Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Way We Listen Now

We have already posted an excerpt from Bayan Northcott’s acclaimed new collection, The Way We Listen Now, on this blog. The book was given its official launch in mid-April at the Austrian Cultural Forum in London. Christopher Wintle, publisher of Plumbago Books and editor of the collection, gave the following address at that launch:

Many years ago, I used to rent a holiday flat in Cornwall from the artist Patrick Heron. Patrick was gregarious, and liked his guests to know what he was up to. One day, when I got back from the beach, he said, “Come and see what I’ve done this afternoon.” And there, in his studio, was a beautiful gouache.

“An afternoon’s work,” I cried, “and you’ll sell it for thousands!”
Patrick drew in his breath.
“An afternoon’s work, yes,” he said tersely, “but also a lifetime’s work.”

Bayan’s collection of essays – which is his first – is rather like Patrick’s gouache. In publishing terms we put it together rather quickly – it took about seven months from start to finish. Yet, one way or another, it seemed we’d been talking about it for half a lifetime. Back in the early ‘eighties, Bayan and I were closely involved in trying to make sense of the mass of writings that now make up the Hans Keller Nachlass: how on earth were we going to divide it all up – chronologically, topically, philosophically, or what? The categories we came up with eventually stood behind the CUP Essays on Music of 1994; but they’ve also formed the basis for all our later Keller books. So we’re used to sorting.

Then again, when I began Plumbago Books in 2000, with its emphasis on criticism and composition, Bayan was my strongest ally and has remained so ever since. Those of you who’ve read his preface to Hugh Wood’s Staking Out the Territory, which we published last year, know just how well he can position composers and their writings, not only of our time, but also of remote times. So he knows Hugh’s book well. And, in fact, Bayan’s book is directly modelled on Hugh’s: it’s the same size, about the same length, and is comparably illustrated – in Bayan’s case with marvellous portraits by Milein Cosman and iconic images by Michael Daley. The text even opens with a drawing of Hans by Milein – an appropriate start, as Keller is one of Bayan’s critical touchstones. Indeed, I can proudly say, The Way We Listen Now testifies to how deeply Austro-German thought has helped mould recent British musical thought. More still, Michael Daley’s cover shows Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky symbiotically fused; and in doing so, it distils that key aspect of twentieth-century self-consciousness that Keller used to describe as ‘foregrounding’ our cultural ‘backgrounds’. The work the cover refers to, of course, is The Fairy’s Kiss (1928).

But there the parallels stop. For whereas Hugh’s book is the work of a composer who approaches every literary genre from the standpoint of an Oxford-trained historian, Bayan’s is written by an Oxford-trained English scholar, later turned composer, who loves to bring everything into his purview. Musically, he chronicles our times in all its serious manifestations: Jean-Paul Sartre might have called him a compulsive ‘totalizer’. There are marvellous set-pieces here on different aspects of composition, on words and music, on composers from Sebastian Bach to Judith Weir, and on the flow of the musical scene through authenticity, the revolutions of 1968, broadcast music, world music, Philip Glass and Oasis. Sometimes his sentences overwhelm us with a Kantian sublimity of allusion. Here, for instance, is how he follows up praise for George Benjamin’s song of 1990, On Silence, for mezzo-soprano and five viols:

… an increasing number of other composers have been rising to the opportunities of early music ensembles – from the 1991 Glyndebourne Serenades for period wind ensemble commissioned from Jonathan Dove and Nigel Osborne in celebration of the Mozart Bicentenary, to John Woolrich’s deployment of the full Mozartean line-up of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in The Theatre Represents a Garden – Night (1991), by way of whole arrays of viol pieces commissioned by Fretwork in celebration of the 1995 Purcell tercentenary, and more recently by Concordia to complement the pavan sequence of Dowland’s Lachrymae.

He then cites Alexander Goehr, Tansy Davies, Gavin Bryers, Peter Sculthorpe, Paul Ruders, Tan Dun and ‘even Elvis Costello’.

