We Need Is An Avant Gardener
That is just the title - am I
then such a killjoy, such a complete conservative, that I seek to
eradicate every brave and bold musical experiment from the repertoire in
order to ensure all that remains is a succession of symphonies in C
Major, each one in strict sonata form? Certainly not. As anyone who has
ever read more than one issue of Smile magazine will have realised, I
have championed certain avant garde works over the twelve years of the
magazines’ existence so that they receive wider recognition and
publicity than has so far been the case.
However, my primary complaint about the musical avant garde from 1950 to 1980 (the main period when convention and tradition was consistently challenged and attacked) is that it has produced so many examples of abused instruments and performers, ridiculous eccentricity and insults to intelligence that a serious impediment to further and future advances in avant garde music (and other art forms) has been imposed upon us all as a result. I can itemise the specific areas of the problem.
1) Because so many works have been written and conceived which are purely sensational or pseudo-theatrical in nature, it now seems that avant garde music is widely regarded as shallow, insubstantial and even rather silly.
2) Because so many works have been composed which treat the performers and the audience almost as laboratory animals, as the recipients of experiments conceived by the Great Genius (what used to be known as ‘a composer’), hostility and suspicion are now common among performers and audiences alike to virtually all avant garde music (and other art forms), a basic attitude with which I can sympathise since I am not immune to being angered and irritated at any attempt by some spoilt music college brat to manipulate or ridicule an audience, especially if I am a part of that audience.
3) Do young people spend three years (at least) in music college to learn how to perfect their technique on a given instrument or voice, to practise with diligence every day, to live on a grant and study hard at the expense of a social life, simply in order to have their time, effort, knowledge, technical ability and proficiency wasted by some crackpot notion of a composer who has perhaps attended one Darmstadt seminar too many?
There are certain composers who have challenged what they perceive to be bourgeois practises that prevail in serious music, composers who often originate from a perspective of Marxist principles. Their subsequent compositions will then exhibit unusual properties purely because they are new, they are designed to escape from or at least challenge the conventional concert or opera scenario and they perhaps by necessity adopt forms which, by their novel approach, serve to initially alienate the audience who are accustomed to an acceptance of the traditional bourgeois precepts which have governed classical music since the 17th century.
To be specific: the standard practise centres around the three main classical music genres - orchestral concerts, chamber music recitals and opera. In each case the audience are recipients to carefully prepared programmes performed in a concert hall or opera house where the performers are on a stage and money is paid by the audience members in order to be entertained for a couple of hours by the trained experts of their chosen fields. After the performance, the audience leaves after it has applauded in accordance with custom and feels satisfied, perhaps even inspired by their evening out at the Wigmore Hall, Royal Festival Hall or Covent Garden.
There are two serious works which immediately come to mind where apparently eccentric performance practises serve rational purposes where bourgeois concert precepts require confrontation. Passaggio (1962) by the Italian Luciano Berio uses a soprano singer (the innocent victim of capitalism), a mixed choir (the bourgeois musical establishment), a speaking choir (the mob, the mass of unthinking adherence to total conformity, the supporters of the bourgeoisie) and a small orchestra (the mindless accompanists, the camp guards who were ‘simply doing their jobs’). A detailed discourse on this work has been written by Umberto Eco and was printed in Smile No.18.
The German Hans Werner Henze wrote Der Langwierige Weg In Die Wohnung Der Natascha Ungeheuer (The Tedious Way To The Apartment Of Natascha Ungeheuer) in 1971 for baritone, piano quintet, brass quintet, jazz group, electric organ, percussion and tape. The percussionist performs by hitting with drum sticks and mallets a wrecked motor car which, since it appears on a concert platform, looks utterly incongruous. This is deliberate since the prosaic normality of daily life and the accepted practises of classical concerts are both thrown violently into absurd relief by this juxtaposition of two worlds usually separated. In both these works the use of provocative texts (Eduardo Sanguineti in Passaggio and Gaston Salvatore in Natascha Ungeheuer) adds further fuel to the outrage and shock experienced by those who, due to their own vested interests, seek to maintain the status quo at whatever cost.
