Musicological Observations 8: Essential listening from post-1945 New Music?

I was considering what I thought should be essential listening from the repertoire of post-1945 new music, to which anyone doing a music degree course which has a Western art music focus should be exposed during the course of their study. I want to be uncompromising and avoid easy populist, ‘democratic’, patronising choices (but look to major, difficult works for which exposure and explication at a university level might really make a difference. So here are six suggestions – I am looking for some others (I have lots of ideas, naturally, but am interested in those of others) that might make this up to ten suggestions. Please do post below. I am aware that there all the below choices are men, so would welcome various views on which works of women composers might also be included, according to the criteria I lay out.

Pierre Boulez, Pli selon pli (1957-62, rev. 1989-90)

 

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kontakte (1958-60)

 

Luigi Nono, La fabbrica illuminata (1964)

 

Morton Feldman, Violin and Orchestra (1979) (only an excerpt is included above)

 

Brian Ferneyhough, Second String Quartet (1980)

 

 

Helmut Lachenmann, Allegro sostenuto (1987-88, rev. 1989-91).


In Praise of Mic Spencer

Last night I went to a concert at Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall, at the School of Music for the University of Leeds. The programme included postgraduate student Allanah Halay‘s Energy Cannot Be Created II, as well as world premieres of Scott McLaughlin’s an infinity of traces, without an inventory and Wieland Hoban’s Wyrdlines, Michael Finnissy’s 1984 Câtana, inspired by Romanian folk music. It was a fantastic opportunity to hear four very fine pieces in strong performances given by student musicians; the concert can be viewed complete online here. for now I want however to write about the conductor and director of the ensemble – and also extremely fine composer – Michael (known to all as Mic) Spencer, whose work at that university, making the department into the finest of its type for new music, has been to my mind insufficiently recognised. On another occasion I would like to write about Mic’s compositions, but here I want to describe the seminal work he has done at Leeds.

Mic Spencer

I first met Mic in 2005 (at the premiere of Richard Barrett’s orchestral work NO) and soon afterwards became keenly aware of his activities at Leeds, after going to give a talk there the following year, performing on three occasions at the university, playing his piano piece The Eemis Stone and more widely getting to know the important community of people intensely dedicated to new music which would never have come about without Mic and his efforts.

Whilst many in academia spend as little time as possible on students, concentrating instead primarily on whatever will gain maximum prestige and the quickest advancement to the top jobs, Mic is the very opposite, and one of the most selfless figures I know. I know of few others so utterly devoted to helping to make available and accessible to his students, in full knowledge that the most complex or challenging new music is absolutely graspable by all who are open-minded and receive the type of guidance and encouragement that Mic can uniquely give. And I have seen for myself just how much time he devotes to students, how he wouldn’t hesitate to help them have access to any number of recordings, scores, or texts by many in the French and German intellectual and philosophical traditions to which he is so strongly attached.

The music of Helmut Lachenmann, Brian Ferneyhough, Hans-Joachim Hespos, Gérard Grisey, Emmanuel Nunes, Mathias Spahlinger, James Dillon, Beat Furrer, Richard Barrett, Chaya Czernowin and many others have become like Mozart and Beethoven to composers, performers and scholars at Leeds all because of Mic. In other contexts, academics dismiss all work in this type of European modernist tradition out of hand (sometimes in an underhand manner, using language of identity politics which makes others reluctant to challenge such a view), or simply preach it in a didactic way. Everything I have heard suggests a quite different approach from Mic: teaching as an enthusiast, with a passion for this music, but in such a way as allows students to find their own way in.

But equally important is what Mic has achieved with the ensemble LSTwo, which he ran and conducted over an extended period, for a period jointly with composer and conductor Adam Fergler. They have been able to perform well works almost unimaginable for a student new music ensemble in a UK university department, including Lachenmann’s “…zwei Gefühle…”, Musik mit Leonardo, Harrison Birtwistle’s Trageodia, Grisey’s Vortex Temporum, Nunes’s Improvisation I, Furrer’s Gaspra, Dillon’s Zone (…de azul), James Clarke’s Delmenhorst, and much else. In November there will be a major feature, the most significant of its type to date in the UK, of the music in Hespos, which I for one would not want to miss.

