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Voices and vices

Voices and vices

Whittall, Arnold

Voices and vices ARNOLD WHITTALL Reviving the muse: essays on music after modernism Edited by Peter Davison [with essays by Menno Boogaard, John Borstlap, John Boyden, Peter Davison, Ernest Hall, Robin Holloway, David Matthews, Edward Pearce, Roger Scruton, Robert Walker, Robin Walker] Claridge Press (Brinkworth, 2001); 274pp; 16.99. ISBN 1 870626 54 0.

The voice of music: conversations with composers of our time Anders Beyer Edited and translated by Jean Christensen dr Anders Beyer [conversations with Gyorgy Ligeti, Karl Aage Rasmussen, Sofia Gubaidulina, Thorkell Sigurbjornsson, Olav Anton Thommessen, Erik Bergman, Vagn Holmboe, Per NorgArd, Arne Nordheim, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edison Denisov, Ingvar Lidholm, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Hans Gefors, Alfred Schnittke, Jukka Tiensuu, Tikhon Khrennikov, Pawel Szymanski, Philip Glass, Magnus Lindberg, lannis Xenakis, Kaija Saariaho] Ashgate (Aldershot, 2000); xvii, 335pp; L45. ISBN 1 84014 230 8. Roger Scruton’s The aesthetics of music (Oxford, 1997) is flawed in its analysis of post-tonal music, but formidable in its exposition of the philosophical and cultural context in which that music has come about. While I am not so arrogant as to express surprise that Scruton’s latest foray into this territory (as ‘keynote’ essay in Reviving the muse) makes no attempt to answer the very specific criticisms of his work by people like myself (see MT, Winter 1999, pp.11-21), I am both surprised and shocked that he should be willing to allow his name to be associated with the level of thinking displayed in some of the other contributions. In particular, those by Peter Davison, John Borstlap and Robert Walker lose all credibility by the crudity of claims which, in other spheres, would give even tabloid journalism a bad name.

The tone is set by Davison’s declaration that Schoenberg was ‘a victim of his own devilish insecurities as a personality and his need to forge preemptively a unique place in musical history’ (p.61). I’d always thought that the problem with devils was that they were all too secure; and even Davison eventually seems to sense that his diatribe may have moved too far from critical decency and musical reality. So, grasping for a comprehensive technical formula, he concedes that `intervals generate tensions, tensions which demand resolution, but in an infinite variety of possible ways’ (p.79). Since on the same page he also acknowledges that `diatonic norm’ can be restrictive, the way is open for him to identify some of the ways in which twentieth-century composers managed to resolve tension (or at least achieve closure) without reverting to diatonic cadencing. But he is too busy reiterating his distaste for Schoenberg and assuring us that he has read the likes of Ernst Fischer (The necessity of art, 1959) to offer specific responses to much of the music written since 1950.

There is, nevertheless, a passing swipe at Birtwistle, claiming that in Punch and Judy `an excessive or exclusive focus upon these negative parts of the human psyche can only lead to nihilism and despair: an undermining of the potential of the human condition’ (p.136). This judgement is matched by Borstlap’s view that Birtwistle’s settings of `Paul Celan’s desolate, beautiful post-war poetry’ express ‘a state of total meaninglessness’, in `an emotional world devoid of all psychological and spiritual energy: the world of the depressed and traumatised psyche’. At the other extreme is Wozzeck, `with its multi-layered emotional and musical complexities’ (p.167). But neither Borstlap nor Davison offers any technical or aesthetic evidence that Birtwistle’s compositions lack `emotional and musical complexities’: nor do they refer to the various writers who have made positive claims about those compositions. There is nothing here about the cultural function of lament, richly represented in both Punch and Judy and Pulse shadows; nothing about the capacity of lament to console, strengthen, purge, and even to create a degree of social solidarity, when we contemplate the truth of Celan’s lapidary line `speaks truth who speaks shadow’ Mahr spricht, wer Schatten spricht’). Far from leading to `nihilism and despair’, such art makes it possible to confront and even exorcise Bortslap’s fantasy of a `state of total meaninglessness’.

