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The idea of “taking a line for a walk” comes from one of Birtwistle’s favourite artists, Paul Klee. A preoccupation with Klee and his theories was an inspiration for one of the definitive Birtwistle pieces of the late 1970s, Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum. Using Klee’s idea of the difference between “dividual” and “individual” phenomena – the difference between, say, the endlessly divisible nature of water, as opposed to the singularity, the indivisibility, of a bottle of water – Birtwistle conjured a series of different musical materials. The question was then how to repeat these blocks of material, and how to transform them. On their own, each block is like a little machine of processes and patterns, but nothing ever repeats in quite the way you expect. That’s because Birtwistle used a series of random numbers to help generate how the blocks would recur, how long they would last, and even what notes they would use.
And here’s the paradox. “I didn’t make any decisions in writing Carmen,” Birtwistle says, since so much of the structure was generated through random procedures, “and yet it sounds like me – and no one else could have written it.”
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American film director Sidney Lumet, who has died aged 86, directed three of my all-time favourite films: Serpico, The Hill, and The Offence.
For the bulk of his career, he averaged a film a year, earning four Oscar nominations along the way for best director, for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network (which earned Peter Finch a posthumous Oscar) and The Verdict.
The Hill, like 12 Angry Men, has an all-male cast, and simmers throughout with repressed rage and resentment which eventually explodes, conveyed brilliantly by great British actors like Ian Hendry, Ian Bannen, Sean Connery and Harry Andrews.
The Offence, another of Lumet’s British films with Sean Connery and Ian Bannen, has a score by Harrison Birtwistle, Serpico picks up on that documentary feel that William Friedkin used in The French Connection, and The Hill, which has no music and is shot in monochrome, certainly makes my top ten films ever. It scared the shit out of me when I first saw it.
R.I.P. Sidney Lumet, film director, born 25 June 1924; died 9 April 2011
Great play, ludicrous movie.
Where to start … it distorts Mozart’s character, he was not this continually asinine schoolboy, despite what one may infer from his letters. I don’t think there is evidence that his father became a source for fear, although he probably thought his father a prick stuck in Salzburg. It makes his composing look too casual and easy. The film makes the point that he works hard, but it undermines the concept.
There is no evidence that Salieri ever tied to seduce Constanze, a pure invention.
There is no evidence that Salieri had any even marginal involvement with him in his final weeks. His wife was not as portrayed, the idea they call one another “Wolfie” and “Stanzie” in inane voices generates a tone that also undermines the character of them both. She was bright, a gifted singer and hardworking. The children are pretty much kept out of the way.
I think that will do for now.
No, no, no …
Of course, the film gives a distorted view of the composer; Peter Shaffer was not trying to create a biographical play but only used events from Mozart’s life to create a model in which he could explore the nature of artistic genius as compared to artistic mediocrity.
Mozart’s life and experiences in Vienna were a convenient framework in which to set up this examination. This means that whenever Mozart’s life’s events fit the model, they were used or adapted; those events which did not fit the model were discarded or altered. Where events did not exist, and were needed to advance the thesis of the play, they were invented (e.g. Salieri commissioning the Requiem, and in the end helping him to compose it, the most ludicrous part of the movie). In the play, Salieri must destroy Mozart because Shaffer wanted to demonstrate that mediocrity is the mortal enemy of genius. The work is one of fiction and bears as much resemblance to Mozart’s life as any novel about a historic figure resembles that figure’s life. It is a great play, but Mozart’s life is the scenery and background; it was never about Mozart. The movie is a stupid movie, one of the worst screen adaptions of a stage play, but the music is really an exquisite frame for the ideas which are independent of Mozart as an historic personage.
BTW, I saw Amadeus at the National Theatre in 1979, aged 17, with Paul Scofield as Salieri, Simon Callow as Mozart, and Felicity Kendal as Constanze, directed by Peter Hall, music arranged by Harrison Birtwistle, so FUCK YOU!
First of all, on the fundamental relationship between mathematics and music: yes, the chromatic scale is based on simple geometric ratios, but beyond this (and a few other things perhaps), I think saying “Music comes from mathematics” or “Music is founded upon mathematics,” or anything similar, are more subtle statements than one might let on. It’s very philosophically grounded in whether one thinks mathematics can exist to be touched upon without having defined it first, or whether one sees mathematics as a lens through which physical and theoretical phenomena can be analyzed. Certainly mathematics has played an important part in serialism, which utilizes set theory and algebra, but can we say it has played a similar role in either the creation or musical essence of a Beethoven piano sonata? Certainly we can analyze the music in a mathematical fashion, but does this make it fundamentally an object of mathematics?
