A Matter of Taste…?

For several years now I have been re-evaluating types of music that I rejected when younger, but now take a keen interest in.

Why is this?  I think that when I was a composition student at the old GSMD, back in the late 1960s, I was indoctrinated by my tutors to believe that the only worthwhile music was classical and contemporary “serious” music, and that all other types were, if not actually bad (whatever that may mean), at the best not long-lasting or inventive enough to warrant more than brief scrutiny.

Now (at 75) I find it difficult to make value-judgments, and believe that my former dismissive attitude to jazz, popular, folk etc., was partly because of the indoctrination outlined above and partly cultural snobbery in that I associated certain kinds of music with certain social groups. Another influence is my long-term preoccupation with the ideas of John Cage and especially his aim (in which he was not always successful) of abolishing what he called “personal preferences” and becoming open to diverse music-s and indeed to all sounds both organised and random.

I have in addition grown increasingly impatient with the apparent elitism of the arbiters of contemporary musical style (that style termed avant-garde still around today but in decline since c.1980) who have so often ignored the fact that audiences never have and, I believe, never will be very enthusiastic about that type of contemporary music that deliberately aims to mystify and alienate them.

The adult population can be divided into three classes where music is concerned. The smallest class is that of the professional musicians. Then we have a probably larger class of amateur musicians and music-lovers. The third and most certainly largest group is that of the non-musicians – the musical illiterates as it were, whose only contact with music is via the latest popular dance-craze or “hit” number and to whom even being able to read and perform from a lead-sheet would likely be regarded as something special and as demanding the kind of expert knowledge that they do not possess.

Of course, the contemporary serious music afficionado will tell you that the simple, commonplace harmonies and rhythms of popular music and jazz are somehow “out of date” and that only constant and rapidly changing dissonance and almost impossible-to-perform rhythms are now worthy of respect. And despite a more consonant style emerging over the past 20 or so years, this attitude is still with us.  But why should this be?  And is this all connected with that other problem of originality?

In contemporary serious music personal originality is highly valued.   The idioms of popular music and jazz are styles that by their natures do not allow for very much personal originality and are, therefore, often downgraded by both the classical musician and the contemporary composer.

But there is no logic that says you must be original. There is always the freedom to work in a pre-existing idiom, as all non-serious composers do, but serious-music composers are wary of, except when writing obvious pastiche for e.g., film or television.

Just a personal preference (at the moment) but I find that, to mention one example out of many, the single chord (variations of C7) in Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground is much more satisfying than the almost painful sounds of some recent works (no names) that I recently heard at a rehearsal of pieces by young and unestablished composers who were, it seemed,  trying to outdo each other in producing the most dissonant harmonies they could devise – and all in the name of “originality”!

The contemporary serious music afficionado will add another hard-to-demolish view that works of art have to be created by long and hard work. I think that this widely held assumption began with the 19th century Romantics. Masterpieces can only be born through slow, painful labour by God-given geniuses of the Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler variety. But what about earlier epochs?  One thinks of a composer such as Telemann who is reputed to have written over 1000 pieces, many of them, if not out and out masterpieces, at least very enjoyable works that are still played 300 years later. He simply could not have produced so much if every piece was the result of long and arduous work.

To return to the title of this meditation, “taste” leads us on to the subject of aesthetics, defined as

“That branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature of beauty.”

 (Wikipedia).

Now, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so we all have our own views on it. The aesthetic pleasure that we each derive from art and music therefore is peculiar to ourselves and cannot be measured objectively. It cannot be said for example that one man’s enjoyment of say “Yesterday” is less or more than that of another man’s enjoyment of a Beethoven symphony. Surely, where there is enjoyment, there is a measure of aesthetic beauty.

In conclusion, I restate my position that I cannot now evaluate in terms of “better” or “worse”.  Although I might not always like what I hear, I am open to every type of music, classical, jazz, contemporary and popular, and music of non-European origin.