But I wish to address here all those ‘works’ (I use the term reluctantly) which are, I admit, great fun to write about but rather less fun to actually experience. I hereby give an account of certain notorious works by the adoption as headings of my earlier reference to abused instruments, insults to intelligence and ridiculous eccentricity with another category: non-musical scores, graphs and so forth. After that, a more general survey of the utter extremes to which various composers have gone will adequately illustrate why I believe the itemised points expressed above to be entirely justified and my sentiments to be thoroughly vindicated.
There is bound to be degree of overlap between these subheadings since ‘ridiculous eccentricity’ pervades the vast majority of the chosen works anyway. Take perhaps the most boring, tedious and onerous example first: Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German ‘composer’ unleashed on the world in 1928, is not guilty of ever having written a note of melody or harmony in his life. His name will appear more often than any other here (although John Cage will not be far behind) simply because he has been responsible for so much complete rubbish and absurdity during his regrettably long and unfortunately prolific career.
Mikrophonie 1 lasts 25 minutes and is scored for 1 tam-tam (which is basically a gong with delusions of grandeur) which is scratched, hit, rubbed, scraped, wiped and otherwise excited by the performer with a variety of hammers, mallets, cloths, brushes, nails and other implements. In the event, the tam-tam is the only object to be excited. The only reason the performer doesn’t fall asleep is because he/she has to spend nearly half an hour bashing the crap out of an oversized dinner gong.
We shall return to Stockhausen later. Now let us turn to John Cage, an American ‘composer’ born in 1912 who, fortunately for the rest of us, died a few years ago so at least is unable to inflict any more of his trash on us. He shares with Stockhausen as his chief credential the fact that at no time in his life did he ever compose any proper music. This is a dubious accolade in which numerous other modern composers appear to revel. I shall return to this point later since it carries a critical implication. The most famous moment of Cages’ career was when he created the ‘prepared piano’. The likes of Bechstein and Bösendorfer were evidently not good enough for our John since he believed that the sound of the piano, after 200 years of evolution, could be improved in a few seconds by taking sheets of paper, metal rulers, screws, bits of cloth and a few combs and then, with the insertion of these implements into the body of the piano over the strings of the sound-board, mutate the Steinway into an interesting new instrument. It was for this mutilated monstrosity that he wrote his Concerto For Prepared Piano in 1952. It is accompanied by a small orchestra and much of the work is actually either silent or very quiet. The resultant sonic mess makes me ask why he even bothered.
However, the Germans and eastern Europeans lead the way with avant garde extremism as is witnessed by the little known Matthias Spahlinger who, in his String Quartet (1982) has his performers shout at and hit their instruments much of the time. I heard a recording of this work (yes, it was released on a phonograph record) so we could all confirm that it is a ten minute slice of unmitigated rubbish from start to finish.
Most avant garde classical music emanates from western capitalist nations so it is hardly a surprise that there are more works that abuse performers than those which abuse instruments since material objects in such societies are accorded more respect than mere people. So it is with delight I may cite the case of Visage (1961) by Luciano Berio for soprano and tape in which the mainly wordless vocal ululations, whispers, laughter, cries, shouts and groans of the soloist are gradually but relentlessly consumed by the electronic sounds on tape. The soloist is engaged in aural combat with a machine that ultimately (but, I must, only metaphorically) consumes her.
Singers are treated with far
less respect by Dieter Schnabel who, in his Glossalilie
(1967) for mixed choir, orders them to mutter, titter, groan, belch,
cough, sneeze, hiss, cry, yell, bawl, howl and snort their way through
all 3 movements of this 25 minute aural abomination. This is the epitome
of overkill since we have the general idea after only 30 seconds of this
sonic crap. The third movement is called ‘!’ and here the poor
singers (who hardly ever actually sing) are combined with a recorded
tape of animal noises (pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, cats and dogs
mainly) which they have to imitate. If I had graduated from, say, the
Royal College of Music after learning how to sing Palestrina and
Schubert, I would want to be paid a formidable sum of money to throw
away my talent, skill and ability on such shameless drivel.
