My Recording of Marc Yeats’ piano music – please support this project!

The composer and artist Marc Yeats and I are hoping to undertake an extremely exciting project featuring a range of Marc’s fascinating and extremely varied piano music. Together with the organisations Sound and Music and PledgeMusic, this crowd-funding appeal is part of the scheme Compose. Create. Engage.

I have been enormously interested in Marc’s work for some years, and been looking for an opportunity to devote a sustained amount of time to his piano music. Drawing upon a wide range of different interests and motivations, many of them from beyond the field of music, Marc brings an extremely distinctive gestural and linear sensibility to bear upon his composition, combined with a sense of the fantastical but equally a very individual desire to construct new meanings, new expressive possibilities, from a language of fragments, often intensely mediated renditions of some of the residue of past musical languages.

Yeats - William Mumler's Spirit Photography

You can find out much more about the piano music here. Also, here is a video in which Marc and I talk about his work and the project.

 

You can also listen to a wide range of Marc’s works here and view his art work here.

A range of ways to support the project are detailed here. One can pre-order the album of piano works for just £10, or make various other donations towards the project, from £50 upwards, in the process gaining copies of scores, signed pages, exclusive one-to-one Skype conversations, or even a dedication.

Please do come to the support of this project – we both want so much to make it happen. I am absolutely sure this will be a major new contribution to the recorded legacy of contemporary piano music.

 

Below is a post from Marc himself about the project.

I’ve been writing piano music since 1997 and over the years have built up a substantial catalogue of works, many of them hugely ambitious and virtuosic beyond normal pianistic expectations. I have dedicated many of these pieces to prominent international pianists but across the years, due to a number of factors mainly around the music’s enormous challenges, only a tiny handful of the pieces (often the least frightening and shortest of them) have been performed live and none recorded. I certainly haven’t set out to write piano music that most pianists dread!

Now, for the first time in an amazing collaboration with Ian Pace I have found a pianist who not only enjoys and can meet these challenges but actually wants to perform my work because of the very nature of the music itself.

Ian Pace is a phenomenal pianist; a man whose musicality and intellect I have admired for many years. I have heard him fearlessly play some of the most challenging music of our time with huge flair, passion, insight and musicality.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this, not least because even I haven’t heard the majority of these pieces yet!

So that’s our story. This is new, wild, never before heard or recorded piano music. You can be with us every step of the way as part of this unique journey simply by Pledging. Be a part of it and access our memorable insider exclusives.

You can Pledge here: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-download

Why am I doing this, why crowdfunding?

Freedom. Freedom to make things happen without going through our normal cultural gatekeepers whose decisions so often result in a ‘no’ to way too many amazing projects. Freedom to appeal directly to audiences and fans, and engage new people directly in what I’m doing and bring them on the journey with me so we can make stuff happen together. And of course the freedom to have a viable alternative to deliver projects in the future. Additionally I’m thrilled I can be a bit of a pioneer with this initiative and with the help of Sound and Music share with other composers the learning and experience that results so the that whole new-music community can benefit. And last but not least, an opportunity to make my own piano music recording project with Ian Pace happen; now, that’s REALLY exciting!

What’s it all about? The wider context

Sound and Music has teamed up with PledgeMusic to launch Compose. Create. Engage, a new crowdfunding campaign with five British contemporary composers.

According to the organisations, the initiative is designed to test whether the crowdfunding model will work for contemporary classical artists in the same way it does for acts working in rock and pop.

The project was created in response to Sound and Music’s annual Composer Commissioning Survey. This revealed the traditional commissioning structure to be inadequate and unsustainable.

Susanna Eastburn, Sound and Music’s chief executive, said: ‘Opening up new avenues for composers to engage directly with audiences who can support them in creating and sharing adventurous new music is something that is very important to Sound and Music.

‘In fact it feels more relevant than ever, given that the creative imagination of composers significantly outstrips what the traditional arts infrastructure can offer them. It’s very exciting for us to be working on this with PledgeMusic, as well as five such different and imaginative composers.’

Five composers have been chosen to take part in the scheme. They are: Alex McLean, an interdisciplinary artist working with pattern and code; Bobbie-Jane Gardner, a composer, arranger, producer and music leader; Jacob Thompson-Bell, a contemporary classical and experimental music composer; myself, Marc Yeats, a sound artist, composer and visual artist; and Shaun Blezard, leader of improvisational collective, Some Unicorn.

Visit the Sound and Music website to find out more.

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The Workers’ Music Association – A policy for music in post war Britain (1945)

Below is the full text of A policy for music in post war Britain (London: Workers’ Music Association, 1945). I find this a fascinating text, not least because of the vast chasm between its proposals and many of those now advocated by those laying claim to ‘progressive’ ideals. Above all, the socialist foundation of the thinking here rightly precludes any naive celebration of commodity music; on page 4, we read that ‘It would be a failure in their social duty, if musicians were to leave this natural instinct of the people [for jazz] to be exploited for commercial purposes, instead of making it a starting point for developing a wider appreciation of the whole range of music’. As pages 13-14 make clear, the authors are clearly sympathetic to popular music but deeply sceptical towards the industry around it. Elsewhere there are clear indications of opposition to any deskilling of music educators, advocacy of education in advanced modern music, state support for the arts at both national and local levels, and a clear commitment to independence of the BBC from commercial interests.