There are two unsupportable (because nothing is so black and white, right?) positions on this topic:
a) you are a quantophiliac, who looks for deterministic mathematical relationships to aesthetics, forgetting that music is art and therefore cannot be fully defined by the sum of any set of empirical observations.
b) you are a quantophobe, for whom mystical inspiration is all and you simply ignore the fact that mathematics is often a useful tool in achieving and describing aesthetic objectives.
Certainly, composers have taken direct inspiration from mathematics. Bartók used golden mean proportions, Ligeti used strange attractors and other fractal phenomena, etc. Music is not mathematics any more than architecture is mathematics, but as Thelonious Monk said, all musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.
I have also wondered if there is not a musical connection to playing chess via a (subconscious?) mathematical ability: e.g. Prokofiev apparently was a very good player.
Certain mathematicians have remarked upon proofs, etc., with the words “elegant” and “beautiful,” with some openly suspicious of any series of equations that shows too much sweat and not enough grace as being on the wrong path.
I have, however, been bored to tears by articles in scholarly musical journals going through “permutations of sets” blah blah fucking blah! For an elite who might claim they can actually hear such things in a work and follow them, fine.
You can interpret anything mathematically (with probably mixed results) but what is the point? You can interpret things however you want, and call it a world view. But that would be ignoring the world, and the various ways that people experience existence, let alone art.
There are composers who probably use a mathematical-like mindset for composition. But there are plenty of composers who probably couldn’t give a flying fuck about such methods (Birtwistle springs to mind, and man have you seen one of his scores?).
About thirty years ago I was in love with Gillian Moore when we were both students at York University.
Fuck. Look at her now. Harry looks better, and he’s 76.
Did you actually meet Messiaen?
Sort of, a couple of times. I sat next to him in Paris when they played my Triumph of Time. I think it was Colin Davis, I can’t remember, maybe it was Boulez. I think it was Boulez, yeah, it must have been Boulez, and they played a piece of his.
Tom Service talks to Alexander Goehr about his last opera, based on King Lear, currently in rehearsal:
At 78, Alexander “Sandy” Goehr is one of the linchpins of the British musical establishment. He was professor of music at Cambridge University for nearly a quarter of a century; as a student, he was one of the Manchester School of composers, along with Harrison Birtwistle (“Harry”) and Peter Maxwell Davies (“Max”). Not that he thanks me for reminding him of his establishment credentials. “It’s all bullshit,” he says with a wry smile, somehow managing to make a cuss word sound cultured with his deep, resonant tones. “Nobody understood that I was a complete outsider at Cambridge. I haven’t even got a degree, let alone a doctorate – and I only got the job back in 1976 because the place was so clapped out they had to appoint a sort of academic doctor to sort it out.”
Promised End is at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, London, on 9, 11, 14 and 16 October (box office: 020-7304 4000), then tours until 26 November.
I am always humbled when I think that every single note of every single composer who is in our current pantheon was set on paper by himself. Though there are rare recorded exceptions (Bach to his son on his deathbed with Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit), it is in general impossible to dictate music. It has been estimated that it would take 40 years of 40-hour work weeks just to transcribe Bach, let alone think about the composition while you were going along.
I’ve always found lots of visual satisfaction of looking at certain scores from Lully first editions to Gregorian chant to Berlioz operas to Tom Adès’ Asyla. Regardless of the music, some scores seem a lot more beautiful to me visually. Composers such as Dutilleux and Berg have always been interested in the visual aspect of the music on the page, and Dutilleux even composes sometimes in “shapes” that are visible in the page to an interesting effect musically (or sonically).
At the moment I’ve been lost in a study of Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances which is an absolutely gargantuan work that is as fun to listen to as it is to look at on the page to see his “shifting geological strata” of sound.
One composer who makes particularly striking looking scores (and of course striking sounding as well) is Pierre Boulez. His Pli selon pli, besides being one of the most sublime and wonderful compositions of the last century, is also one of the most gorgeous looking scores I’ve seen.
Of course, in the dim and distant past, music was about much more than just “the sound it makes” (Beecham) – it was about the play of proportion, the interaction of pattern and motive: it was geometry and mathematics laid out on paper, “order” with the potential to be demonstrated in sonic form, the divine geometry of the music of the spheres, etc., etc., and it was studied as a science (i.e. part of the Medieval Quadrivium, with geometry, mathematics and astronomy) rather than a rhetorical art (i.e. part of the Trivium, with grammar, logic and rhetoric). It goes against all our instincts to remember that this was so, but that’s the way it was. In this respect composers who indulge in Augenmusik are not therefore necessarily guilty of a crime against music.