Amongst those who have passed through Leeds and either already gone onto great things or in the process of so doing are Lauren Redhead (who I remember Mic describing to me, when she was an undergraduate, as someone with an unnatural obsession with Spahlinger), Roddy Hawkins, Eleri Angharad Pound, Adam Fergler, Vicky Burrett, Caroline Lucas, Marcello Messina and many others. Not that these are simple acolytes or devotees; many have strong differences and have taken quite different paths in terms of their own music or ideas. I certainly wouldn’t agree with Mic on lots of things musical, aesthetic or otherwise – I cannot remotely share his taste for the likes of Kaikhosru Shapurij Sorabji or writer Aleister Crowley, for example – but there is no such topic about which I would not be intensely interested in his thoughts. But I do not believe it would be too exaggerated to talk about a Leeds School of New Music, for which Mic is undoubtedly the central figure.

But when reading this I’m sure Mic will end up acting self-effacing and maybe a bit embarrassed, so I’m going to end up in his own language and tell the fucker to get a move on with writing his piano piece for me!

But do all raise your glasses (an activity with which he is intimately familiar) to Mic.


Musicological Observations 2: Do some musicologists really like music?

In a recent scathing article on contemporary academia (‘The Slow Death of the University’, Chronicle of Higher Education, April 3rd, 2015), Terry Eagleton mentioned one university bureaucrat who actively tried to discourage academics from keeping too many books, lest they build ‘private libraries’. Heaven knows what this individual would think of my own shelves heaving with books, though I have encountered adverse comments from some disinclined to do any sort of research requiring more than a small range of standard texts.

As a passionate bibliophile, for whom when young buying books was the ultimate indulgence, I tend to be discouraged by academics in the arts and humanities who do not love or buy many books, though accept that some texts may be better kept in electronic form. But more important, for academics in the field of music, is to ask whether they love to listen to music, and as such go to concerts, listen to recordings and so on (do they have recordings or sound files in their office, has the CD player ever been turned on in years)?

Unfortunately I have encountered too many academics – not a majority, but still too many – who have very little interest in listening to music, at least in a manner which requires any sustained attention. Some even have a sneering and superior attitude to anyone who really cares about music at all, and exhibits any enthusiasm for it. I have even had the misfortune to be faced by the argument that playing music in lectures is a waste of time. I find those people of this persuasion, and much of their work, life-denying, bleak and depressing, and this tendency is fundamentally in opposition with every reason I wished to be a scholar myself, and all the values I wish to encourage in students.

There are various disciplines which, at worst, serve in large measure to enable the scholar to ‘dominate’ the object of their study. These enable the scholar to stand in a position of superior judgement to other people or the fruits of their endeavours, dissecting them in a judgmental fashion, frequently of a dismissive variety. Amongst the disciplines I would characterise as prone to this are psychoanalysis, some varieties of anthropology and ethnography, and indeed some types of ideology critique and other forms of cultural ‘interrogation’ (including some undertaken from the position of gender studies, post-colonial studies, orientalism and so on). Ultimately, many serve to flatter the scholar, and thus inflate their scholarly capital within the field of academia, but what is their wider value?

I fear that this is equally the case with musicologists not interested in engaging with, listening to, and opening up their own ears and minds to music, treating it instead at most as something to be consumed and then even excreted, or basically ignored in an aural sense. I am reminded of the character Tom Townsend in Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, who opines that ‘You don’t have to read a book to have an opinion’ and as such prefers to read literary criticism rather than novels. There is no humility in this attitude, no real interest in reading or listening to others, just a desire to gain power by having the type of opinion which would impress.

Similarly, it is too often possible to write musicology entirely on the basis of others’ views of music, without ever listening carefully to it oneself. Some of this can brush off on students; I have certainly read and marked far too many essays of this type. Many appear to stem from a fundamental self-consciousness about arriving at one’s own conclusions (and being judged upon those).preferring instead the safety of the already-tried and tested; in reality just another form of essential plagiarism even when sources are attributed. In a recently published review-article of mine (‘Ferneyhough Hero: Scholarship as Promotion’, Music and Letters, Vol. 96, No. 1, pp. 99-112), I felt the need to comment that most of the book could have been written without any aural experience of the music (pp. 101-102), and this is far from being the only text by a music academic about which I could say this.

