A few days ago the PRS Foundation announced the short-list for this year's New Music Award. The award offers £50,000 to a creative team towards the creation and performance of a ground-breaking new work. The award seems to be attempting to do for contemporary classical music what the Turner Prize has done for contemporary art - in particular, to attempt to stir up controversy or interest by selecting projects that have a wacky or unusual approach to making music.
I spoke with one of this year's short-listed candidates, composer Marc Yeats about his life and work, and about his 'SatSymph' proposal.
Tell us something about your background.
I didn’t write this, but it’s as good a précis of my background as any.
Born in 1962, an only child, brought up in London, attended a Roman Catholic school, had traumatic treatment at the hands of his father, losing his mother to cancer in 1977, when he was just 15, by which time he’d already commenced serious painting sold through private galleries, moved to Devon with his volatile father, ran a confectionary shop, experienced bankruptcy, yet all the while yearning to creatively express himself.
A director friend told me the other day about a well-known annual Irish arts festival where some events are held in the local cathedral and, although the church hierarchy is very supportive in general of the programmes, the two rules for concerts and plays there are that there must be no swearing and no blues. Because blues, of course, is the devil’s music. This reminded me of Cliff Richard’s song from a few decades ago, Why should the devil have all the good music? and the notion that did and still does exist in certain circles that there are such things as good and bad music purely because of genres rather than content. I remember, being closely affiliated in my youth with my university’s Christian Union, how there was then even a notion that Stravinsky’s Le Sacre was aberrant in some way – those naughty rhythms, perhaps.
Are these ideas simply the result of a misplaced Puritanism, the same kind which has led one bishop in Tipperary to ban concerts of any music from the local churches? Was Plato perhaps on the right track when he warned against the dangers of music because it could adversely affect the temperaments of listeners? Would he, in fact, be less worried if he could hear much of the music being written today? Because, to my ears, the notion of music as an emotional medium, a notion I cherish, seems to be out of favour with a number of today’s composers. To be sure, we are, on the face of it, far removed from the heady days of number matrices and the myriad other devices for keeping the composer and his or her music as far from each other as possible, but on closer inspection it still seems to be deeply uncool to express oneself through one’s music. Instead we are offered an endless parade (no pun intended there!) of irony and repetition, dumbed-down and numbed-up tinkling and electronica, a blurring of job descriptions between composer and sound artist warmly embraced by night-time DJs everywhere so that the last thing one can hope for, in concert or on the radio, is the opportunity to feel something.
Yes, I’m over-dramatizing the situation, but I can’t help feeling that the desire to express something – anything - is seen too often as Bad Taste, and I’m not sure how we came to be in this position, or how to get out of it. Other than to keep doing what we – we expressionists – are doing.
May starts bright and early at 7am for Vexations with London Sinfonietta players and 10am for an Alexander Goehr Study Day with musicians from the RNCM at Wigmore Hall. We then move on to major 20th c. orchestral statements, a multimedia opera, string quartet improv. with silent film, and other goodies.
Vexations London Sinfonietta
1 May 2010 / from 7:00 / Kings Place
London Sinfonietta's performance of this Satie 'happening' can be visited any time during the day - the music will be set against a moving image installation.
Alexander Goehr Study Day
Musicians From the Royal Northern College Of Music, Clark Rundell conductor
1 May 2010 / from 10:00 / Wigmore Hall
The day’s three concerts will feature works of instrumental, vocal and chamber music that span a period of nearly fifty years and closes with a performance of Sing, Ariel, a cantata from the 1990s which pays homage to, among others, his teacher Olivier Messiaen.
Stuart MacRae first rose to prominence when his Violin Concerto was performed at the 2001 Proms by Tasmin Little. His 2008 piece Gaudete - also featured at the Proms - set the poetry of Ted Hughes and marked a significant development in his musical language. Recently he has written a number of stage works, including The Assassin Tree (2006) with a libretto by Simon Armitage and Remembrance Day for Scottish Opera's Five:15 series
Tell us something about your background.
I was born and brought up in Inverness, though both my parents are from Skye so I spent a lot of time there too. Both my parents have 'normal' jobs, but they've been members of the Inverness Gaelic Choir for as long as I can remember - so music was always encouraged at home. I left school early and went to Durham University to study music, then Guildhall to do a Masters in composition, finishing when I was 20. I was in a big hurry in those days, for no particular reason. After that I stayed in London for a few years, spent a year in Paris and then moved to Glasgow, where I'm still based.