Over two-thirds of these essays are drawn from the weekend review section of The Independent as it appeared in the 1980s and ‘90s. It is hugely to the credit of a national paper that it gave Bayan such freedom to map out his views, and we must all count ourselves grateful. Such an enterprise, I fear, is no longer possible. Yet, for all the quality of The Independent, assembling this collection was not just a matter of transferring newsprint to bookprint. On the contrary, much of our effort was spent trying to create a house-style that kept the fluency of reportage while rising to academic demands for accuracy. The outcome, I believe, is literary, focussed and sometimes witty. Here, for instance, is Bayan on W. H. Auden in the late 1940s:

… Auden had evidently known some of Mozart’s and Wagner’s operatic works since his youth, even if he claimed he only learned to love [Wagner’s] after reading Nietzsche’s arguments against it. Nor for that matter, were his interests entirely absorbed by opera in his later years. Despite such naughty aperçus as ‘people who attend chamber music concerts are like Englishmen who go to church abroad,’ his conversations and letters … are full of enthusiastic comments on choral, symphonic and chamber-music works by [composers from] Bach [to] Stravinsky.

However, there is a third and vital aspect to the book. I believe that in every thinker or artist worth their salt, we look, not just for the scavenger and the martinet, but also for the dancer who is prepared to leap through fire. Bayan is just such a dancer. He is nothing if not forthright in his views; he isn’t led by fashion; and for decades he has stuck out for genuine standards in composing, performing, and listening – and in this, he is a true heir of Hans Keller. Those who don’t bend with the times, of course, can be thought of as spoilers: but the test of time has shown that Bayan’s caveats remain, even when it concerns those whom he personally knows and likes best. For example, he notes that –

While the coruscating surfaces of a Carter, Boulez or Maxwell Davies score may be welcomed as the most exhilarating, dazzling or disturbing expressions of transformation, what is being transformed is by no means so obvious – and this is ultimately felt as an absence, or lack.

That was written in 1984. Yet the deeper questions, what does it mean for a composer to write thematic music on a theme which is never disclosed, and does that ‘lack’ have to be negative?, are still, 25 years on, worth debating. Modern composers, after all, are generally theme-shy; many of their popular precursors weren’t; and, audiences, oddly, still like tunes, or at least something to hang on to.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Nigel Fortune and Vernon Handley

Bruce Phillips, our music editor-at-large, writes:

One funeral and a memorial concert on the same day on Friday, May 1st. In Birmingham the funeral of Nigel Fortune, who died on Good Friday at the age of 84. A large crowd of people turned out for the Humanist ceremony at West Bromwich Crematorium virtually filling the chapel. There were two addresses, the first by Clare Short, Fortune’s neighbour in Handsworth, Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Ladywood, and controversial erstwhile government minister for overseas development. Fortune, a lifelong Labour supporter, was as tireless in his political campaigning as he was in the development of high standards in musicological research, the editing of text and music, and the production of a generation of Birmingham music graduates. One of them, the composer John Casken, delivered a moving tribute to a figure who had obviously profoundly influenced his life and career, as he had that of so many others.

Thence to Worcester for a concert in the cathedral in memory of the great British conductor Vernon Handley, who died in September 2008 aged 77. Handley, universally known as Tod, was largely self-taught. Though he read English at Balliol he spent most of his time at Oxford conducting. He wrote out of the blue to Sir Adrian Boult and they met and became friends, Boult becoming mentor to Handley as he began to make his name as predominantly but not exclusively a conductor of British music. Tod inherited Boult’s preference (which Boult had inherited from Nikisch) for long conducting batons and for communicating his intentions through the end of the stick rather than through exaggerated bodily gestures. He was a tireless champion of British music, notably Bax, Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams but he also went out of his way to programme and record less well known composers such as Stanford, Bantock, Boughton,

Handley conducted most of the leading British orchestras in the course of his very full career, and in 2007 became associated with the English Symphony Orchestra. It was this orchestra, conducted by his pupil Laura Jellicoe, that filled that great cathedral with magnificent sound in one of Bliss’s fanfares, Elgar’s Overture Cockaigne, Finzi’s Shakespeare song cycle Let us garlands bring with baritone Michael George, and finally Vaughan Williams’ music inspired by Blake’s illustrations: Job—A Masque for Dancing, considered by Handley to have been his best recording. The saxophones depicting Job’s Comforters never sounded so oily, the Pavane of the Sons of the Morning never so stately and noble.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Wagner today and forever

From Beyond the Stave will take a short break for three weeks, returning at the end of May. In the meantime we leave you with Eastman Studies in Music series editor, Ralph Locke, whose own book has recently been published by a publishing house just down the road from Boydell & Brewer's Suffolk HQ.