The very last thing for which I would argue (indeed, have argued strongly against here and here) is a type of musicology which adopts a thoroughly servile relationship towards practice, and essentially fulfils a promotional function for practitioners. Nor for various of the species of ‘practice-as-research’ which do not succeed as a genuine interplay between theory and practice (the best realisation of such work) but simply serve as a diary or other form of unreflexive documentation of practical activity. It is imperative that musicologists maintain some degree of critical distance from the object of their study, and that the integrity of their judgement is not compromised by other professional considerations (a difficult issue for practitioner-scholars, in which category I count myself; too many fail to consider these issues). I have also seen too many events featuring guest composers in academic environments which amount essentially to love-ins, whose whole atmosphere preclude consideration of any response other than adoration.

But on the other hand, if one does not in some sense enjoy music, and want to listen to it, then why spend a good part of a lifetime studying it? If the urge is to dominate, in the manner I described above, then I think this is rather sad and even a little pathetic; this type of work (which I link to the field of ‘cultural studies’) rarely has much impact outside of academia other than to legitimise broad dismissal of vast swathes of work without listening. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in a good deal of writing on modernist music; it is far easier to be told that this music is little more than a repository for white male elite privilege, and thus can be safely ignored, than have to spend any time grappling with it oneself. This combination of populist dumbing-down and cynical appropriation of identity politics characterises the worst and most destructive of all academic writing; if the majority of the humanities were to become like this, I would find it hard to mourn their demise.

Happily, there is plenty of musicology which is not of this nature, and carried out by scholars with a real love or fascination for music. Not all music is of course of equal value, and some music is worth studying even when it is not of the highest order. A fair amount of repertoire has fallen into neglect for good reason and would be unlikely to stand up well to repeated exposure today, but it can be worth studying to gain a deeper knowledge of and insight into styles, genres and practices of its time and place. Some music which served particular social functions is of interest so as to understand more about those functions and the types of ceremony they entailed, not least in the case of dictatorial regimes. I have personally even considered (only briefly, so far) why some music might appeal to those of paedophile tendencies, and whether there might be recurrent stylistic features which might even make possible the codification of such a sub-category.

I do genuinely believe that some of the now-forgotten music of the Third Reich or Soviet Union, composed by musical ideologues keen to serve the regime, should occasionally be heard in concert, however contentious this might be. Not least for the sake of us scholars who would like the chance to actually hear it live and gain a deeper sense of the effect it might have had in its original context, but also to force more serious consideration of whether such music demands an engagement beyond reduction to social and aesthetic-ideological history. In many cases of relatively prominent composers active and/or successful in the Third Reich (e.g. Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner, Carl Orff, Werner Egk, Wolfgang Fortner, Winfried Zillig and others), I can usually identify some musical elements which resonated with wider aspects of the ritualised culture (though not necessarily less compelling as a result – opening oneself to why they (or, say, the films of Leni Riefenstahl) might have been compelling is an essential part of understanding the elemental power of sacralised aspects of that society), but in no cases could I account for everything significant about the music in this manner. And there is no reason to assume this could never be the case for more minor composers as well. I would certainly not dismiss considerations of how ideologies of ethnicity, gender and more might be codified into musical language (I teach students to consider such things, for example in the context of nineteenth-century exoticism), especially in operatic and programmatic work, but cannot see why one would spend much time on these if the music was not nonetheless still worth hearing.

To dissolve musical engagement into a footnote to social or cultural history, sociology, anthropology or whatever is really to give up on musicology as a profession deserving of its own identity. At a time when, in the UK at least, funding opportunities are enhanced by the extent to which one can spin one’s work as being ‘interdisciplinary’, it is not difficult to see the temptation to bracket out the specifically musical content, especially when few scholars in other disciplines are prepared or competent to gain the technical and analytical skills to engage themselves in depth with music.

Musicology remains an important and stimulating profession, but should be pursued by those interested in using their ears, and with a real love or fascination for music. Others would find their time more profitably spent in other fields.

Addendum: A further thought which occurred to me when reflecting upon scholarship as ‘domination’, and thinking about the fundamental ambiguity of sounding music. This is not a mystification or other attempt to render music beyond meaning, simply to point out the extent to which it exceeds attempts to contain it within particular boxes. To me this is a strength rather than a weakness of music (and something of the same can be said of various visual arts, poetry and other media), but it frustrates the attempts of those who aim for total domination. For this reason, those possessed by the will-to-dominate frequently need to bracket out sounding content.