Singers come in for more abuse from David Bedford who, in The Song Of The White Horse (1977) has his choir inhale helium gas during the fourth section of the work so that their voices can attain inhumanly high pitches. To be fair, the work is a very clever attempt to introduce avant garde techniques to audiences not accustomed to such music and the piece does contain melodies, recognisable harmony and real drama in its setting of the famous poem by G K Chesterton ‘The White Horse Of Uffington’.
Now let’s return to Germany, the nation whose crimes against music in the 20th century are only partially mitigated by the fact it gave us Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms. From 1950 to 1980 they tried very hard - and almost succeeded - to eradicate the reputation provided by such a superlative canon of composers. Here the composer Peter Ruzicka (born 1948) takes out his intellectual frustration on an octet of hapless percussionists in Stress (1972) who have to perform a short cycle of directions on up to 50 different percussion devices over a period of 1 minute. They then have to perform it again, only faster. They then have to perform it yet again, only faster still. Indeed, they continue to perform the piece in ever increasing tempi until it becomes physically impossible to perform at all. Thus the work ultimately collapses and, no doubt, so do the performers.
However, the grand master of performer abuse is, of course, Karlheinz Stockhausen. In his Untitled Piece of the late 1960s, a group of about 16 instrumentalists (mainly wind and brass players) are instructed to stand as close to each other as possible and then blast out at full volume whatever note each of them chooses, independently of each other. Now they have all been deafened, they must continue to play their chosen note but add short intervals of silence. These silences increase in duration while the length of time taken to play each note decreases. While all this carry-on occurs, the performers slowly walk away from each other and spread out until they have placed as much distance between each of them as necessary. How is this ‘necessary distance’ derived? Ideally, when each performer is so far away from any other performer that they can no longer hear anyone else play. This is obviously an attempt to provide a sonic commentary on the ‘big bang’ theory of the birth of the universe but for ‘space music’ that is actually interesting, exciting and moving, I suggest Stars End (1974) by David Bedford rather than this absolute balderdash.
Two sections taken from Aus Den Sieben Tagen (From The Seven Days), a huge, sprawling mess in 7 parts that takes about 5 hours to perform, display Stockhausens’ complete and lamentable disregard for either sanity or rationality in their treatment of the performers. Intensität (Intensity) is to be performed ‘very early in the morning’. The master travelled into town and purchased a variety of tools: saws, hammers, chisels and so forth. (He tells us this in the original sleeve notes to the 5 record box set issued in the 1970s. That means some idiots must actually have bought the damn thing. I borrowed mine from the library out of sheer curiosity. I returned it the next day.) These tools are then given to the performers who must put on jumpers and scarves, move quickly and utilise these tools every now and then in addition to the execution of their more traditional duties on their musical instruments. They are to continue playing both tools and instruments until they are extremely hot and exhausted. The sounds they make are not written down - the instructions I have given are all the musicians use.
It is in Geldstaub (Gold Dust) that Stockhausen excels himself above and beyond the call of sadism. The 5 performers are given strict instructions: they must live in total isolation from each other for 4 days. During this period each performer must be deprived of both food and sleep. Question: why bother to pay trained classical musicians when, at the time of composition, there must have been a copious supply of people who lived under just the required conditions in any Siberian labour camp who would have made themselves available for a fraction of the wages? Anyway, after the 4 days have elapsed, the 5 performers may then fall asleep ‘if they wish’ (one imagines them deciding to do something else instead such as borrow a book on quantum mechanics from the local library, perhaps). They must still deprive themselves of food, however. At a time agreed in advance, the unfortunate 5 meet up in the music room and play ‘the first notes that come to mind and continue to explore the musical possibilities available as a result of this new heightened mental state’...for the next 50 minutes. It is not necessarily true that as soon as the performers entered the music room, one of them in desperation took a bite out of the violoncello.