And it is my belief that if contemporary music is to continue to have any communication with and relevance to others outside of just composers and their very limited groups of followers, it must, in the words of sculptor and artist Sir Antony Gormley

 “…speak to the whole world”.

Gormley does this by use of an archetype- the human body- that all men can identify with. In music such universally recognisable archetypes are not so easily found, but I would start with the major and minor triads and stepwise melodies, employed in ways not in accordance with tradition, but with whatever degree of freshness the composer can bring to them.

MJR 10/22

London's "Last Tram"

This summer marks 70 years since the last tram ran in London, on July 6th   1952 to be precise.  They were certainly not beautiful. But they were imposing. Imagine 70 or more tons of metal, wood, fabric and glass perched on sets of metal wheels unglamorously termed “bogies”, gliding along metal tracks inset into the roads. And you had to risk life and limb to get on and off because for the most part they stopped in the middle of the road. I think I remember them…  I would have been 5 years old when the last tram ran in South London. And, even if I never actually rode in one, our existences overlapped by a few years. That Last Tram to New Cross Depot  could stand as a symbol of all that has disappeared, altered, and degenerated over the past 70 years and has transformed London from a cosy, tightly knit city of, predominantly, Londoners (i.e., those born and raised in the city and its environs) to the city we now seem to have, largely made up of transients and recent immigrants who probably cannot have that long-standing affection for the place that the locals have.

London then was grimy, smoky, prone to dense late autumn and winter fogs; much was decayed, crumbling away; the predominant hues were grey, brown, black and that singular shade of beige of London brick. Most of it was no more than three or four storeys high. The tower blocks, often shoddily built and now too often today’s slums, were not to come until the ‘60s.

In what was surely one of the most mistaken decisions ever made by the overseers of public transport in Britain, the trams were gradually replaced by motorbuses and electrically powered Trolleybuses – and I well remember riding on the latter on holidays in Bournemouth (they were a lovely warm yellow with brown trimmings). From my secondary school on Gunnersbury Avenue, I used to see London Transport trolleybuses running along the Great West Road at about the time when the Chiswick Flyover was under construction (c. 1960) and a couple of years before all London trolleybuses were withdrawn. Alas!

My earliest memories coincide with what were termed the “austerity years” (c. 1945-60) when, after a most expensive and debilitating war, the cost of reconstruction meant that goods, and especially luxury goods, were in short supply. The motor car was available to middle- and upper-class earners only, and our first one was an old Austin (or maybe a Morris) built about 1930 or so. Colours of cars during my childhood years were various shades of black, brighter hues being seen only on buses, trams, and delivery vehicles. Our earliest cars had the unfortunate habit of breaking down, usually in the most awkward places, and often necessitating being pushed manually out of the way of other traffic. Once, when my father was driving me the short journey to my primary school, a front wheel came loose and shot off down the road ahead of us, to the amazement of passers-by.

Austerity clothing for men was suits, jackets, and trousers in various shades of grey, brown, or black. Some sort of outdoor headgear was expected of all males of the lower middle class and upwards. My dad wore a flat cap, although he was lower-middle- rather than working-class.

Bright colours were worn only by madmen or poets, until the “swinging ‘60s” arrived in their multicoloured splendour and sudden fashionable casualness of attire. But that is another story.

Holidays (Continued)

4th – 12th August 2022

In old age, every day, I try to achieve something, even just posting comments on my activities in the hope that someone else might find them of interest. Who knows?

Our yearly holiday - and this year, at the request of my daughter, we visited the Yorkshire Dales, a region of England that she has become very attached to, having visited twice before this, and fallen in love with.

 The North. Stone everywhere you look.  Sheep on bare, green, rounded hills, and, as a backdrop, ranges of low mountains, part of the Pennines. Several flat-topped peaks looking for all the world like much higher mountains whose summits have been neatly sliced off, which, geologically speaking, is pretty much what has occurred over millennia as the limestone of which these mountains are made has been eroded.

