The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

'Applicability' in music: towards a definition 

The 'relevance' debate rolls on in comments to my earlier post. I think some clarifications and some concrete examples might be needed. First of all, my thoughts on all this have kind of spun away from the original Greg Sandow post that set them off, so they probably shouldn't taken as endorsement or otherwise of what he said back there.

OK. I want to get away (on these pages at least, if nowhere else) from the word 'relevance' because it is misleading and doesn't completely express what I would like of it. The word I chose to replace it with is 'applicability', borrowing, as I say, from Tolkien. These are his words, from the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings:
As for any inner means or 'message', [The Lord of the Rings] has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. ... It was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster, and from that point the story would have developed along essentially the same lines, if that disaster had been averted. Its sources are things long before in the mind, or in some cases already written, and little or nothing in it was modified by the war that began in 1939 or its sequels.

... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.*
In my earlier comments, I make a comparison with the other arts, all of which readily accept that they are at their best when they introduce something into people's lives that makes them see the world slightly differently. Thinking about it this morning, Hamlet is one of those examples. It is a certainty that if Hamlet was just 5 acts-worth of pretty speeches, it would not be as revered or as popular as it is today. You'd see it, enjoy it immensely (they would be very pretty speeches) and mostly forget about it. You might occasionally recall a verse or two in dull moments to lift your spirits - 'Isn't that beautiful?' you would ask people, and they would agree, and perhaps learn a few lines themselves. What a tonic.

But you see, the thing about Hamlet is that it isn't just a string of pretty speeches. They're all very fine, and give it that extra push into the stratosphere which it rightly occupies, but what really makes Hamlet is the man himself. There can be very few people who have really watched a good Hamlet play his part and haven't felt their world shift just one little bit. Not, I repeat, because of the pretty lines, but because there is something in that character on stage, whose mind is splayed before us, and whose every decision is pushed to its conclusion, that we recognise. If not in ourselves, then at least in someone we love. How we subsequently react to this 'applicable' character is up to each member of the audience, as Tolkien explains, and as Shakespeare would no doubt grant if he worried about these things; but the fact is that something private has been lodged that will remain when the curtain goes down and the words have been forgotten. Shakespeare discovered in Hamlet some essential truths about human nature that have proved themselves reasonably timeless, and that audiences still recognise. No one involved in literature has a problem with this: Hamlet's enduring success rests upon its continuing applicability; he still speaks to modern audiences.

Of course, theatre is a particularly non-abstract medium, as a rule. Real people are making recognisable actions and explaining themselves in the audience's native language. The same goes for film. But what about visual art? If we are to find 'relevance' or 'applicability', we have to look for them in the channels in which art itself moves. Painting deals with, for starters, light, space, form, colour. Putting the rotting fruit bowls and martyred saints to one side for the moment, these are all things that contribute to our daily experience. There is, therefore, no reason why a good painting should not aid or alter our understanding of light, space, colour, etc; and there is certainly no reason why we should not interrogate a painting to see if it does have anything new to say about these things (and others). I actually regard it as my responsibility, to some degree, as a visitor to a gallery to take these things seriously and to probe the painting to find out what, if anything, it has to say about those aspects of life that overlap with painting. Different periods in art prioritise different things of course - it would be nonsensical to find a study of the light of Christian faith in cubist Picasso, just as it would be missing the point to begin reading a Rembrandt from the point of view of his interrogation of three-dimensional space. A little bit of information certainly helps; experience and familiarity help even more. Hence gallery guides, exhibition catalogues, gift shops selling posters and postcards, little notices on the walls, and so on.

So what about music? Well, a bugbear of mine is that music (especially classical music) is almost invariably talked about as though its components are such things as melody, harmony and rhythm, when in fact it is more useful to talk about music as formed of time, sound, memory, quotation, distortion, and so on. What's more, these terms actually apply to all music, rather than the small subset of Western art music 1600-1900, so they're doubly useful (if admittedly nebulous). These are qualities, like light, colour and space in the visual arts, that listeners encounter in every moment of their daily lives, and it is at these conjunctions that music can attain 'applicability'. Because when a work has something to say, or to reveal, about one of these things, that revelation can be passed through the listener into their daily experience. I have had such experiences with, for example, Messiaen: quite aside from the Catholic symbolism, the birdsong, the synaesthesia, and all the rest, what Messiaen's music has to say about time and our moment-by-moment experience of it is quite profound, and something that has changed not just my approach to other pieces of music, but on occasion how I see the world around me. This is a notion of applicability, or 'relevance' that goes much deeper than, say, writing operas about nuclear war or terrorism. What is more, it is an idea that also finds a place for both the contemporary and the historical, as long as there is something in each, beyond mere superficial pleasure, that speaks to human experience today.

