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.

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