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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.

No audience can keep awake through the eternal reiteration of a single idea. Nor can the human mind withstand a continuous bombardment of new ideas.

(Reginald Smith Brindle, Serial Composition)

I’m just reading The New Music – The Avant-Garde Since 1945 by Reginald Smith Brindle (1987), acquired for pennies from the Oxfam shop on Oldham Street just around the corner from where I live in Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter.

Even though I have a couple of Mr Brindle’s guitar works on an old Julian Bream LP, this is not a category of music that figures much in my record or CD collection or concert and BBC Radio 3 listening, although when I first started listening to BBC Radio 3 around 1972 I tried hard to make some sense of what was broadcast of the “new music”, albeit without much profit. I now find Brindle’s fairly gentle critique of the thinking behind indeterminacy, integral serialism, graphic scores and the like usually hits the nail on the head.

So where does that leave the music he discusses: the likes of Togni, Donatoni, Nono for integral serialism, Haubenstock-Ramati, Renosto for aleatoric, Cardew, Bussotti, Buonomi, Levine, Brindle himself and Donatoni again for graphic scores? The above names are taken from the musical examples in the book, although I’ve been deliberately selective (mendacious?) in leaving out more famous names like Messiaen, Boulez, Berio, and Stockhausen.

Have these “schools” died as far as performances and recordings are concerned? Do any “masterpieces” linger in anyone’s memory (a tricky notion of course for those scores where no two performances will ever be the same, to the point where the whole idea of a recognizable “work” may well disappear completely). Is this period now to be regarded just as an unfortunate cul-de-sac in musical history?

Some of the then hard-line composers came to that conclusion themselves (Penderecki, Pärt, to name but two of the most well known names), others like Nono and Boulez stuck to their own kind of serialism. Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) committed suicide, but in his music we find the tendency of leaving the German symphonic style behind to develop an increasingly more avant-garde style, which would have continued without abating had he lived longer.

Quite radical composers in the minimal music corner have either mellowed (Andriessen, Adams, gradually losing the sharp edges) or ripened (Reich, refining his point of departure).

So, no, 1950s avant-garde is not really dead, but this type of music in its pure form might in the nearer or further future be considered a cul-de-sac.

Yes, 1950s avant-garde techniques and devices have been adopted, amalgamated, merged with (what might be called) more “classical” points of departure; and therefore, yes, the 1950s avant-garde does play a role in present day composing, either as continuity and development, or in music which is a reaction to the mathematics of it.

As with all periods some, indeed most, of the music then written (1950s), ends up in the “Oxfam shop” of music. What none of us know is what future generations will make of the music. It may all swing back into fashion, as has happened with the music of Korngold. Who would have predicted that in the 1970s? The avant-garde is far from dead, but it’s no longer sensibly called avant-garde, because it is simply part of the vocabulary which informs so much of what composers still do. The amazing freedom which it represented at the time remains often overlooked however, and is certainly still overlooked by those curmudgeons, stubbornly, bizarrely seeking out a tune in Pli selon pli.

Composers are now free to be as conservative or radical as they please; the pendulum has stopped swinging this way or that, because it’s finally become evident we don’t need a pendulum. Schnittke was the most prominent composer who boldly swung between styles (often in the same work) but there are many others.

The down side is that (as with much contemporary art) passions rarely are aroused one way or another. And I’m not sure the absence of an over-arching “school” doesn’t invite decadence. We don’t have a musical Damien Hirst yet, but it’s surely a matter of time.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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