A long drive on overcrowded roads, and thoughts on how mankind must in future take to the air for private travel and say goodbye to this traffic-madness.  On arriving at the village of Askrigg, after about seven hours of sitting in a car, two unfamiliar sensations: cold, and rain (not felt down south for weeks!)

6th A.m., to the Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest inn. Cool and windy but not actually cold – c. 12C. A good lunch here. The narrow winding roads become tiring to drive along as one must keep a constant watch for oncoming vehicles. Impatient locals just can’t wait for an opportunity to overtake at 60 mph!

P.m., Waterfalls reached by steps- tiring to negotiate. Thoughts on next year’s holiday: somewhere flat and warmer, and near a beach!

7th A.m., Hawes. A fine stone-built sprawling village, but not much of it visible beyond the huge number of cars, vans and motorcycles cluttering every available space! Bought sweets & Wensleydale cheeses.

P.m., Bolton Castle. Still just able to climb up & down its spiral staircases – but doggedly clinging to the handrails with both hands. The castle is well-preserved, and the stone flights of steps and landings just need Errol Flynn sword-fighting a few villains for completeness.

In the grounds a display of birds of prey (an owl from India and a local [?] falcon). The windy weather prevented them from flying, so we were given adequate and interesting verbal information instead. 

8th A.m., Middleham Castle. About 50% complete but much has been removed. Our dog did not like this place AT ALL!  She kept close to the ground and refused to go forward. Ghosts perhaps…?

P.m., Richmond, and the superb Green Howards Museum. I sympathise with pacificists, but I can also see the attraction that the military life has for some men (and women). The excitement, camaraderie and possible honours achieved for valour in battle are incentives for becoming a professional soldier (as was my paternal grandfather). Armies for defence are fine. For aggression- not so fine.

9th A quiet, relaxed day at home.

10th To Semmerwater, a natural lake surrounded by the Pennine Mountains. A gentle breeze coaxed ripples on the surface of cobalt blue waters reflecting a cloudless sky.

Then – Cotter Falls, a little-known waterfall gained by walking a long way. And in high temperatures. Probably about as warm as it gets in Yorkshire (c. 27C)

11th Our final day here. The famous and much-photographed viaduct. Hot!  Then to Malham Cove and Gordalea Scar, both well-known tourist attractions, but not very crowded today.

12th Returned along those overcrowded motor roads. Visions of transport of the future: personal aircraft / air taxis / a much improved public transport system using trams in cities and more use of the air between cities…  maybe?

My own very personal reflections: as a Southerner, I feel that north of Birmingham is a foreign land, good to visit, but I would not want to settle there. I would miss the warmth and gentle topography of the Southlands.

(This was the 1st holiday when I felt the pangs of old age: too much walking; too much driving a car; and young ones sometimes impatient of my slowness.)

MJR 08/22

Holidays

The season of holidays has passed for most of us, leaving only memories.

Holidays -holy days- should be days during which to recover wholeness. Casting off the fragmented life of work and daily routine, we do something different. We try to achieve that wholeness of purpose that in ordinary circumstances we find almost impossible to accomplish, divided as we are between so many conflicting chores and duties of varying degrees of urgency.

My own singular purpose on holiday is to focus entirely on spending time with the family [not forgetting the dog]. I do not write music or bother about students for the one week in the year when I can be free from all that.

My holiday routine is to wake early, usually before 6.00 am and stumble my unfamiliar way to the kitchen [of our rented holiday cottage] to make a much-needed cup of coffee. Then, return to bed and allow my brain to thaw out from the chill of early dawn, helped by the coffee, of course.

I idly plan the day ahead – or at least imagine what it could be like…

Then, breakfast of egg and bacon, more coffee, and a glass of red wine [it’s never too early, and the next one will not be until evening]. Then wait for the other members of the family to emerge gradually from their respective rooms, while I check the weather, map, places to see etc. and maybe catch up on my reading.