Like Davison, Bortslap ultimately makes concessions that undermine his entire anti-modernist polemic, declaring that `it is possible to detect traces of tradition within modernism, and it would be revealing to discover how much of modernism is, in fact, unwittingly informed by tradition’ (p. 194).

I would gladly supply Bortslap with a reading list to aid this discovery process, which has clearly barely begun, and to help also to show him just how ‘witting’ the connections between modernism and tradition can be. Borstlap’s brief references to Robert Simpson and Jonathan Harvey at this point are too incidental to carry the weight they deserve, and such sliding away from the specifics of relatively recent compositional activity is all too typical of this sorry text.

The more acceptable face of critical conservatism is to be found in Scruton’s own contribution – `True authority: Janacek, Schoenberg and us’ – and in essays by the British composers David Matthews and Robin Holloway But how regrettable that Scruton didn’t urge editor Davison to commission a balancing contribution which sought to demonstrate that Schoenberg and Janacek were not the absolute, irreconcilable opposites they need to be in Scrutonian mythology, and also that the prescription for the music of the future he draws from Janacek’s practice – notably the rule that `we should contrast the dissonant chord with the chord that wholly or partially resolves it’ (p.28) – has long been observed in mainstream post-tonal practice, which understands Schoenberg’s concept of emancipated dissonance as a simple acknowledgement of the need for greater flexibility in harmonic contrasts and balances. As Matthews puts it with admirable clarity, ‘I am conscious of a balance to be preserved between stability and instability’ (p.200), and `although one can no longer easily define the difference between consonance and dissonance, it is still possible to conceive of harmony as either stable or unstable. Unless there are real harmonic contrasts in a piece, it cannot have dynamic movement’ (p.205).

Holloway provides a modified version of an essay written in 1989, and the extent of his mellowing with respect to modernism is clear from his comments about the `conspicuous rapprochement with a wider range of musical expression’ he finds in Elliott Carter’s Symphonia (p.99), and the tendency of John Adams to fill out `the attractive surfaces of his earlier successes with something that sounds suspiciously like real content’ (p.101). But Holloway’s conclusion, that `the general mood now tends towards integration and synthesis’ (p. 110)

seems a little too starry-eared to be true. `Out of unprecedented multiplicity and eclecticism a new common practice in the handling of equal temperament is slowly emerging’. Time will tell – but at least Holloway’s upbeat prognostication goes some way to countering the dreary negations so widespread elsewhere in this volume.

More composers’ voices are to be heard in the collection of interviews with Anders Beyer which originally appeared in Dansk Musik Tidsskrift over the last decade or so. The Nordic bias brings with it a concentration on Scandinavian and northern European composers. In some, perhaps even most, cases it will be difficult for most readers to call their music to mind: while the absence of a significant figure like the Finn Paavo Heininen is unfortunate, given that he is mentioned several times as an important if controversial teacher. Several big names are here, but the lengthy disquisition from Stockhausen (including dismissive remarks, de haut en bas, about York Holler and Morton Feldman – the latter la poor guy’, p.176) suffers from being seriously dated: the interview took place before 1993, and the only attempt to update information editorially, here as throughout, is found in the composer’s potted biography at the end. Nor is editing always helpful elsewhere: we’re left to work out for ourselves who the ‘Tristan’ and ‘Dawn’ mentioned by Kaija Saariaho might be.

Several of the other big names (Gubaidulina, Schnittke, Xenakis) are represented either by very brief or rather unprobing encounters, but the sections devoted to Ligeti, Holmboe, NorgArd, Glass and Lindberg work well in conveying character, complete with vivid personal experiences: more on Ligeti’s horrendous early years, for example. There is even, in Lindberg’s case, some salient and comprehensible technical information about his compositional development, though the fact that the interview dates from the late 1980s rather reduces its relevance. There is also a telling juxtaposition between the prickly, self-justificatory reminiscences of Tikhon Khrennikov (all too brief) and the clear-minded comments about relations between composer and state from the Polish composer Pavel Szymanski. This collection may be less effectively organised and less illuminating in content than those edited by Paul Griffiths or Andrew Ford. But the voices it contains are often diverting, and occasionally startling, in what they have to say about sound.

Arnold Whittall’s Musical composition in the twentieth century was published last year by Oxford University Press.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Summer 2001

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