Musicological Observations 1: Björn Heile, Lauren Redhead and myself on the relationship between scholarship and new music

I am continually fascinated by the possibilities available to musical scholarship and by interactions between plural musicological methods, but equally disappointed by how few such possibilities are regularly taken up. I hope to blog at more length in the future on some of the dangers inherent within various musicological sub-disciplines – the so-called ‘new musicology’, ‘soft’ ethnomusicology, and some aspects of popular and film music studies in which the music becomes the least important area of study – but on this occasion I just want to offer a few quotations relating to the relationship of scholarship on new music to the practical operation of that field, hopefully as a starting point for discussion here and elsewhere.

The first is by Björn Heile, Reader in Music at the University of Glasgow and best-known for his work on the music of Mauricio Kagel. This is the opening of a key-note lecture (reproduced with permission) entitled ‘‘Un pezzo … di una grandissima serietà e con una grandissima emozione … e con elementi totalmente bruti’: aesthetic and socio-political considerations and the failure of their integration in Mauricio Kagel’s work post-1968’, given at the conference ‘Faire “de la musique absolue avec la scène”: Mauricio Kagel’, University of Nice, 24-25 April 2014 (held on 25 April).

Scholarship on new music typically suffers from its lack of critical perspective. PhD theses are written, articles and books published and whole careers made on the basis of work that does little more than trace the stated intentions of the composer in question in their work. The process could be described as bargain basement hermeneutics: study the composer’s so-called influences, his or her own pronouncements and look at the work with these things in mind – something will no doubt be found. As a result, the scholar becomes the composer’s spokesperson, dutifully explaining how the master would want their work to be understood – which, evidently, is the only way of correctly interpreting it. There are many reasons for the predominance of this approach. New music scholars are often dependent on the goodwill of their subjects: one critical remark and you may find yourself frozen out from access to the person, their work and other materials, and from speaking and writing engagements – there are a number of (in)famous examples. Furthermore, the new music business is a tight network in which composers, musicians, institutions, broadcasters, publishers, record companies, journalists and scholars cooperate in often murky ways. There is a fine line between scholarship and PR, and some so-called journals are more akin to trade magazines. Finally, the tried-and-tested method delivers results with ease: it’s relatively simple to fill any space needed with material that will appear informative and well-founded; no-one is likely to complain. It would be unfair to pick out individual examples for what is a widespread problem. That said, Charles Wilson has analysed the literature on Ligeti with respect to what he calls Ligeti’s ‘rhetoric of autonomy’, by means of which the composer sought to overstate his artistic independence, as a way of positioning himself in the compositional marketplace. As Wilson (2004, 6) argues, ‘composers’ self-representations often serve a function that is as much performative as constative. They are “position takings”, to use Bourdieu’s expression, and their assimilation by scholars as straightforward claims to truth often bespeaks a fundamental category mistake.’ He quotes numerous cases in which Ligeti’s exegetes dutifully adopted the composer’s own terms, criteria and outlook, so that their commentaries are little more than summaries of the composer’s own pronouncements. Ligeti’s is hardly a special case: Messiaen’s Catholicism, Nono’s Marxism, Cage’s Zen-Buddhism, Cardew’s Maoism, Lachenmann’s ‘refusal of habit’ – time and again one finds scholars piously repeating or paraphrasing lofty assertions, instead of subjecting them to rigorous critical scrutiny. And – you probably saw this coming – I am not at all sure whether the literature on Kagel represents an exception to the rule. Nor is it my intention to accuse you while exonerating myself. Although I have long been aware of the problem and have sought to avoid it, I am not sure that I have always succeeded. I have to confess that while I was writing The Music of Mauricio Kagel the thought that Kagel would read the book crossed my mind more than once, and I had already found out how touchy he could be. I’d like to say that I remained steadfast, but I could be deluding myself.

Back in 2011, composer and musicologist Lauren Redhead, Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, published an article on her blog following a symposium at the Institute of Musical Research on the music of Brian Ferneyhough, at which the composer was present. This presents a situation self-evidently not an issue for historical musicologists dealing with dead musicians. Whilst unable to hear the academic papers, Redhead made the following important observation (which, having seen some of the papers and other work by the participants, I believe is backed up by the results):

The Ferneyhough day was the latest in a line of academic events which I notice are celebrating authors who are still alive. My initial problem with these events is that it seems healthy debate, critique, and innovative perspectives are hardly likely to be encouraged when the composer or thinker is involved, acting as an authority and essentially vetting the speakers before they are let loose on the audience.