To Intelligence (With Graph Paper & Coloured Pictures, Wax Crayons
The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis is a man for whom many people hold the considerable respect and admiration which only goes to show there’s nowt as queer as folk. As a man I would agree with these people. Xenakis has been an active campaigner against fascism all his life and he even lost an eye during the second world war when he participated in the resistance against the nazi occupation of France, his adopted country. As a composer of music, however, he had many days when clearly he should have stayed in bed or taken the dog for walk instead. Strategy (1962) for two orchestras, each with their own conductor, doesn’t use a musical score; instead the players are given a series of rough diagrams and instructions chosen by each conductor. At a down-stroke, off they go. Both groups then screech, clatter, shriek and scratch their less than merry way through their given sheets of paper while scores are marked up on a board, one for each orchestra. The conclusion of the work is reached when all the sheets are finished and the scoreboard informs us which of the orchestras has won. I heard this infernal racket on a phonograph record (pressed in Japan, naturally - like the Germans, they really go for this garbage) so I can vouch for the fact that there is absolutely no music in it throughout the 12 minutes it takes to inflict itself on us.
The American composer Lamonte Young must have achieved a world record for the shortest music score of all time in his Composition No.7 (1960). On a single sheet of paper is written ‘B and F#, to be held for along time’. That’s it. Yet this daft trio of string players who evidently had nothing better to do with their time on a Saturday afternoon actually gave a performance of this rubbish that lasted 45 minutes. This was in New York, of course, so perhaps an allowance has to be made in this case.
In Smile No.9 I wrote a long feature on Cornelius Cardew so readers are invited to turn to that magazine for a more detailed account of Treatise (1967) which is a beautiful score to look at. The trouble is, when it is actually played by a group of musicians, it definitely loses something in translation. A CD recording of it now exists, spread over two discs, God help us. The whole score is a bewildering cornucopia of squiggles, twirls, circles, ellipses, curves, parabolas, hyperbolas, spots, lines, zigzags and shapes all expressed in an exquisite selection of different colours. To be fair, this is far easier on the ears than many other avant garde pieces and is certainly less abrasive but after about 10 minutes one starts to yawn and yearn for the cricket results.
Henri Pousseur is Belgian but is probably a nice enough fellow and was born in 1930. His Caracteres 1, however, is trite tripe. Take a piece of paper with holes cut in it at random, place it over any music score by any composer and tell the performer to play the notes he can actually see through the holes in the paper. Oh dear. The equally sad American composer Earle Brown ‘wrote’ his work Available Forms in 1960 with only marginally more care. Out comes the quiz show equipment again as a wooden dial in primary colours is displayed to a chamber ensemble who are presented with numbered sheets of paper with various graphs and shapes etched onto them. The players choose one of the sheets and perform it in accordance to the instructions (such as they are) when a pointer on the dial reaches a number that corresponds to their particular sheet number. This bollocks even made it to record, issued by RCA, a reputable commercial company, along with works by Stockhausen, Krzysztof Penederecki and Pousseur. To be fair, the work by Pousseur, Rimes Pour Les Differentes Sources Sonares (1960), Rhymes For Different Sound Sources, is quite dramatic and enjoyable, in places, primarily because it juxtaposes a chamber orchestra against a magnetic tape of electronic sounds but even here the novelty wears rather thin after a few listens.
I know you may think surely there has been enough eccentricity already but never under estimate the ability of avant garde composers to lose the plot completely. Among the treats in store yet to come are a few works of genuine worth and value although they form a minority within the following catalogue of (non)musical disasters.
Three works by David Bedford all reveal in separate forms how apparently eccentric compositions can serve a specific purpose and utilise that eccentricity in order to create music that is oddly moving and memorable. The 1965 piece It’s Easier Than It Looks is scored for 8 melodicas and 8 recorders. It is designed to introduce school children to avant garde music which it does in just 4 minutes of tootling away merrily. In another short work from 1970 Some Bright Stars For Queen Mary College, the forces required are a choir of girls’ voices and whirlies. These are long plastic tubes that the performer whirls around his or her head to produce 3 or 4 notes of the harmonic scale. The sound is both ethereal and haunting, especially when combined with the strangely beautiful music written for the massed choir of girls. My only real complaint about this piece is its brevity at little more than 3 minutes. This is a criticism I rarely make about most other avant garde works.