I'm also arguing that music is, can be, should be more than just an enjoyable distraction, an experience that, no matter how aesthetically profound, is essentially self-regarding and therefore shallow. Listening to music on a more-or-less surface level is not a problem; I do it at least 95% of the time, but this doesn't mean that we should neglect the greater possibilities of which music is capable. Music has to be regarded as something more than a world unto itself; it has to be rediscovered as a part of the wider, lived-in world. One of the enduring themes of Western art is that beauty will fade and die. For those orchestras and promoters who insist, to ever-dwindling audiences, that classical must prevail simply on the strength of its beauty (and other equally transient qualities), this seems like both an important example of the continuing value of finding applicability in art, and an important lesson to learn.

*As long ago as 1966, even stuffy Middle English professors cloistered at Oxford could acknowledge the role of the reader, which goes to show how far behind musicology really is!

Links for the week 

So, Pete Townshend is the latest blogging rocker, which may be of interest to Jessica Duchen, recent Who convert;

John Peel's records no longer look as though they will immediately be donated to the British Library, as his widow confesses that she can't bear to part with them for now;

Kyle Gann (and other ArtsJournal blogs) has redesigned (with comments enabled), and two important posts on Charles Ives (n.b.: because of a new permalink style you'll need to resubscribe your RSS to make the redesign work with your feed-reader);

And Resonance has a couple of cool podcasts worth checking out by nu-dub producer/DJ David Last and DJ Hue Jah Fink.

Edit: Almost forgot to mention that Boring Like a Drill has what looks to be the first instalment of reviews of the recent South Bank Xenakis Festival. Something which, unless I'm mistaken, all the broadsheets managed not to cover, so nice one Ben H.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Pre-Stockhausen round-up 

Since Stockhausen is in London today and tomorrow for the Frieze Art Fair - today he's giving an illustrated lecture, tomorrow a much-heralded performance of Kontakte and Oktophonie - here's a quick round-up of what people are saying in anticipation of the event:

Charlotte Higgins at the Guardian's Culture Vulture blog is fretting over ticket prices (and booking fees).
The whole thing has cost me £76.50, the price of cheap flight to somewhere warm. He'd better twiddle those knobs well.
Past experience says don't count on it;

Tim Stein in the Independent talks to the man himself;

And Ivan Hewett in the Telegraph expresses his regret for "a sage undone by megalomania". On the contrary, it's the loopy megalomania (which has been evident more or less from the start) which makes him enduringly fascinating. It's the Finnegan's Wake effect - it's not so much the content of the book that is so interesting, but the fact that someone was bonkers enough to embark upon (moreover complete) such a project in the first place (and that goes for Gruppen too, which Hewett praises).

New music on a showestring: addendum 

Just a quick addition to the Centre for Contemporary Music Cultures; this is a pretty cool thing in its own right of course, but more immediately pertinent is that the launch event includes a free concert of music, centring around three student ensembles who represent the ideas behind setting up the Centre in the first place: the Goldsmiths Contemporary Music Ensemble (dir. Roger Redgate), Ensemble Bakhtar (dir. John Baily), and Goldsmiths Popular Music Collective (dir. Simon Deacon).

[details, directions]

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Music Since 1960: Cage: Apartment House 1776 

Index here.

Unashamedly reworking my own material, but here's a sort of example of what I mean by applicability.

Apartment House 1776 is one of Cage's 'musicircus'-style works, in that it involves small groups of musicians playing independently against one another, within the confines of a larger scheme. In this work it is to be performed within the confines of a single stage, and there is a fully written-out score, rather than loose instructions. The one performance I have seen of the work required about a dozen groups of 1-4 instruments dotted around the stage, and in addition various recorded folksongs were played over the concert hall's PA.

