arranging, Birkbeck, Charles Ives, composition, fashionable composers, Parry and Handel, techniques, Vaughan Williams, viola
I needed to get my lecture notes into shape for yesterday’s class, so most of my free time was spent getting up to speed with a couple of pieces, especially Vaughan Williams’s 4th Symphony, which I must admit that I quite like. It bashes away at times at its four-note motif, but there’s enough decent writing in there to make me interested enough to want to hear it again. I don’t buy in to to the whole programmatic element of it though. For a start, the chronology simply does not match up, and where are the responses to VW’s experiences in the first World War, for example? It also seems odd to me that after three titled symphonies, this one should simply be given a number. I know that I am not a close acquaintance of the work, but that view of it simply does not add up for me.
I picked up some more arranging work yesterday, a rebooking from somebody I have worked for before. This is well timed and a small boost to my confidence while things are just a little quiet on the compositional front. This needs to slip into the queue after my work on some Parry and Handel, and will necessarily push back the viola piece. On the other hand it is good to have something meaty to get my teeth into, and I am really looking forward to some decent stints of writing.
I read a whole load of nonsense yesterday written by quite a fashionable composer about the new simple style in choral music, coming up with the same old line about how deeply spiritual it is, and how it inhabits a place of calm in our frantic world. That it may well do, but it is surely a coincidental side effect that it happens to be very easy (and lucrative) to write, and, as Charles Ives put it, “lets the ears lie back in an easy chair”.
In fact, Ives said that one should never confuse beauty with that which lets the ears do such a thing, but we seem to have fallen for it hook, line and stinker, sorry, sinker in this day and age. My favourite story about Ives is still the one when he told a heckler at a modern music concert to “stop booing and start using your ears like a man!”, but that does not mean that I think all music should consist of random noises, not at all, but we should at least challenge our perceptions. It is just that there are so many emperors around who are stark naked, and yet nobody points it out. Twas ever thus, though, I suppose.
It mischievously occurred to me the other day that I could come up with a similar piece at some point (probably in an afternoon) and whip it off to a competition to see how it goes, under a pseudonym, but with a hidden message therein. Personally and artistically, though, it would be a waste of a decent afternoon. I’d still prefer to be wrestling with motivic cells and fighting with harmonic balance and tussling with rhythmic units, however. For me that is what it is all about. We can all sit at the piano and waft up some slow added-note background music, and it probably has its place, but it is not for me. It is the musical equivalent of films about vampires and books about wizards, and I really hope that the bandwagon is running out of space.