The best work, beyond doubt, is the 45 minute opus Stars End (1974) for electric guitar, electric bass guitar, drum kit and orchestra. This superlative piece was released as a phonograph record at the time on Virgin records, the label that gave us progressive rock in the form of Mike Oldfield and punk rock in the form of The Sex Pistols, although not at the same time, unfortunately. When I want to introduce someone previously uninitiated into avant garde classical music, this is one of the works I play since it usually guarantees a favourable response. Despite the presence of the electric guitars and drums, there is no rock music in the piece at all. In fact these 3 are used purely as additional components of the orchestra and never as soloists. It conjures up a cosmos that is alien, weird, beautiful, grotesque, sublime and quite beyond anything else I have ever heard in music. Much of it is very quiet so it is most appropriate the work was finally issued on CD in 2001 so we can enjoy it properly.
Right then, let’s return to all the rubbish. Maurizio Kagel is an Argentinian composer who can guarantee complete nonsense every time he puts pen to (graph) paper. Heterophony (1968) is a fine example of the utter drivel he can create if you let him. Here he is let loose on an entire orchestra - what a waste. Imagine the orchestra members play while they walk along a corridor, tumble down a hidden flight of steps and yet continue to perform (so to speak) on their instruments. That result would be somewhat more interesting (and probably more musical) than what you actually hear in Heterophony. He also wrote a work for home made copies of ‘ethnic’ instruments which was even worse; it is so excruciating I can’t remember its name. But believe me, you really don’t want to know. Bizarrely both these pieces found their tedious way onto vinyl in the early 1970s when the record industry evidently had more money than sense.
Another composer who has yet to commit so much as a single minute of melody or harmony to paper is the Hungarian Gyorgy Ligeti. He is often prone to bouts of musical dementia and Poem Symphonique (1962) is a typical example. It is scored, in all seriousness, for 100 metronomes. Is that what makes this man tick? Not to be out classed by his own absurdity, he then wrote Prelude (1974) for 12 car horns which he later inserted into his odious little opera Le Grande Macabre which thankfully is never performed. Matthias Spahlinger returns with Sotto Voce (1974) for mixed choir, various non-musical implements and a gramophone. As with so many of these pieces written by Germans for choirs, there the obligatory coughs, hisses, howls, yells and snorts that make a mockery of the years of musical training acquired by the choir.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., they remind us they know damn well how to waste the time of both musicians and audiences with consummate aplomb. Alvin Curran was a student of Elliott Carter and so should know better than to concoct Home Made with its childrens’ toys together with a pane of glass that is smashed towards the culmination of one Shakespeare setting. Our greatest national bard deserves far better than to be insulted by this arrant nonsense. Henry Brant is another hopeless individual who takes a modernist view of the spatial music invented by Giovanni Gabrieli, a 17th century master of large scale church music that often featured massed choirs and brass ensembles spread around a cathedral for multiple stereophonic effect. Western Springs is 39 minutes of complete tedium even though it requires 2 full orchestras, 2 large choirs and 2 jazz groups to emphasise the point that he really should have been an insurance salesman instead. Kingdom Come is even more ridiculous: here a circus band, a psychotic soprano and an orchestra stridently march their way through an onerous racket for 20 minutes with neither point nor purpose. Yes, both works were made available to the public as phonograph records and Kingdom Come has actually been reissued on CD. Why?
The grand-daddy of them all is John Cage of course and with 3’44” (1952) he provides us with the only work he has ever ‘written’ that I actually like. It is in 3 movements - the absurdity of which becomes apparent when we realise that the work is completely silent! I remember after I heard about this ‘piece’ I remarked to a friend of mine that I looked forward to future such works of major length. It transpires that there are 2 other works to complete the series initiated by his 1952 masterpiece: 34’46” (1954) for solo pianist and 26’01” for solo string player. His Piano Concert (1963) includes a part for coffin which, when opened, releases a trio of live turkeys. In a work from 1942, The Wonderful Widow Of 18 Springs for voice and piano, the pianist never touches the actual keyboard, the lid of which remains firmly shut; instead, he or she attacks every other part of the instrument. I don’t know what the soprano does but it’s unlikely to be important. Two other works, Winter Music and Atlas Eclipticalis, are now generally performed simultaneously which only goes to prove how utterly futile each exercise was initially.