Finally, and only after some considerable fussing about do we all head off to wherever we might have decided on.

Choosing a warm day, and on a spread towel, weighted down with pebbles at each corner to stop it blowing away in the wind, I lie with one ear to the beach.

Passers-by seem to move vertically, the crunching sound of their footsteps magnified by the expanse of pebbles. The sea, a long way off and separated from the pebble beach by 100 or more yards of damp sand, murmurs lazily. Occasional voices, children, dogs, seagulls, break the calm. An incessant wind cools the air but is less noticeable at ground level. Brightly coloured kites soar above, straining to break away from their tautly stretched cords.

Each year that this long-awaited one-week event happens, we focus our attention on a town. Last year [2020] it was Westward-Ho in Devon. This year it was Rye in East Sussex, one of England’s best-preserved medieval towns and justly popular with visitors.  I think we all fell in love with this much-lauded ancient Cinque Port that still has a vestige of its original harbour and is a maze of narrow streets and narrower pavements, almost every street inclined. Architecture from several centuries [medieval to modern]. Cobblestones in the backstreets and alleyways.  A hill town overlooking the flat land of the great Romney Marsh. But- it has too much traffic, being on the main road to Hastings. Needs a bypass! 

We also spent one rather damp and cloudy day at Dungeness, one of Britain’s oddest landscapes and “our only desert”. Flat as the proverbial pancake. A flat-earther’s vindication perhaps. This vast expanse of shingle, much of it covered with a scrub of maritime flora, appears on the map as a blank space, but once there you see a scattering of wooden huts and more substantial structures including a disused power station, two lighthouses, odds and ends of industry, stranded boats in various stages of seaworthiness, and the Pilot Inn, described by Derek Jarman [one of the area’s more famous inhabitants] as providing the best fish and chips in Kent!

Some thoughts on being a young composer now

I have been writing music for half a century. Some of it has been published [mostly earlier works and now mostly out of print] and some of it has been performed, although much remains unperformed. I could be considered an “also ran” among composers – not well-known but not entirely unknown.

I would like to begin with three inter-related quotations by three composers regarding the purpose of music [and art in general]:

 “What is music? What does it do in the world? What does it do in society? “

 [ Frank Denyer -   from a talk given at Brunel University 13th Feb. 2013]

“I am a composer. That is someone who imagines sounds, creating music from the inner world of the imagination. The ability to experience and communicate this inner world is a gift. Throughout history, society has recognized that certain men possess this gift and has accorded them a special place. But if such men – poets if you like – are honoured, are the products of their imagination of any real value to the society which honours them?  Or are we, particularly at this present point in history, deluding ourselves that this may be so?”

[Sir Michael Tippett Poets in a Barren Age from    Moving into Aquarius]

 ” A work of art is identified by its complete uselessness”

[Harold Budd -quoted from memory, so may not be the exact wording. ]

Considering the quote from Frank Denyer first, we could list some possible uses of music, e.g.

To enhance religious ritual or ceremonial events; to accompany some physical activity e.g. dancing, exercising, working etc.; for didactic purposes e.g. studies and exercises for solo instruments or voice, and teaching pieces for lower grades ; to enhance other art forms such as theatre [incidental music] film or TV programmes;  to support some political, philosophical or sociological idea;  or for  a purely aesthetic purpose – music meant just to be listened to and “appreciated” for its own intrinsic beauty.

For the composer in Medieval and Renaissance eras the question “why am I composing?”  would hardly have arisen. One wrote mostly either for church or court. The only other option was to write music to be performed by individuals or small groups in a domestic setting [ e.g., Elizabethan keyboard and consort music] and for which no mass audience was available.

From the Baroque period onwards things changed. There was a growth of what could be termed a larger and increasingly less specialised audience, firstly for the new invention of opera and then for music per se to be savoured just for itself as a source of aesthetic pleasure  with the rise of concerts and purpose-built auditoriums in which they could be held.

