tested the drum and bass producer against the artistic legitimation of ‘high culture’ (and tentatively I think that in the end we can), then one of the most provocative ideas to have come out of the documentary was that orchestral music was just another tool in Goldie’s – or anyone’s – musical cabinet. It’s clear that Goldie himself likes to see it that way, but when Morley mentions Goldie’s conducting and asks him whether he’d like to be seen as ‘a classical musician’, he responded that he’d like to be remembered as ‘a man of our times… a renaissance man’. Though he was probably looking for a word that would encompass his painting as well as his music, he wouldn’t say ‘composer’, because that word customarily excludes ‘drum and bass producer’ – like most people he probably doesn’t truly see ‘producers’ as part of a connecting, unifying continuum (however broad) with the composers of traditional orchestral music, which was what Setterfield was constantly suggesting in his mildly patronising but well-meaning manner.
Goldie was a composer before Classic Goldie. What’s developed is that he now works with a broader range of music. By exploring both orchestral music and drum and bass, Goldie begins to demonstrate the intriguing potential in the broadest, most inclusive definition of the word ‘composer’, and despite his first orchestral outing regurgitating certain well-established classical formulae (the epic narrative, the orchestra-as-universe, Latin language) I have a lot of time and respect for Goldie the composer. Even more inspiring are the ideas he describes to Morley about bringing classical music to a wider audience, about relaxing the rules of appreciation and consumption that have grown up around classical music: ‘have a few beers, have a listen to that, see what you think about that’, ‘if we’re gonna do it now, we need to change it now… I wanna hear those new composers’, and holding concerts with several different conductors performing different works. Goldie recognises that some of those aesthetic and performative regulations are fossilising (i.e. slowly replacing organic tissue with stone) the works of the past, putting them on ‘such a fucking pedestal’. As a composer and as an all-round musicker, he represents an exciting step towards a broader musical freedom.
Segue FinaleTo pick up from my foamy review of Fear of Music and come to terms with this blog’s habit of trolling: musical composition, listening and appreciation shouldn’t be regulated and constrained with implicit prescriptions, assumptions, prejudices, reductions, but rather should be expanded and emancipated toward the inner and outer limits of possibility and beyond. This detrimental fantasy of a state of what is sometimes called ‘ignorance’ or ‘incorrectness’ regarding any music shouldn’t push listeners into either hate-filled antipathy or cap-doffing humility (as with many, Stubbs’s Manichean project was paranoia over the former fuelled by seeing things through the lens of the latter, thus he enforced the marginalising musical-aesthetic dichotomy whose very injustice he sought to portray). Such one-dimensional, fear-motivated religious faith-acts of unconditional disrespect or unconditional respect stand in the way of flexible, imaginative engagement with music new or old, in any and all of its forms.
How can it be shown that music is a rich and diverse but accessible mystery?
I wrote this back in September, but a recent post by Simon Reynolds anticipated the issues in my opening paragraph. I agree with him on the place of close musical commentary in writing on music not necessarily holding any more weight as proof than other critical approaches, and I never mean them to. Blow by blow musical commentaries can make for horrible prose, but they do form one possible avenue of evidence-based argument in any discourse on music. Postgrad music students I know confess to skimming such passages and taking the concluding sentence on faith unless it's absolutely necessary.
This is the third part in a four-part series of essays on musical pasts, presents and futures. The other parts are:
1. ‘Hauntology: The Past Inside the Present’.
2. ‘The Premature Burial: Burial the Pallbearer vs Burial the Innovator’.
4. ‘The Twenty-First-Centry Modern Composer’.