The Rambler :: blog

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Dark Side of the Funding Application 

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I've filled most of my gaps in the last week applying for funding towards my Ph.D fees. The principal route in the UK for research students in the arts and humanities is to participate in the competitive lottery that is the Arts and Humanities Research Board grants scheme. By far the hardest part of the form is that cruel blank page at question 8 where in just 500 words you make your entire case. And strangely the hardest part of that is the implied question 'Why?' In the accompanying notes it is made clear that 'because it's there' isn’t a good answer. And when something tears at your bloody beating heart and it's love and you have to do something about it, that doesn't count as an answer either. Why am I spending five years focused on that one small slice of the world's music that puts a fuel in my veins like no other in order to understand it more thoroughly than anyone has before? The most rhetorical of all the questions asked in the application is the one that counts for the most, and is the most difficult to answer in just a few words.

My research is on the timbral compositions of Penderecki and Ligeti of 1960-66. In particular four of the works that bookend that period: Threnody, Atmosphères, the St Luke Passion and Requiem. The profusion of radical music from out of Soviet Europe during the 1960s has long magnetized me. As the West European avant garde reached its highest levels of pompous ambition the new sounds from the Eastern bloc shocked the world with a unique, brutal approach to musical material. In simple, standard parlance, East European composers - who were only opened up to developments in the avant garde after Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956 - heard the sounds of the Western avant garde, and rapidly co-opted them into a new musical style that expressed that new freedom from artistic constraint. On one level at least it is celebratory music, certainly. You only have to hear the ecstatic racket of pieces like Anaklasis or Scontri once in order to appreciate that. But, because it is so often thought of as music of free and celebratory excess it is often dismissed as a necessary but failed experiment, like the first adolescent term away from home. This conceptual ping-pong - Western avant garde feeds the ears of Eastern composers, Eastern composers hurl their new works at the West, the West ultimately condemns them as childish doodles - seems to me to speak very powerfully about the nature of Europe during (and since) the Cold War. In particular since the condemnatory attack on Western modernist values that lies at the heart of so much of this East European composition is overlooked by commentators to the point of being airbrushed out entirely. If composers were revelling in the freedom to compose in ways that had never been thought of before, they very quickly turned that freedom to a series of varied and powerful purposes: much of Górecki's music, for example, is tightly bound to the canon and frameworks of Western European art music, but in a work like Scontri (the title is a play on Nono's Incontri) he seems to be attacking (or at least having a cheeky dig at) the avant garde from which his music is drawing sustenance. The Harpsichord Concerto too, although it belongs to a slightly later period in his career, always sounds to me like an assault on the canonic Baroque continuo sound, if not an assault on the harpsichord itself. Not that I think Górecki is a particularly angry man - not at all - but his music does derive a great deal of its power from its teasing resistance to convention. Penderecki too, in his early works, is enacting something physical, almost damaging, upon his instruments and their performers (many string players have protested at the demands he makes of their instruments to squeeze out every new sound possible). It seems to me that behind this lies an intent that goes far beyond the 'mere sound effects' heard by so many critics of the 1960s. Ligeti figures heavily because he is the most significant composer to have physically left Eastern Europe and developed a career within a Western European framework. He's also the composer to have had most prolonged critical success for his music of the early 60s - while it's rare to hear any Polish sonorism live these days, performances of Atmosphères, for example, aren't so unusual - which makes him a provocative counterweight to the one-hit wonder impact of many of his Polish contemporaries.

So my approach is to reconstruct the reception histories of both Penderecki and Ligeti, as well as the Polish and Hungarian milieus from which they originated. From this I will get a sense of the terms by which West European commentators judged and understood this new East European music (and for a short time at least the two composers were grouped together like this). Armed with this, I then spend the second half of my thesis analysing the four works mentioned with respect to the responses of critics over the years. The result, I hope, will reveal new things about the works themselves, as well documenting the reception histories of two important composers. It will also go some way to exploring the use of reception history data in the analysis of musical scores, and the value of applying a geographical (rather than purely temporal) approach to music history. In bolder terms it's an application of several of my core beliefs about music: that it is as essential as any other cultural artefact in helping us understand historical periods; that musical acts are inextricably linked with social ones; that reception and criticism are as important in the process of making music as composition or performance; that the manner in which our listening prejudices colours the music that we hear is woefully disregarded and undervalued; that the relegation of sound as a compositional parameter to superficial colour is one of the most limiting aspects of the current classical music value system; that great works are born of the freedom to experiment and to fail. It also says something about the introverted nature of too much Western European thought that refuses to open its Eastern boundaries to its historical, but vibrant and different and exciting and dangerous, brothers. It's an ode to screams and squeaks and scrapes and crashes and music that throws open the ear.

My application doesn't look anything like this at all. It tries to strike the appropriately sober and professional tone, but I had just had to get this flip side off my chest.

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