I went to Wilton’s Music Hall last night to hear a Kreutzer concert of Mozart and pieces by Rolf Martinsson and our very own Jim Aitchison. Great concert. One of the Mozart pieces was the ‘Nannerl’ septet, written to celebrate his sister’s birthday. If you have been to any of the Kreutzer concerts you will know that their violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved presents all the music in a most enlightening manner, making you want to rush home and google everything and everybody and download the music onto iTunes, which indeed I did. He talked about the Mozart septet as an undiluted expression of joy, Mozart’s joy at the thought of his home and family. When Peter was talking about joy, I was reminded of someone I met in Utah a few years ago, who said that she was interested in the concept of joy, which could only come after you had been truly penitential. I said at the time that I didn’t think I had ever felt joy, which I think of as an extreme emotion like ecstasy or murderous rage. It has a transcendental or spiritual quality that is very different from happiness or content. (And, what I didn’t say was that being truly penitential was a dubious concept in itself, not so much a grey area as a minefield.)
Mozart as a child
In the last blog I think I said that I believe every piece of music starts with the composer, his emotional life, something that people often forget when they temporarily take possession of a piece. Would anyone who has read about Mozart deny that he had an extremely complex character? – if you have ever met a prodigy as I have, they have a strange combination often of genius and arrested development. The value of their genius to the world can make people blind to everything else about them, especially once they are dead! But I believe that Mozart was constantly returning to his lack of childhood as a theme in his music – and more than anything, after a particularly dark or serious passage or movement he seems to erupt into a savagely hysterical burst of childishness. People talk so fondly of Mozart, as childlike or – joyous, whereas to me it always sounds like Mozart has gone into denial about whatever it was he touched upon. The sudden turn that the music sometimes takes into child-like happiness is like an arrow that points to the darkest sadness, even despair.
The piece that he wrote straightaway after his father’s death, the Musical Joke, parodies bad composing, an astonishing thing to do just after Leopold’s death. Yet you never read anything to this effect, that this piece is almost like post-traumatic stress syndrome in action, music by turns childish, vicious and angry, painfully unfunny like the unwanted guest at a wake. It is even played as a piece of easy listening!
Maybe you think I am over-analysing, and after all, this is just my personal reaction, which is tinged with my own psychology. But I do think that the colossal mythologizing of Mozart that has gone on over the last 100 years or so has made it difficult to hear (or play) the fine gradations of feeling in his music, in any case, those feelings that do not conform to the cute wunderkind of legend, and the Salzburg Tourist Office. I remember the first time I heard Mozart played on period instruments, when the gut strings seemed to underline the unhappiness that lies at the core of the music, how I felt that he was a Lost Boy, and not the silly-ass of Amadeus.
As for composers who can genuinely reach a transcendental level of joy, the obvious choice is J.S. Bach, who makes a deliberate attempt to spiritually work through his ‘issues’ in his music. I can honestly say that I have never written anything joyous, and wonder what I would do if I was asked to write a piece on the subject of joy, or that was undilutedly joyous in nature. It would be an incredibly challenging commission for me. Maybe I am not ‘truly penitential’ enough yet!
After posting my previous article, I was astonished to find myself so quickly on the receiving end of a few negative reactions to the text and to my work (not on the CT website it must be said). While I felt the speed of some of the responses was indicative of presumptions and criticism leveled without the foundation of any enquiry into the context or substance of my work, it also occurred to me that I had rather brought this upon myself by presenting such an abbreviated and unexplained overview of my activities with Antony Gormley and visual art in general. And so it seemed a timely moment to investigate some of the issues raised, with reference to the Memory Field project.
In summary, the main objections focused upon my posting of my ‘sound-map’ of the Angel of the North, in response to which it was stated that to corral notation into the shape of a 2 dimensional angel was meaningless in terms of how that shape would relate to the resulting sound, and further to this, to use the notion of retrograde in sound as any kind of representation of a retrograde visual structure (as in symmetrical forms such as a body), was similarly meaningless when transferred over into the new domain. It was also stated that the experience of music resides solely in the orbit of what is heard (i.e. it is a hermetic auditory-only experience) and all reference to the visual is either coincidental and/or irrelevant.
My critics should have gone so much further; the ludicrous fallacy at the core of my approach and the glaring inconsistencies in execution are seen in the detail of the sound-map of the Angel which contains far more offences than those singled out. This includes a row of notes that (more or less) progressively expands through interval as an allusion to the expansion proposed by the sculptor in the Angel of the North. However, the ‘expansion’ as exposed by me in pitches is not in any way equal in increment or disposition and is therefore certainly inconsistent with the smoothly graded expansion of the sculpture. Worse than this though is the direction of expansion: in the sculpture this occurs from the centre outwards, but if you lay my pitches out on an image of the Angel, my expansion happens in the reverse direction to that of the sculpture, from the wing edges into the central core. Then there is the employment of retrograde in pitch in order to allude to the bi-lateral symmetry of the sculpture. The concern expressed was that a retrograde in music cannot be perceived as easily or vividly as a symmetrical visual retrograde, and that perhaps plain repetition would have been a more representative analogue. The rest of Memory Field contains a host of similar such transgressions, indeed it is riddled with, and built upon them, and I shall come to some more of them later.