This is not to say that the arguments presented in this pamphlet are unproblematic – it would be surprising if any document published over 70 years ago was so. But I believe this definitely rewards reading, if nothing else to see how conceptions of musical life such as will service the interests of all classes in society have changed quite drastically over a period of time.

 

 

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Concerts of English and Hungarian music in Wiesbaden, 1936

One common fiction is that in Nazi Germany, there were practically no performances either of modern or international music; indeed this fiction was propagated by many after 1945 in order to secure funding to present concerts of precisely that thing. But this is not really accurate; while there is no doubt that concert programming in Germany after 1933 was intensely nationalistic (certainly in comparison to the 1920s), there were still many performances of international works, though the representation of composers of particular countries often depended upon the state of political relations between those countries and Germany at the time.

One organisation dedicated to the promotion of international musical exchange was the Ständiger Rat für internationale Zusammenarbeit der Komponisten, founded in 1934 at the behest of Richard Strauss, which ran until 1939. They organised exchange concerts, often with German musicians playing in other countries and vice versa. In 1936 this included exchanges between the cities of Berlin, Wiesbaden and Karlsbad, and Vichy and Zürich. The organisation was responsible for an Internationales Musikfest which took place in September in Wiesbaden, and featured a concert of Hungarian music (conducted by Hans Swarorsky) and one of English music (conducted by Carl Schuricht).

The Hungarian programme was as follows:

Franz Erkel, Overture to opera Hunyadi Laszlo (1845)
Béla Bartók, Magyar parasztdalok (Hungarian Peasant Songs) (1933)
Zoltán Kodály, Háry János Suite (1926)
Miklós Rósza, Theme, Variations and Finale (1933)
Ernst von Dohnányi, Ruralia Hungarica, op. 32b (1924)

That for the English concert (conducted by Carl Schuricht) was:

Edward Elgar, Overture, Froissart (1890, rev. 1901)
Herbert Bedford, Ad Alta, symphonic poem
Ralph Vaughan Williams, Overture to The Wasps, Aristophanic suite (1909)
Eugene Goossens, Four Humoresques (1907)
Arnold Bax, Symphony No. 3 (1929)

It may seem strange to imagine such an event at this time, but it was not wholly unusual in the second half of the 1930s; in Frankfurt there was also a relatively international range of programming at the behest of Generalmusikdirektor Hans Rosbaud, whilst in Baden-Baden earlier that year, the GMD Herbert Albert had founded an Internationale Zeitgenössisches Musikfest  in the city, which ran until 1939. The Wiesbaden event was generally positively reviewed in the Zeitschrift für Musik, by the critic Grete Altstadt-Schütze, recognising the grotesque elements in some of the Hungarian music, a bit more tepid in her response to the English works (though her comment that the Goossens was ‘a music of the heart, not the intellect’ appears to be a compliment), though comparing the second movement of the Bax to the work of Hans Pfitzner. Both concerts were enthusiastically received, including by Richard Strauss, who was present.

 

 


Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the limitations of all-purpose definitions of ‘beautiful’ music

The death of Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1929-2016) is a great loss for music. I am posting here a modified version of a comment originally placed on the Slipped Disc blog in response to a wonderful tribute to Harnoncourt.

 

No figure was more pivotal within post-1945 historically-informed performance than Harnoncourt (except possibly Gustav Leonhardt). Some of what he pioneered was already nascent (August Wenzinger had produced the first recording of the Brandenburgs on period instruments in the late-1940s/early-1950s), but it was Harnoncourt who spearheaded a performance revolution which could stand its own ground against what was more mainstream practice. Our understanding of Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, Mozart – and then Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Johann Strauss II (in which he was incomparable) and others – have been massively enhanced by his work.


But I like to think of Harnoncourt as a political figure too. He strove as far as possible to find alternatives to the autocratic model of charismatic authority on the part of the conductor, which had been epitomised by Furtwängler, Karajan, or for that matter Toscanini – and which would be continued by many, including some themselves involved in HIP. There is an integration of and interplay between musicians in the work he conducted, and he demonstrated palpable alternatives to dictatorial Wagnerian models of the interpretative process. Harnoncourt’s performances, as much as his writings, exemplify his resistance to a form of orchestral playing which is always smooth, in which the Melos takes precedence over all else, with everything gauged so as to produce singular, overwhelming emotion. Instead he performed for intelligent and musically literate listeners, sensitive to so many possibilities of nuanced meaning, aware that music’s meaning does not stop when the audience begin to applaud. The music is by no means necessarily an organic whole ready to be ‘consumed’, nor a shiny, polished commodity; Harnoncourt’s work can be rugged, disconcerting, illuminating, though also beautiful where appropriate. It is not served up in a ‘culinary’ fashion (to use Adorno’s term), but that in no sense means it should be inaccessible to those with an open mind, looking for a music with which to actively engage.