Wagner’s operas repel some people and strike others as simply ridiculous. But many of those who scoff, or claim to be repulsed, have never listened to an entire Wagner opera, studied its libretto, or done much reading about the works, their background, and their importance. It is easier now than ever to get one’s ears and eyes around Wagner’s works. All of his operas (except to some extent his earliest three) are available in numerous superb recorded CD and DVD performances. The Metropolitan Opera sent a live high-definition video transmission of Tristan und Isolde to movie theaters around the world in March 2008, and repeated it on television a few months later. All told, the performance reached millions of viewers.

During a recent out-of-town trip, the car that I rented was outfitted with something new to me: Sirius Satellite Radio. I tuned in to the Metropolitan Opera Radio channel one weekday morning at 7:45AM, only to find myself in the middle of a recording from the Met’s audio archives: a 1971 Saturday matinee radiocast of Tristan. The opera must have started more than an hour earlier: we were already in Act 2, heading toward Tristan’s entry and the great love duet. The featured singers were soprano Birgit Nilsson (legendary for her rock-solid performances in the 1960s and 70s) and tenor Jess Thomas. For my taste, both of them were outshone by the less well-known Irene Dalis as a riveting Brangäne. Clearly, Dalis possessed one of the great mezzo-soprano voices—and mezzo temperaments!—of the twentieth century. (Her intense portrayal of Kundry, in the 1962 Bayreuth recording of Parsifal under Knappertsbusch, is praised by connoisseurs as one of the best ever.)

A few days before I was thrown into the heaving surges of Tristan und Isolde at such an early hour, someone at the Christian Science Monitor asked me to comment on the recently inaugurated Ring Cycle at Los Angeles Opera (more on this below). Though my own operatic research veers towards the Italian and French repertoire, the Met re-broadcast from 1971 and the news about Los Angeles’s Ring Cycle reminded me how important Wagner was and remains for the musical world, and for Western cultural life, generally.

Despite the remarks of confirmed anti-Wagnerians, the operas (or, as Wagner termed them, “music dramas”) remain commanding monuments of artistic inspiration and insight. And they have been broadly influential, besides. Indeed, it seems to me nearly impossible to overestimate the impact of Wagner’s theories and the operas in which he put those theories into often blazingly brilliant practice. Before Wagner, the full resources of symphonic music—the elaborate development of musical motive and astute handling of key, chord, and modulation—had been brought to new heights by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Wagner was the first to propose certain immensely effective ways in which these essentially symphonic and sonata-like resources could be harnessed to an acted-out story, in conjunction with other resources, such as sets and costumes.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle remains, to my mind, the highest of his achievements. It uses sharply etched motives and no less distinctive orchestral colors to characterize—brilliantly, movingly—the individuals and actions on stage. As many a Wagner commentator has recognized, the motives do not necessarily stay fixed but are altered, combined, reharmonized, and sometimes utterly transformed. (For the utter novice, one great place to start is Deryck Cooke’s perceptive 2-CD set, An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen, which uses musical excerpts from the still-unsurpassed Solti recording. Another is the hilarious—and remarkably accurate—narrated version by “concert comedienne” Anna Russell, which is likewise now available on CD.) The resulting music, immensely varied and emotionally pointed, suggests how we might feel about the story that is being played out in front of us. Of course, we are not obligated to respond in the way that the music wants to impel us. As always with great art, we are free to give in to the tide’s flow—or to resist it, by which I mean think critically about it.