Not only are all of the charges true, but I was more than aware of them beforehand. What is sad, though I suppose understandable, is that some such views miss the whole point, perhaps rushing past a world or two in their haste to these conclusions, conclusions often drawn by those in fear of preserving a perceived purity of particular subjective delineations of what music is and what music isn’t, where it is and where it isn’t, or at least, an attempt to pronounce upon how relationships (if there are any) between the visual and the sounded should be properly perceived. The huge irony in all this for me is that my way of working and my own beliefs about this ‘art in sound’ are probably so close to the beliefs behind those criticisms which were made on the basis of no familiarity whatsoever with me or my music.
In many ways, the project to respond to visual art in music is hopelessly flawed: the sheer volume of inconsistencies and incongruities between the spaces in which each discipline exists and the behavior and qualities of their respective material vehicles are so at odds that one can see why logic demands a separation. And yet history demonstrates a consistent compulsion on the part of so many composers to explore links between these worlds, be it indirectly through visual elements in opera, or imaginary visual and narrative realms in programmatic music, or actual responses to specific artworks, or even hybrids that borrow from a variety of disciplines.There just isn’t space here to list all the examples of where composers have allowed the walls between sight and sound to become porous, and that is without mention of those who possesses a neurological bridge in the form of synaesthesia (the completely individual nature of this condition notwithstanding).
In the case of my own practice, I think many people will be surprised by just how conventional my approach is: I write traditionally scored concert music using an array of the most basic and well known traditional musical devices that any graduate from a typical Western European-type music education might expect. The only slight difference is that I don’t mind showing an audience some of the strange ways material for a piece can begin and that as this has very often found its origins in visual arts of late and I have found it useful to let people know this.
I know perfectly well the nature of where the objections lie. The controversy described above has all emanated from just one manifestation of the many different kinds of starting points I play and experiment with when beginning a piece. The interesting thing was the nature of the assumptions made. One of my ways of working with an artwork has been to try to lay the form out on manuscript paper, to see what happens. As pointed out, this is very often a fruitless exercise with the sounding result certainly not as interesting as the visual effect and I routinely reject vast amounts of material generated like this. Sometimes it does produce something arresting, but yes it could be argued that no matter how good, there cannot be any substantial or aesthetically relevant link between the curve on a
Recent or soon to be graduates from the Yale school of music comprise a fine collection of young composers, including Timo Andres whose album length work for two pianos was recently released by Nonesuch, and Ted Hearne who won the Gaudeamus prize ( and whom we interviewed on CT here). Now five of this talented group have enterprisingly got together to put on a show of their music at New York's Le Poisson Rouge this April 12th. I interviewd Chris Cerrone about the project.
Tell us about the upcoming concert.
Sleeping Giant is the premiere concert presented by a group of emerging composers that have come out of the Yale School of Music over the last few years. We'll be presenting new works by Timo Andres, Ted Hearne, Jacob Cooper, Robert Honstein and myself. I cooked up the idea for the concert when the five of us spent a weekend up in Westport, NY at the Honstein family summer cabin. There was so much joy in the group of us spending time together that for me it made sense for us to put on a concert. We're all close friends with a shared history and a strong desire to make music. As for the name, we wanted to name the concert after something New Haven-y, so we finally settled on Sleeping Giant, a park in Hamden, CT, an homage to our professor Ingram Marshall, who is famous (at least around Yale) for taking hikes and collecting mushrooms in that park.
I first met the sculptor Antony Gormley in 2007 in the spacious drawing studio of his magnificent studio complex in Kings Cross. I seem to remember our meeting was cut short by his having to rush off to an emergency dental appointment with toothache (at least I hope that’s what it was). Nonetheless, Antony was fascinated by the idea of his work being used to generate music and generously encouraged what were continuing to be, my faltering and mostly frustrated efforts. It took 2 years to travel from the first ideas to the finished piece. Initially I found the severity and concentration in the material execution of Antony’s work left me with no purchase with which to begin anything.
In this first, dentally compromised, meeting with Antony, I was fascinated to discover that, in common with the other artists I have worked with, he was acutely aware of what he felt to be the enormous affective power of music. This was reinforced during our second meeting at his groundbreaking 2007 Hayward Gallery show. Many of us will remember the extraordinary Blind Light installation: a 25 sq m cloud chamber into which the visitor could venture and ‘disappear’. In the chamber, the feeling of being in contemporary central London rapidly receded and viewers found themselves in what felt, psychologically and perceptually, like a completely limitless space where the only visual experience was whiteness, apart from a few of the most fleeting shadowy fragments of disembodied companions.