As one who wears two hats, both as performer and musicologist, it is rare for these issues to be far from my own mind. My own earlier writing on the music of Michael Finnissy, as collected in the volume Uncommon Ground, I now consider hagiographic and of little other than documentary value; hopefully in my more recent monograph on Finnissy’s The History of Photography in Sound a greater degree of critical distance has been established, but (as Heile found with Kagel) it is hard to escape the inevitable thoughts of what the subject themselves will make of it, especially in the context of a starkly hierarchical new music world in which composers’ decrees and intentions are frequently assigned an ontological priority. Recently, I have been undertaking my own comparative examination of scholarly and other writing on the music of Ferneyhough (to be published on the Search online music magazine; also a review-article on a new Ferneyhough monograph will appear in Music and Letters), and have found hagiography, unreflected employment of both intentional and poietic fallacies, and simple hero worship to be rife, in the manner diagnosed by Redhead above. I blogged about this subject a little over a year ago, arriving at what I believe were similar conclusions to Heile, and wanted to offer a few quotes from this here alongside the others:

When considering historical composers, there are many obvious ways in which listeners may also approach the music in question in ways very different from those of the composers (or others from the time). One does not have to be a strict Lutheran to appreciate Bach, nor necessarily accept some of the theological motivations proffered for some of the musical decisions. An atheist would believe these were a delusion or at least a fiction, and might consider them as the expression of some wider human issues. A similar situation can apply to the tropes of heroism which inform some of Beethoven’s mid-period work (and a good deal of subsequent reception), or more ominously the anti-semitic views expressed by Wagner in his 1850 article ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik’; much work has been done considering the question of the extent to which these views, and other common anti-semitic views of the time, might have informed some of the characterisations in his music-dramas, and been understood as such by audiences of the time. If one concludes that this might indeed have been the case, this does not require automatic rejection of the work, but can facilitate an engagement with the music-dramas not simply as art works existing outside of time and place, but ones which reflect a particular set of ideologies of the time, held by the composer, which a reasonable person would today reject without necessarily rejecting all cultural work which sprang up in a context where they were indeed acceptable. Similar positions are possible with respect to representations of women, of characters from outside of the Western world, in musical works involving theatre or text; on a deeper level it is also possible to consider the ways in which abstract instrumental music might itself have grown out of texted/stage work and inherited some of the oppositions between musical materials (especially as had become codified to represent masculine and feminine characters) which were intrinsic to the latter. In all of these cases, the approach of the writer or listener amounts to something different from simply reiterating the composer’s intentions and wishes, or at least applying a different set of valorising standards to them. When applied with sufficient care for proper and balanced investigation of factual evidence (with proper referencing), rigour and transparency of argument, and elegance of presentation, not to mention some commitment to producing an argument which does more than simply reiterate that of numerous previous writers, this constitutes one variety of critical musicology. Not all or even most such work need arrive at negative conclusions, and some might affirm existing perceptions, but it does so as a result of serious consideration of alternative possibilities, rather than simply declaring them off-limits from the outset. [….] But the situation is more contested in the field of contemporary classical music. This is itself a field in which many practitioners feel themselves to be marginalised, with very little music of an atonal nature having won any degree of widespread public acceptance (even to the extent of that of composers such as Stravinsky, Britten or Shostakovich). Yet there are musicological critiques of some of this body of work emerging from people other than conservative classical music listeners. A body of work by various scholars associated with the ‘new musicology’ has contested the claims for primacy of various avant-garde music, drawing attention to what is argued to be its elitism, individualism (maintaining a nineteenth-century focus upon the ‘great composer’), abstraction and consequent social disengagement, white male middle-class bias, and artificial institutionalisation (including institutionalisation in higher education) despite its being a small minority interest. This latter point is extremely charged considering that some such musicologists inhabit university departments which they will share with some of the practitioners said to benefit from such institutional privilege.

I would welcome any comments and reflections on the thoughts by the three authors here. Is this situation inevitable? Are there any things which can be done to combat it (for example, lesser tolerance within scholarly communities towards hagiographic or deferential so-called scholarship)? Is this situation likely to be exacerbated by a scholarly environment, like that in the UK, which lends primacy to that work which has an ‘impact’ outside of an academic environment, and does achieving such impact require playing along with the politics of (and fragile egos within) a professional new music world in which critical scholarly perspective is far from being a top priority? Is the only route to one’s work gaining a wider audience and impact by serving a system of institutionalised prestige, or might impact be achievable in other environments as well? How can those involved in both scholarship and practitioners reconcile their two worlds, if indeed they can?