Vinko Globokar is a well known trombone player of incredible virtuosity who has performed a wide repertoire of extremely difficult music for that much maligned instrument. Sadly, most of this stuff is not even worth the paper on which it is written. His own works are even worse. In Hallo, Can You Hear Me (1986), he proves the spirit of the sixties is still with us for in this work, scored for mixed choir, full orchestra and jazz group, each of the 3 components is positioned in a different town or, ideally, country. Through satellite links, the 3 separate groups of performers then launch into the 24 work. A multiple broadcast on radio would reveal the tripartite nature of the work whereas the 3 separate audiences in the 3 different towns or countries would simply be aware of a work for choir, for orchestra or for jazz group, with odd silences now and then. This is one of those many works where the concept is far more exciting than the actual result which is frankly rather tame.
Gyorgy Ligeti uses 9 bars of silence that are to last no less than 19 seconds at the end of Atmospheres (1961) for orchestra. Peter Ruzicka uses silence in a different and rather novel fashion in his work In Processo Di Tempo (1971), a kind of anti-concerto for violoncello and orchestra. The orchestra includes a bowl of water and a short wave radio set along with various other sundry devices. The soloist performs a cadenza only when the rest of the orchestra plays so loudly that ‘cellist is drowned out by the sheer volume of the accompaniment. When the orchestra is silent, the soloist also plays nothing so that the whole 19th century bravura concerto concept is ridiculed but in a work that relentlessly trudges toward a desolation that suggests a blasted, aural landscape.
The Pole Krzysztof Penderecki (1933) wrote Actions in 1971 (a vintage year for really wild and wacky works) for free jazz orchestra after he heard jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and his ensemble perform in Poland. The work combines carefully notated and free improvisory music in a piece that defies description. In places it is almost convincing and for this reason is a wholly uncharacteristic example of Pendereckis’ oeuvre to date. Marginalien by the German Wolfgang Fortner is a prime example of improvisation that simply does not work since the few scraps of suggestions and indications for the orchestra the composer supplies provides insubstantial material upon which to build anything more than a mercifully brief cacophony.
Improvisation is utilised even less effectively in Domaines (1968) by Pierre Boulez, probably the most boring French composer who has ever lived. For Boulez, as soon as any emotion or passion enters his music (obviously by accident), then it is pounced upon at once and immediately converted into an algorithm that obeys strict mathematical rules. A solo clarinet player wanders around the stage upon which are situated 4 chamber groups of about 6 musicians each. While the clarinet music is carefully notated, the groups each have to play music related to what the soloist plays whenever he or she approaches one the groups. When the soloist moves away from a group, the musicians in it return to silence. This is one of those many pieces whose concept is more interesting than the actuality.
Iannis Xenakis explored the idea of space in music with a series of 3 very eccentric works: Terretektorh (1966), Polytope (1967) and Nomos Gamma (1968). Each one is for an orchestra of about 80 players all scattered throughout the audience. Clearly these works are only really convincing at live concerts although the phonograph record made of Terretektorh and Nomos Gamma does give some idea of the awesome power and vitality within the music as waves of often quite dramatic sounds flood the auditorium in different directions at different times.
Beyond doubt the most subtle yet ineffective use of eccentricity is located in the ‘opera’ Prometeo (1985) by the Italian socialist composer Luigi Nono. It juxtaposes texts from ancient Greece with modern poems by Walter Benjamin and Friedrich Hölderlin to bizarre ethereal soundscapes that are usually either extremely quiet, barely audible or actually silent. This carries on for 2 hours 15 minutes. Scored for 2 speakers, small choir, chamber ensemble and live electronics, it uses more ‘pppp’ markings than any other score in the entire history of music. You could refer to it as a quiet night in with Luigi. Personally I’d rather watch grass grow.
Despite the extreme difference in cultural ethos between Europe and Japan, the latter nation has produced only a few really eccentric or bizarre works although the consistently high standard of much of the music since the 1950s speaks volumes for its composers. Toshi Ichiyanagi did his level best to ruin this noble reputation in 1966 when he unleashed Life Music for orchestra, tape and live electronics onto the public during a series of concerts he organised with the conductor Seiji Ozawa and fellow partner in crime Toru Takemitsu called Orchestral Space. Here many new and occasionally superb works were given their premieres (Strategy by Xenakis included). 16 minutes of squeaks, rasps, burps and bangs later, the audience must have nodded their oriental heads respectfully (they were Japanese after all) but inwardly prayed that no repeat performance would ever be given of this particular insult to music.