Frank Denyer just asks the questions.  His own music is strictly of the aesthetic kind, although it shows an awareness of the music of non-European cultures.

For Tippett, the solution to the dilemma of the usefulness of the modern artist was to write a number of works that reflected his left-wing and pacifist views, the most notable of which is “A Child of Our Time” [1939] and hope that they might be of some value in bringing an awareness of the problems that beset the modern world.

For Budd, and probably most other “serious”  contemporary composers, the problems are swept aside by the assertion that “works of art are identified by their complete uselessness”; they have no purpose beyond their contemplation by the observer or listener. [This does not apply to literature which very often, as in the novels of Dickens and Hardy for example, does have the purpose of drawing the reader’s attention to failures and problems within society.]

 For the contemporary serious-minded composer the last of these reasons for writing music at all today  seems to be the most prevalent. All the others are problematic.

Music for worship: is a good choice if you have the flair for it and it can certainly serve a useful purpose. However , there is an awful lot out there already, good, bad and indifferent, so it would be  difficult to add anything of  lasting value.

The Court – a non-starter unless you are Master of the Queen’s Musicke

Activity-music for dance, exercise etc. This is the province of the popular music “producer” using electronic means of composing and would hardly be of interest to the serious composer unless as a secondary and hopefully, more lucrative activity.

Music for didactic purposes: The advantages, if your work is published or otherwise made available are that it will be seen and played. The drawbacks are: [1] There is already much available [possibly too much of inferior quality] so will your work be noticed? [2] It is unlikely to be professionally performed, although amateur performances at student concerts are possible, of course. And [3] it has to be easy to play, so you would probably have to adapt your style to a certain extent to cater for this limitation.

Film, TV and theatre work does give your music a purpose outside of itself, but this particular area is notoriously hard to get into, usually a case of “it’s not what you know but who you know”.

Politically influenced music is usually also concert music but with a “message”. The advantage is that you may draw in those sympathetic to your views, but you have to be prepared for those views to become outdated, irrelevant or derided   with time, e.g. the left wing- influenced music of Eisler and Henze may not now have the relevance that it had when written several decades ago.  The world is a different place now.

So, like it or not, the composer of serious work [or work that he/she would like to be thought of as serious] is left on the whole with no choice but to write for an audience. The biggest problem then is how to get that audience.

All composers in this group, and indeed many other creative artists have struggled with the perennial problem of the production [and now, more likely, over-production] of work for which there is no appreciable demand.  I can only speak from my own experience, but I am pretty certain it applies to many others, in  that I get ideas for works, produce them and hopefully try to interest, firstly, performers and through them possible performances and some sort of recognition by an interested section of the public. Then either the work is accepted for performance and most often for just one performance, or it gathers dust on my shelves!  Why have I done this for 50 years? I do not really have an answer. Perhaps for self-expression. But as far as that goes, is my “self” interesting enough to be expressed. Why should anyone else bother about it? Did Bach express himself, or his complete mastery of the art of music in his time? Do we delude ourselves that self-expression is a valid reason for composing?  A more pressing reason for my work is the rather pathetic desire to be remembered for something tangible and not to just disappear from human memory for ever. I am constantly haunted by this fear of oblivion even though on reflection I know that nothing on earth lasts forever. Everything returns to the void from whence it came. So why worry?

I now have well over 100 works on my shelves as scores. The vast majority of these are only potentially musical works. Until they are brought to life in performance [or at the least as recordings] they remain just ideas awaiting realisation.  As composers we tend to think of our works as living and sounding  in our minds, but in reality they are   for the most part dead and silent  things until given an audible presence by performers interested enough to interpret them.  I regard recordings of works as being half-alive in the sense that they have an audible form [we can hear them] but the sense of spontaneity and unpredictable-ness that only live performance can give is absent.