The drama of the Blind Light experience was irresistible and overwhelming. In discussion with Antony afterwards I was astonished to hear him confess that Blind Light was his ‘pathetic attempt to mimic the effect of music.’Disarmingly modest this may have been, but the link to the effect and affect of music was fascinating and here was a concrete musical analogue: from the proposition in Antony’s sculpture of the body as a ‘lever on space’ to the idea of music as a field. However, this raised as many conundrums as it solved: it yielded only a rather nebulous idea with no concrete starting points with the obvious problem that music already is a field.
The first turning points came through two linked encounters. Firstly, I discovered that Antony was strongly affected by the writings of the great medieval thinker, St Augustine, in particular his reflections upon memory as recorded in book X, chapters VIII and XVI of the Confessions. Augustine’s miraculous words describing memory as “a spreading, limitless room within…” resonated at once with Antony’s preoccupation with the body as a field, and by extension, the pervasive effect of music. The second encounter took the form of media reports I heard by chance concerning public reaction to the installation of Antony’s work, Another Place, on Crosby Beach. Aside from controversy over the 100 cast iron figures looking out to sea somehow causing either offence or a safety hazard, I was astonished to hear ordinary people relating how they came to ‘be’ with the sculptures, as if they possessed strength to bring comfort and to withstand and hold the spectrum of human vulnerabilities brought to them. This was a pivotal moment.
I now had a formula I could exploit: real memories, in the form of text (which therefore suggested the use of a singer) dispersed over constellations of (abstract) structure derived directly from Antony’s sculpture. This would give a level of operation at the fore to mid-ground, but I also needed an overarching form. This came from 2 sources: one was a response to the structure of Augustine’s text in chapter VIII of the Confessions and the other came from Antony’s words to me regarding his most famous work, the Angel of the North. As it happened, both corresponded to a process of augmentation: Antony described the Angel in terms of his expansion series of work (you can see the radial ribs on the sculpture concentrate at the centre and increasingly disperse towards the wing-tips). Augustine’s text dealing with memory, by and large, begins with descriptions of local senses and expands outwards through to reflections upon the vastness of what the mind can comprehend - in stark contrast to its apparently diminutive physical dimensions. The next tasks were to assemble the various ingredients and, over time, learn the ‘language’ of what I had in front of me.
After literally months of searching, I found memory fragments in the form of texts which I then I broke down into an order that I hoped roughly fitted with the trajectory of expansion described above. I decided to begin by using fragments of sensory recollections of taste, colour, smell, weather etc. Next, in what could be described as being in ascending order of increasing physical distance from the mind, I chose a subject that described consciousness engaging with the human world: a world of others and of conflict. I decided upon a recent event within the European continent: the Srebrenica massacre which occurred during the 1995 Bosnian war and the words of a father calling for his missing son and those of his mother subsequently at his unmarked grave. The use of the text was made possible by the kind permission and invaluable advice of one of the UK’s le
Taking a bow is one of those curious aspects of being a composer. I've sometimes caught myself wondering what is going on in a composer's mind as they jump on stage- does this moment in the spotlight make it all worthwhile; is it a terrible duty which would be avoided if only it could; or is it something somewhere in between?
I still find it a quiet source of pride how few composers are ready for that moment in the spotlight, we emerge tramp-like and awkward - the epitomy of uncool, uncommercial - we come on stage in our un-ironed jackets, or with a sock still stuck in one trouser leg. Then we scurry across the stage as quick as we can, not knowing where to put ourselves, and take an awkward bow. There's an interesting paradox in the way so many composers are so unnatural on the stage: we spend our entire lives trying to create something that is after all intended for performance 'on the stage'. We are aware of the finest, subtlest details of how certain effects in our music will come across - we can subdue an entire crowd, get them laughing or crying with our notes; and yet when we have to present ourselves in person on the stage we are likely as not to stumble on the steps before we even get there!
I for one would love ocassionally to attend performances where I wasn't called up to the stage - for starters one is forced to sit in a poor seat at the edge of the row, probably near the back, so as to effect a quick and easy emergence. Then, rather than listening to the music, you spend the entire concert wondering how you will get past that lady with the large hat sitting right in the way of the stage access; do I just shake the conductor's hand, or do I make my way through the entire ensemble kissing and hugging all ten of them, forcing the audience to keep clapping while I do (and risking that they might stop!).
At the end of the day, we composers probably secretly quite like a bit of adulation from time to time, but there's no doubt on the whole we're much happier and more comfortable when we get back to our desks and have only the concerns of the manuscript page to occupy us.