One of the more musical examples is Maki Ishii, a man who specialises in combinations of traditional Japanese instruments with modern western instruments in often bizarre but interesting works. Minoru Miki and Makoto Moroi are two other contemporary composers in Japan who share this interest in the unlikely marriage of ancient and modern, east and west. Monoprism of 1976 is scored for a whole set of Japanese drums, Tibetan trumpets and orchestra. The trumpets are carved from animal thigh bones while the drums are those traditionally utilised to summon Samurai warriors into a seething pugilistic frenzy prior to a battle. The work is frankly a bit of a racket in places but it is certainly exciting and it does feature considerable dramatic range from very slow and quiet to very fast and loud.
Perhaps the king of oddities is Ondine (1959), a music drama for actors, female choir, orchestra and tape by Akira Miyoshi who is now the most highly respected composer in Japan and rightly so. This is both a play and a mini-opera. In 45 minutes we are transported into the nether regions of fairy land via a strange amalgam of European folklore and Japanese religion with music that veers between western avant garde, romantic Hollywood film score and traditional Japanese folk music. Unusually for works featured in this study, Ondine is actually a highly enjoyable experience.
As an aside, I’d like to remind you that the avant garde did not technically commence operations with the advent of the Darmstadt school in Germany of post Webernism in the 1950s. A very odd American, Charles Ives, wrote the first of a series of atonal, polytonal, multi-rhythmic works in 1898, 50 years before anyone! However, he often included whole segments of music in traditional melody, harmony and rhythm complete with canons and fugues. Hardly any of it was actually performed until the final decade of his life (he died in 1954). The cultural climate of America at the turn of the 20th century regarded Gustav Mahler as the last word in modernism and had never heard of Arnold Schönberg. Poor Ives never stood a chance. Fortunately he was sensible enough to sell insurance for a living so he never starved.
There is one work which features 8 separate melodies all played simultaneously in different keys while a later section calls for the double bass player to insert a sheet of paper between the strings and fretboard to create a buzzing sound. Berio? Kagel? Cage? No - Heinrich Biber, who died in 1704. The work is Battalia and was written in 1690. Little did he know what he had initiated.
However, the first work to really create a furore by virtue of its extreme eccentricity, bizarre scoring and relentlessly brutal dissonance was The Mechanical Ballet of 1927 by the American composer George Antheil. This notorious little gem lasts little more than 15 minutes and became a cause celebre even at its first performance where it initiated a minor riot before its triumphant, clangorous conclusion reverberated around the hall in Paris. It is a celebration of the new machine age, very much an aural variant of those canvasses by the Futurists where steam locomotives, cranes, gantries, factories, motor cars, aeroplanes, wireless telegraphy and electrical power served as cultural icons of the roaring twenties when Russolo and Marinetti wrote and painted themselves into history. The Mechanical Ballet is the soundtrack to a film by Ferdinand Leger and is scored for 6 player pianos, 2 concert pianos, xylophone, glockenspiel, snare drums, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, sundry percussion, electric buzzers, electric bells, alarm clocks and 2 aeroplane propellers, 1 small and 1 large. This outrageous ensemble was set in motion and before bar 10 was reached, the propellers blew much of the sheet music off the stands where it floated across the auditorium. Some performers had to play from memory while others dived into the audience to retrieve what music they could before the whole charade collapsed into chaos. The first recording of the work (made in the composers’ presence) used a tape of a jet engine instead of live propellers. By the 1940s Antheil had reverted to a late romantic style that was more musical but far less interesting.