One seemingly more positive feature of contemporary life as compared to 20 or more years ago is that there are numerous ways of getting a hearing outside of the concert hall via electronic methods of the dissemination of one’s work. Sound Cloud, You Tube, and Musicaneo are just three of these platforms for music that come to mind. I use all three and do indeed get listeners and print-outs of works [bypassing the traditional and usually very slow-moving music publishers].  So, some joy there – but the drawback is that there is a huge amount of stuff already on these sites, which makes it hard to get much attention even if your work is good and deserving of a more prominent exposure. If you want the latter, you have to pay for it!

As for live performances, I do get them, if somewhat infrequently. They are usually billed as first performances of New Music by myself and other composers, all of us not [yet] well-known, and audiences are generally small, often being made up of those other composers and their family members or close friends. So we seem to be writing just for each other…

In moments of despair at contemplating the plight of the artist, poet or composer in the modern world I wonder whether to be creative in these ways is more of an affliction than a gift!

But no. The urge to create overcomes this doubt and I am spurred on by the hope that I may be able to leave just something, even one work, of lasting value and interest that, even if it moves only one listener, has made my struggles worthwhile.

On re-reading these notes it seems that I have asked more questions than provided answers. This is because there are no answers to the main question which is “Why do we compose?” But I can only hope to at least bring the problem to the attention of any aspiring [or even some more established] composer who is as yet unaware of the problems outlined above.

MJR 10/19

 

 Direct Perception

Which is to see things as if for the first time and with wonderment.

The British artist Cecil Collins said, in a film about his work made in 1983[1], that direct perception is the view of the world of the child and the fool [or more correctly the “holy” fool] and that it is almost totally missing in the modern world which has become dominated by science, technology and materialism.

At the beginning of Axel Munthe’s autobiographical book, “The Story of San Michele” the author, just arrived on the island of Capri, asks the young girl who is leading him up the steps to Anacapri, the name of a certain flower. She replies: “fiore”, and asked to name a different flower, she says again “fiore”. To her all flowers are “fiore, bella, bella”.

This is an example of the direct perception of the child who does not categorise things in the way that adults do.

Now, in some ways categorisation is useful, even essential. We do need distinguish between the harmless and the harmful, of course. But taken to extremes, as it has been in the modern [i.e., from 18th century] world it has destroyed our view of the world of the child, the primitive and the artist, who can still be in awe of their natural surroundings. To return for a moment to flowers, they have been scientifically catalogued for centuries: to the botanist they can be no more than different species. Their intrinsic beauty and the marvel of their existence is forgotten in this urge to list them according to number of petals, size, shape and so on. I do not imply that the scientific view is wrong, but that, to be fully conscious and spiritually attuned to our world, the scientific view is not sufficient. We need the direct vision spoken of by Collins and Munthe previously. And we must not forget that we so often categorise things in order to exploit them for our own ends.

For too long have we seen ourselves as somehow outside of nature and free to exploit it for our own purposes, with disastrous results that are becoming more apparent, and worse every century. The balance is upset – but it is always restored, and we must surely suffer in this process of restoration.

The natural world, including the “living” planet and the human race, are parts of, to quote Alexander Pope, “One stupendous whole…” Everything is related and interconnected to everything else. So called “opposites” need each other and cannot exist without one another. Our problem is that, as we mature and begin to make use of the material world, we see only the parts but do not see the whole.

 One earliest memory comes back to me: I used to be taken to a park when about 3 or 4 years of age, and I remember my feelings of rapture at the sight of very green grass and very tall and stately trees [as they seemed then]. I did not know their names, but I could sense the wonder and mystery of their existence, a feeling that recurred later in life as a youth wandering through woodland, and that still comes in old age when I stop thinking about work, money, and what I need to get done in the near future, and just contemplate the present moment which is in a sense always miraculous – I am here now, alive and aware of the unfathomable mystery of the universe…

We all have had this experience, but we lose it, except for those poets, composers and visionaries who retain this ability to perceive the world “directly” and without any purpose other than to marvel at its very existence.

MJR 09/20

[1] Fools and Angels -  BBC 2 First shown 8th April 1984.





















 

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