Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Monday, April 09, 2012

Hebrides Ensemble, The Jam House, Edinburgh 29 March 2012

A couple of weeks ago, on 29 March, I attended a rather splendid concert by the Hebrides Ensemble at The Jam House in Edinburgh. The main work, and the reason I went, was Messaien's Quartet For The End Of Time, but in keeping with Hebrides' commitment to new music they had commissioned two companion works, specifying only the instrumentation (piano/violin/cello/clarinet) and the piece they would be programmed alongside.

First up was Between Waking and Dreams, by Mark David Boden, which I liked immediately. I think what I liked best about it was that it didn't sound like anybody else: not like somebody trying to emulate a teacher or hero, just someone getting on with writing a delightful piece. The programme notes explained that it was inspired by a Polish poem contrasting the peacefulness of the view from an aeroplane with the bustle down on the ground, and there were certainly contrasts of that kind: but the piece didn't flaunt its "programme" either. I liked it; I'd like to hear it again; I want to hear more of Mark David Boden.

Next came Suzanne Parry John's Introspections and Lullabies for an Unborn Child, which made less of an impression on me. It was perfectly pleasant, and obviously well-crafted, but made no connection to me of the kind the Boden piece had. My jotted note said "elevator music for musical intellectuals", which while harsh is a defensible description. I didn't come away wanting more.

The second half (prefixed by a talk by Richard Holloway on the end of time which quoted from Blade Runner, Philip Larkin, TS Eliot and various others) was the mighty Messaien masterpiece. With players of the calibre of these (Yann Ghiro, clarinet; David Alberman, violin; William Conway, cello; Philip Moore, piano) I expected a great performance, and I got one. The ensemble, put cruelly to the test in the Interlude and the Dance of Fury for the Seven Trumpets, was uncanny, the technical virtuosity wonderful. It had never occurred to me before how self-effacing Messaien was when it came to writing the piano part: there are whole movements for cello (with piano) and violin (with piano), and a mind-boggling one for solo clarinet, but the pianist never gets to show off. Mind you, it was composed in a POW camp, with half the piece sketched out before a piano was even available, and the piano on which it was premiered was not exactly in prime condition. Still, all the other musicians at the first performance had similar crosses to bear. Not so in Edinburgh, where everything was spot on.


At 12 July, 2012 14:47, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just come across your review of my piece and I've been feeling sad about it. Unable to shake it off, I decided I had to write. I do not mind in the slightest that you did not like it. In fact I have my own misgivings about it, as any mortal artist does. In this post post-modern climate our tastes are diverse and yours, like mine are to be respected and valued. I don't feel threatened or defensive. I am not insecure or in need of validation, and I really am not looking to start a debate. I just had to get this off my chest. What wounded me was your belief that the piece I wrote to mark the birth of my first child had the depth of elevator music. If you were familiar with my body of work you would understand that as outlined in my programme notes this piece was a departure for me; somewhat more 'accessible' than usual. I wrestled with this, but ultimately decided that it was the most honest way to handle the core material (a lullaby I wrote for my baby). With that in mind, it's tonality is it's integrity. I wrestled with that, and questioned myself periodically, but it was an inevitable and sincere truth. Perhaps I made the wrong choice, but I assure you the decision I made was informed. Having done some research and teaching on 'musac' culture and the rise of 'lift music' I understand the genre. That something I wrote to reflect on recovering from emergency surgery, chronic sleep deprivation, and bringing a new life into being is 'defensibly' vacuous breaks my heart. I do not need you to like to my music; I don't expect it and it is not the reason I write. I don't know if you have children, but if/when you do, and you slave over honouring them in some way however tiny or huge, I hope no one tells you that what you did has no meaning. Perhaps you could let it go if they said they disliked it, or didn't understand your choices. But I assure you that if someone was to say your endeavour was generic or devoid, you would be as sad as I am. This matter aside, I would like to thank you for complimenting me on the craft of the piece. This was a big concern given the circumstances under which I was working and I am pleased you found merit in this. Furthermore, many thanks for providing me with the title of my next paper! Ironically, an academic from Glasgow University's Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts enjoyed my piece so much I have been invited to present a paper for them in September. I have being mulling the title over for some time now, and having read your review have settled on 'Between an Elevator and a Hard Place: navigating the minefield of 'feeling' in recent works'. The world is such a harmonious place!

My kind and sincere regards to you,

Dr Suzanne Parry John.

At 17 July, 2012 00:46, Blogger Rob said...

Dear Suzanne,

Thank you for your comment, which aroused mixed emotions in me. I tend to assume that my posts are read by a comparatively small audience, so to find a composer or performer has been reading my reviews is very gratifying. On the other hand, I am very sorry indeed to have caused you pain with my review. I think there are three main points I would like to make in my defence.

Firstly and most obviously, my review was based on a single experience of your piece. Whether I would respond differently after repeated hearings, I cannot say. Heraclitus reckoned that no man bathes twice in the same river: John Cage went to some trouble to underline that no two concert experiences are the same (in 4'33"). If I heard your piece again I might find it quite different.

Secondly, my description of it as "elevator music for intellectuals" was intended only to convey that while I found the piece not wholly devoid of interest it completely failed to engage my emotions. Perhaps I could have phrased it better, but in fairness I did say that that was my jotted note at the time. I did not intend any judgement as to the ultimate musical value of the piece: indeed, there are plenty of serial works which I view as interesting mechanisms, like a Swiss watch, but which leave me cold. If it makes you happier to have your work consigned to the same vault by this reviewer as the works of Boulez, then be happy. For that matter, how many listeners engage emotionally with "The Art of Fugue", or "Catalogue d'Oiseaux"?

Finally, as a father myself I don't doubt the strength of the feelings which inspired "Introspections and Lullabies". but as a reviewer, or indeed a concert-goer, I can judge only what I hear, not what you felt. Events in artists' lies may help us to understand how and why particular works came about, but they can have no possible bearing on their value. Should we value Peter Grimes more or less because of Britten's homosexuality? or Parsifal more or less because of Wagner's anti-semitism? If someone proved tomorrow that J S Bach had been a serial paedophile who had abused his position as Cantor at the Thomaskirche, should I love the Goldberg Variations any the less? Or the Christmas Oratorio?

To sum up: my review was intended to imply nothing more than that, on that occasion, your piece failed to engage my emotions. Feel free to consider that a failing on my part. In any event, I wish you well for the pieces's future and for your other work, and am sorry to have given you cause for sorrow.


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