As its title suggests, Apartment House 1776 was composed to mark the bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence in 1976. It's actually one of several works Cage was commissioned to write for the occasion, and at least one other has an overtly political aspect. Lecture on the Weather features 12 American men who had become Canadian citizens (and as a result avoided the draft) to read extracts from the work of transcendentalist poet Henry David Thoreau. In the case of Apartment House 1776, the political edge comes through the choice of music materials Cage employs, and the nature of musicircus itself. It's also one of a long line of works in what might be called the 'American experimental tradition' to make extensive use of ready-made, explicitly American materials, a habit that goes back to Ives. In the mix of music played amongst the musicians on stage are 44 early American choral pieces, which Cage has distorted through chance operations, removing some notes and extending others. In doing this, Cage says, he retained something of their 18th-century flavour, but without the sacred reference. These are incorporated within a gumbo of 18th-century melodies, civil war drumming and Moravian church music. Over the PA system were played recordings of Protestant, Sephardic, Native American and African American songs. It doesn't take much thought to realise that you are being presented with a musical cross-section of American history and society.

In his treatment of this music, however, Cage achieves something quite remarkable. As the different musical elements are layered on top and alongside one another, in the fashion of the big Musicircus, each element in its turn is both elevated and equalised. Since each element (aside from the important exception of the distorted hymns) is played straight, and given dignity and presence within the sound, at one time or another (times selected, naturally, through chance operations and not the taste of the individual), there is a curious effect of privileging everything at once. The piece becomes a joyous, eloquent celebration of the American ideal put to paper in 1776. But it is not, certainly, a piece about America in 1776, or even 1976. But elements that grow from the music are applicable today - to America, and the world. It sounded to me at the time a much better, more honest, more accurate, more celebratory collage than Stockhausen's Hymnen, simply by virtue of, quite clearly, aurally obliterating the ego of the composer - and very often of the players too. The questions of responsibility, of the intersections between place, time, music and history were much more powerful - and difficult, and lasting - than other similar works in which the composer's ego is allowed to intrude and to influence.

Cage's method has an equalising effect - this was at the core of much of his philosophy - but it is a mistake that the individual elements are brought down to the same level. Cage's genius - and why, in fact, the ego of the composer (wherever that might be) is still crucial to his music - is to elevate these elements above everything else. All sounds may be created equal, but the ones Cage asks you to play are more equal than others. That is something to think about.

Relevance and applicability in music 

Ach, go on then, here's something half thought-through. A little while ago, in this post-Dr Atomic world, Greg Sandow was defending his stance on 'relevance' and classical music. Greg makes some fine points, and I appreciate where he's coming from on all of this. However, by the end of his post, I started to wonder whether he actually did want to jettison all music that isn't new (yes, this is me questioning the wisdom of this), and therefore relevant. This is an unfair over-simplification of Greg's conclusion, but the simplification set me thinking: if we buy (as I do) the idea that 'relevance' of some sort is part of the complete musical experience, then how can the continuing performance of anything but the most contemporary, and politically explicit, music be valid? What does this 'relevance' actually mean?

Relevance I take to mean something that can be taken into real life outside the world of your headphones and the concert hall. Messiaen, for example, is a composer who is no longer up-to-the-minute contemporary, and who didn't generally worry much in his music about pressing political (or even earthly) concerns. Yet listening to it gives you an experince of pulse and time that very few composers in the West were even aware existed, or bothered to attempt. Even more so, this is wedded in Messiaen to a vivid holistic view of the world and its heavens. If you listen to Chronochromie, Des canyons aux étoiles, Eclairs sur l'Au delà or Quatour pour la fin du temps and don't take something - at least a question that you disagree with and need to resolve - into your life with you the next morning when you wake, you are, I'm certain, missing something. To name some others in my own experience, similar goes for Dowland, Purcell, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Chopin, Shostakovich, Cage, Feldman. There are things in the music of all these composers that can enhance my day-to-day life beyond the closed intellectual/aesthetic/sensual pleasure of the notes themselves as they are played or as I recall them. God knows what these things are all the time, and you surely have a list of your own, but it's something to do with the way in which these composers' approach to material, sound, time, form, intersects with and illuminates my daily experience. Amongst those big names who are still alive (or recently deceased), I have found analogous experiences in Berio, Ferneyhough, Kurtág, Max Davies, Birtwistle, early Penderecki, earlier Adams, Grisey and Murail, to name a few.