Wagner’s innovations shaped the operatic work of composers within Germany and abroad, such as Massenet and Debussy in France. Directly or indirectly (i.e., through the works of the post-Wagnerians), these innovations also became embedded in the practices of musicians who accompanied silent films. (Of course, Wagner’s works were by no means the only root of silent-film accompanying. Perhaps the single most basic influence came from the established practices of incidental music in the theater: a small orchestra played short tunes and more continuous figurations “under” mimed action scenes and even under many spoken exchanges.)

Once sound film arrived in the 1920s, the standard devices of silent-film accompanying found their way into the practices of film-score composers. These (partly Wagnerian) devices continue to work their reliable magic in our own day. Particular features from Wagner’s Ring Cycle find echo in Howard Shore’s background score to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: the orchestra underlines, with vividly characterized themes and distinctive orchestral colors and textures, the highly contrasted characters and their temptations and travails.

Elsewhere in the popular realm a different kind of Wagnerian ambition often shows up. One need only think of the sound-and-light shows that occur nightly in front of certain historic European buildings or, in Egypt, at the pyramids at Gizeh. Götterdämmerung-like effects have become standard at ice-skating exhibitions and stadium-rock concerts.

Still, Wagner’s achievement in the Ring Cycle remains incomparable. No other operatic work is at once so great and so vast. And so daunting. Few cities in the world have an opera company capable of mounting even one of the Ring operas in a given year. No wonder people in Los Angeles are getting so excited that the first two Ring operas are being performed there this season (Das Rheingold in February and March; Die Walküre during April, featuring Plácido Domingo as Siegmund) and that all four will be scheduled in 2010—along with a two-and-a-half-month city-wide Wagner festival involving over 50 arts and cultural organizations.

Los Angeles’s mammoth Wagner project will surely attract people who come from many walks of life and have many different tastes and, we might say, cultural commitments. Brünnhilde and Siegfried, armed with helmets (or not, depending on the costume designer) and industrial-strength voices (for sure), could even be considered the original heavy-metal artists! The Ring Cycle is a world unto itself. It can be explored again and again, in different productions and with different performers. And, like all great works of art, the more one brings to it, and the more one approaches it with an open and active, challenging mind, the more one gets in return.

I also imagine that opera lovers from elsewhere will make Los Angeles a chosen destination, as already happens every summer at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus that Wagner himself designed, and at the Seattle Opera (whose every-four-years Ring Cycle returns this coming August).

Meanwhile, those of us in more modest-sized cities and towns have access, as I mentioned earlier, to Wagner’s various operas through CDs and DVDs. There are also splendidly insightful and challenging books. Restricting myself to titles from the Boydell family of imprints (including University of Rochester Press and Camden House), I might mention the multi-authored companions to Wagner’s Meistersinger and Parsifal and books on the importance of two cities in Wagner’s career: Venice and Zurich. Stephen McClatchie’s Analyzing Wagner's Operas tells the engrossing story of how the writings of a widely respected scholar of the 1920s-30s, Alfred Lorenz, served as a “musical metaphor” for Nazi ideology. (The often perverted appropriation of Wagner by the Third Reich need not, however, scare us away from exploring the works today, and finding out for ourselves what they have to offer.) In another recent study, cultural historian Hannu Salmi reveals unknown details of Wagner’s early years in Riga (today the capital of Latvia) and Königsberg (today the Russian city of Kaliningrad). Salmi’s book also recounts the struggles of local musicians throughout the Baltic region to get Wagner’s operas performed even halfway adequately.

And now, as I indicated at the outset, there is the Metropolitan Opera Radio channel (via Sirius Satellite). No Ring Cycle operas were to be heard during the few days when I was driving that nicely outfitted car. But it is surely only a matter of time before Sirius will be broadcasting them. Perhaps all four operas will be scheduled, one after the other, running for some 16 or more hours straight. Operaphiles may end up driving out of town on the highway and then back home, repeating the trip as many times as needed. Or they may prefer to sit listening in their driveway, running down the battery until that sweet-sad moment of release when the fabled Rhine overflows its banks and what we perhaps mistake for real life can begin again.

Wagner fans will also be interested to hear that the Boydell Press will reissue John Lucas' acclaimed biography of conductor Reginald Goodall later this year.