This period celebrated a brief flirtation with Futurism and its Russian equivalent, Constructionism. Even more traditional composers found the fashion alluring. Thus Dimitri Shostakovich included a part for factory whistle (in Bb no less) in his Symphony No.2 ‘October’ for choir and orchestra while Sergei Prokofiev wrote a short ballet The Steel Leap and his own Second Symphony, both of which are informed by motor rhythms, relentless ostinati and harsh dissonance. The most infamous example of this was Alexander Mosolov who, in 1928, wrote a short ballet Music Of Machines that included The Iron Foundry which remains his most popular work. When it was first performed and published it enjoyed immense popularity for a brief period before it, like The Mechanical Ballet, became a product of its age and lapsed into being little more than a historical curiosity. This is unfortunate since it is highly charged, emotive music of intense power and deserves wider recognition.
Is my dismissal of so much avant garde music so peremptory as to be unfair? Possibly. Much of my real anger and resentment is directed not so much at the composers as the concert promoters and record companies who, from 1960 to 1980, spent so much time, energy and money in the promotion of this trite nonsense. Even this I could accept since there are bound to be some people somewhere who genuinely enjoy this racket. However, the situation is not that simple. During these two decades there were certain real composers of proper music who were virtually shunned and ignored, whose works were neither performed nor recorded. I refer to specific composers who have subsequently come to be appreciated as major figures now but who suffered intolerable neglect during the two decades when the avant garde supplanted anything other music of interest and worth.
From 1960 to 1969, Havergal Brian completed his final compositions, works which are now regarded as his very best and most rewarding for any listener. Barely 2 months before his death in 1972 at the age of 96, he was finally able to witness the release of the first commercial recording of any of his music, by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra. His 10th and 21st Symphonies were issued as a result of constant pressure and appeals by a fellow composer and one time programmer of the BBC, Robert Simpson. He was able to empathise fully with Brian since his own works suffered the same degree of neglect during this period when he wrote some of his own finest music. It was the same small record company, Unicorn, which issued his 3rd Symphony the same year the Havergal Brian symphonies were released. This oasis of sanity had to contend with all the fuss and plaudits accorded to so many one year wonders on the avant garde scene.
That Deutsche Gramaphon Gesellschaft (the major German record label) could release such utter balderdash as Aus Den Sieben Tagen by Stockhausen and yet not a single British company was willing to issue recordings of any of those works of real music that languished in obscurity is a crime against all art. To what works do I refer? Where do I start? Anything by Malcolm Arnold; anything by George Lloyd; anything by Humphrey Searle; the Piano Concerto by Alan Bush, a sublime work for piano, orchestra and choir which takes over where Ferruccio Busoni left off; anything by Bernard Stevens; anything by Havergal Brian; anything by Robert Simpson. The Danish composer Vagn Holmboe can rank along side Carl Nielsen yet his work was ignored apart from a lone recording of his 8th Symphony on a budget price label, Turnabout, that specialised in lesser known music. I could go on at considerable length. However, it was not even just the lesser known composers who suffered (although one can hardly call Malcolm Arnold a lesser known composer even though that is what he became by the end of the sixties). There were major works by Benjamin Britten (King Arthur, Paul Bunyan, the Wind Sextet and others) that were cast to the margins while all that absolute garbage by Xenakis, Nono, Cage and Stockhausen was given prime time air play on Radio 3. Polydor and Erato released records of this stuff and, I assume, people somewhere must have bought them.
I sounded a note of caution earlier about composers who revel in the dubious accolade that they have never written a note of melody or harmony in their lives. The problem here is that such rigid exponents of the avant garde could - and probably do - use this idiom to disguise their technical ineptitude and basic absence of real ability. After all, with examples of the most extreme avant garde, can the audiences (or, more pertinently, even the composers themselves) actually tell if the performers ever play the wrong notes?
So what does the future hold? The old guard continue, those who are still alive and active. Elliott Carter, at 96 years old, still churns out turgid atonal works; Ligeti still rolls out the occasional twittering racket and as for Stockhausen, he remains unrepentant: one of his most recent works is scored for a string quartet - who are required to play from a helicopter while it is in flight. In the 12 years from 1990 to 2002 we lost Nono, Berio, Xenakis, Cage, Lutoslawski and Messiaen. The period of the sixties, like that of the twenties, when most of the really crazy works were composed and performed, will be regarded with fond affection and wry amusement in future times - but then these people will have one advantage over us: they will not have had their senses insulted by so much of the noise.Andy Martin February © 2005.