J.R.R. Tolkien said something useful on this score when defending Lord of the Rings against readings of it as allegory: it's not allegorical, it's applicable, he says in the novel's foreword. And I think that's what I actually mean by relevance: applicability. There is still something applicable to be found in Cage, or Messiaen, that carries meaning forward from the music and into life outside the score. Amazingly, I find it still in Dowland. Schoenberg, less so - and I think most of my generation might agree, no matter how much we may or may not appreciate the music itself, as music. Future generations might. It has less to do with contemporaneity - I could name plenty of living composers whose music, beautiful though it may be, evaporates as soon as it has finished - and more to do with a trick of capturing something in sound.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Links for the week 

Everyone knows by now about the recent discovery of a manuscript copy of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge transcribed for piano; Tom Service at the Guardian explains why this is important. Meanwhile, Service, in his more familiar contemporary music guise, gives an appropriately tongue-in-cheek account of an email interview with "celestial being" Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The Telegraph asks, uncertainly, can Grime cut it in the USA?.

Kid Kameleon, writing for Riddim Method, posts a great potted history of history of Jungle by DJ Zinc - 85+ tracks in 5 minutes. KK has some good commentary too.

And at WFMU, a Scottish pop-rock album on nothing; and a handy primer-summary of the daft JibJab-Legendary KO copyright squabble. Bigger picture, anyone?

Apologies for sloppy blogging recently; the usual problems of being over-worked and under-organised. I seem to be in a loop of starting good ideas and then getting too distracted to finish them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A small mystery solved 

So there I was wondering about the sudden leap in my hits over the last couple of weeks. According to sitemeter, they're mostly from people searching MSN and Google for 'Rambler'. I always get a background of these hits in any case - www.rambler.ru is a big Russian hubsite of some sort - but why so many all of a sudden?

Well, mystery solved. I went to see the very good, if flawed, Nightwatch (think Milton in Moscow with a badly fluffed subplot), and sure enough, said Russian hubsite gets a hefty, plot-significant, plug. (Many other brands, needless to say, get a heftier, much less significant, ones.) So, Googlers - if you're searching for Rambler.ru, it's here. The clue's in the name ;-) I can't help you with searching for Others, though.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Links for the week 

Thanks to Zoilus for the pointer: the whole of the infamous Van Morrison Contractual Obligation Album, first brought to my attention and possibly yours by Ubuweb's 365 Days Project, is now online at WFMU. Ooooooo, you've got ringworm.

But this aside, Dr Atomic is absolutely
everywhere. The 'sphere isn't really talking about much else. Unfortunately I haven't time to read through all the press. No doubt, as is traditional with Adams' operas in the UK, it will probably not be performed here this decade in any case. But, I do like Alex's Atomic photojournal and Greg's comments on the irrelevance of opera. Years ago, when doing some student work on Nixon in China I came to the conclusion that Adams is completely barking up the wrong tree with his 'news' operas. Part of the whole artistic premise of that opera, as he, Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman frequently repeated in interviews, was that audiences would all be familiar with the newsreels and speeches that were being set on stage. But less than 20 years after the opera's completion that's not the case; I don't even think it can be the case for a majority of the present audience (how many people recognise that great chunks of the libretto are basically transcripts of what was actually said, just set in couplets?). With the end of the cold war, the story of an American president visiting Communist China simply isn't much of a story to many people, at least from a 'news' angle. Political battles are ultimately too transient, too straightforward. Now, Nixon has its own merits of course, as no doubt does Dr Atomic, but these aren't the merits that Adams puts about: I'm sort of puzzled as to why he thinks like this, rather than letting people make up their own minds on what the work is about.

Further afield, this highschool band performance of tracks from DJ Shadow's Endtroducing. Exactly the kind of meticulous silliness I love.

The Guardian has a bunch of good-looking articles to read (but too busy, busy, busy): a rare interview with Brad Mehldau; a probably not-so-rare interview with Sway; Alex Petridis discovers a thing called marketing; another Kim Gordon interview (hottest girl in town right now?); and Ian Bostridge writes on the joys of the lieder.

The Independent asks the question can dance music and politics mix; the answer being: rather better than politics and derivative guitar bands, so yes.

And the Telegraph, at the moment probably the country's best newspaper for music coverage, takes on the tricky task of puffing Xenakis, and the less tricky task of asking 'why do critics hate Coldplay'.

Monday, October 03, 2005

New Music on a Shoestring: October 

Regular readers will have noticed that I've been posting tips for new music concerts and gigs in London at the beginning of most months. Well, I've decided to refine this slightly (and attempt to be more regular about it at the same time) to focus on those concerts that are for people of more discerning wallets. There's plenty of publicity available in any case for the big showcase events, but less for the smaller venues and less-established ensembles. Not coincidentally, this is often where the most interesting stuff happens, and it is usually pretty light on the wallet too. I was thinking about starting something like this a couple of weeks ago in any case, but a recent post by Drew Mc Manus on orchestral ticket pricing gives a little more impetus.