In some ways Harnoncourt’s attitudes have been viewed as ‘aristocratic’, a throwback to a pre-bourgeois era, in particular before the French Revolution and the streamlining of professional musical training, separating out technique and a narrow conception of expression from a wider musical and other education, for which Harnoncourt blamed above all the foundation of the Paris Conservatoire. And Harnoncourt’s aristocratic ancestry is sometimes cited in support of this view. But I see things differently. This was music-making to stimulate thought, open up the mind, a type of musical sortie within a culture industry which works to generate the opposite reaction. Harnoncourt was, as a musician, a democrat rather than an aristocrat, for he treated listeners with dignity and respect, rather than trying to play down to them.


In a paper given in 2008, I began to explore the possibility of reconciling some of the ideas of Harnoncourt and Adorno, which might have been thought to be radically opposed, in light of Adorno’s explicit disdain for the historically-informed performance he encountered up until the early 1950s. I believe Harnoncourt was reacting as strongly against this particular school of performance as Adorno.

The following text from Harnoncourt I find remarkable, and should be read by all:

We find importance in other things than did the people of earlier times. How much strength and suffering and love they squandered in constructing their temples and cathedrals, how little they expended for the machinery of comfort and convenience! For people today, an automobile or an airplane is more valuable than a violin, the circuitry of the computer’s brain more important than a symphony. We pay all too dearly for what we regard as comfortable and essential,while we heedlessly discard the intensity of life in favor of the tinsel of creature comforts and what we have once truly lost, we will never be able to regain.

This fundamental change in the significance of music has taken place with increasing rapidity over the past two centuries. At the same time, a change has occurred in our attitude toward contemporary music as well as art in general: as long as music was an essential part of life, it could emanate only from the contemporary world. It was the living language for something which could not be said in words; it could be understood only by contemporary human beings. Music brought about changes in people, in listeners as well as in musicians. It had to be continually recreated, just as human beings had to keep on building new homes, in keeping with new patterns of living, new intellectual climates. Thus old music, the music of previous generations, could no longer be understood and used, although its great artistry was occasionally admired.

Since music is no longer found at the center of our lives, all this has changed: now that it is regarded as an ornament, it is felt that music should first and foremost be “beautiful.” Under no circumstances should it be allowed to disturb or startle us. The music of the present cannot fulfill this requirement because at the very least, like all art, it reflects the spiritual and intellectual situation of its time, and this is true of our present time as well. Yet honestly coming to terms with our spiritual and intellectual situation cannot be merely beautiful: it has an impact on our very lives and is therefore disturbing to us. This has resulted in the paradoxical situation that people have turned away from contemporary art because it is disturbing, perhaps necessarily so. Rather than confrontation, we sought only beauty, to help us to overcome the banality of everyday life. Thus art in general, and music in particular, became simply ornamental and people turned to historical art and to old music, for here they could find the beauty and harmony that they sought.

As I see it, this interest in old music – by which I mean music not written by our generation – could only occur as the result of a series of glaring misunderstandings. Thus we are able to use only “beautiful” music, which the present is unable to offer us. There has never been a kind of music that was merely “beautiful.” While “beauty” is a component of every type of music, we can make it into a determining factor only by disregarding all of music’s other components. Only since we have ceased to understand music as a whole, and perhaps no longer want to be able to understand it, has it been possible for us to reduce music to its beautiful aspect alone, to iron out all of its wrinkles. And because music has in general terms become simply a pleasant garnish for our everyday lives, we can no longer fully comprehend old music – that is, what we actually call music -, because we have not been able to reduce it to a purely aesthetic dimension and to iron it smooth.

[…]

There have been many periods throughout history during which attempts were made to simplify music and to confine it to the emotional sphere, so that it could be understood by anyone. Each of these attempts failed, resulting in new diversity and complexity. Music can be generally comprehensible only when it is reduced to a primitive level or when each individual person learns to understand the language of music.

 

From Nikolaus Harnoncourt, ‘Music in Our Lives’/’Die Musik in unserem Leben’ (1980), translated Mary O’Neill, in Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech. Towards a New Understanding of Music (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1988), pp. 11-13.

And I would like to commend the following performances conducted or directed by Harnoncourt.

 

 


On Lady Gaga and her admirers

1. The music, and the videos, are crap.

2. Lots of academics write in patronising terms on this in order to be seen to be ‘down with the kids’. The result is like a vicar trying to do pop in order to attract a larger congregation.

3. Those who fawn over Gaga are like bloated spoilt children who gorge themselves on McDonald’s and KFC.

4. They would all do better to read Hegel, Shakespeare, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, look at Titian, Vermeer, Cézanne, Mondrian, listen to Pérotin, Gabrieli, Rameau, Beethoven, Ravel, Maderna, Louis Armstrong and Cecil Taylor.

5. Cultural sociologists who foam at the mouth at the above know Jack Shit.

6. Concentrate instead on Syrian refugees and the possibility of a President Trump. And working conditions in HE.

7. All the political capital you would like to claim through writing on Lady Gaga is negated when you cross picket lines.