The 'rules' for my posts will be pretty straightforward: standard (ie not concession) tickets must be available for £5 or less, and the programme must be predominantly music by living composers, or written in the last 40 years or so. Only performances of non-pop, 'serious', concert-hall music will be included. There's no decent term for this, but you all know the sort of stuff I mean. (This is no exclusionist diktat, rather a reflection of my own personal tastes and knowledge, as well as an attempt to keep a coherent focus.) The emphasis will inevitably drift towards London, but any UK concert might be included. Promoters, ensembles, venues, composers, etc, are all welcome to email me at the address top right, and if you meet the criteria I'll include your concert at the start of the relevant month.

OK, so October, then.

Well, the big contemporary music event this month in London is the Xenakis fest at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Most of this is full-price, large-scale orchestral bizness, but in the manner of most weekend festivals there are some cheap treats to be found. And on Sunday evening after the main concert of the day, Sound Intermedia will be presenting the Greek composer's 1978 tape masterpiece Le legende d'Eer. £5 flat rate.

Again at the QEH, the Philharmonia Orchestra's Music of Today series is, frankly, a jewel - about half a dozen short concerts in the early evening, each focusing on a single composer or movement, and they're all free. There can't be many better ways to break up the post-work trudge home. Incredibly (or not) very few Londoners bother to take advantage of these things, so you can also end up with a row of normally expensive seats all to yourself, with no one engaging in elbow wars or casting a glance at your notebook. For moody, reclusive, wannabe-subversive new music nerds like myself there actually isn't anything better than this. The 2005-06 series starts this Thursday with two works (Jubilus and Song offerings) by Jonathan Harvey.

At the Barbican on the 24th, the Guildhall Symphonic Wind Ensemble (with John Harle and Richard Benjafield as soloists) are performing works by Michael Tippett (Mosaic), David Kechley (Restless Birds Before the Dark Moon), Adam Gorb (Elements) and Magnus Lindberg (Gran Duo), as well as two new works by Harrison Birtwistle and Michael Berkeley. Student band they may be, but the GSWE are probably one of the best in the country and they're backed up here by two outstanding soloists. And the programme is pretty attractive too. Again, yours for a fiver (or less than the price of a pint for concessions). I would be going, but Catherine Leonard, whose recording of Ian Wilson's from the Book of Longing I reviewed and greatly enjoyed a while back is playing the piece (plus some Messiaen, Beethoven and Fauré) at the Wigmore Hall the same night. Although it doesn't qualify as a shoestring concert this, it's also worth recommending - Leonard is a fine player, and her performance of the Wilson was, for my money, pretty much spot-on.

If you fancy something a bit more experimental, tomorrow evening is the 'Fundraising Gala Premiere Opening Music Night' of the Rational Rec at Bethnal Green Working Men's Club. This will be a monthly inter-art bash on the first Tuesday of each month. Again, it's only a fiver a throw, and the inagural event tomorrow (that's Tuesday 4th October) includes a bunch of stuff by Simon Bookish, Andrew Sparling, Kirsten Le Strange, Mark Knoop and Aloi.

Outside London, the biggest bargain event is the Royal Northern College of Music's series of Giya Kancheli concerts, details of which may be found towards the bottom of this page of listings. In five concerts over three days (24th, 25th and 26th), RNCM ensembles, the BBC Philharmonic, Ensemble 10/10, and others will play 10 Kancheli works interspersed with mostly contemporary works by British composers. Three of the concerts are £5 each; the other two (including the BBC Phil's performance of Symphonies nos.3 and 5) are free, although for this last a ticket is still required.

And finally, if you're in Bournemouth on the 29th, you might want to see the ensemble Kokoro perform at St Stephen's Church at 7.30: the programme includes Fitkin, McNeff, Hesketh, Boulez and Maw. Again, that's £5 to you.

Post holiday 

I'm not going to blog my week away (holiday posts being extremely dull to everyone but the writer), but can anyone enlighten me on what the hell happened to my hits in the last few days, which have more than doubled? (Naturally, my vanity is thrilled, so welcome to all of you!) Technorati isn't showing anything particularly enlightening...

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