Vox unpop

Vox unpop

I’ve been working with young composers now for around 30 years, and what impresses and delights me is that they keep coming through, as enthusiastic as ever, in spite of the educational climate and a culture that offers them very little encouragement. For the LSO’s Panufnik scheme we generally have around 100 applications each year for 6 places, and it’s the same with the Aldeburgh Composition Course which Oliver Knussen and I have been running since 1992. What we look out for is not so much technical skill – which seems now to be almost a given – but imagination. It may be a bit of a cliché to say so, but composers now have remarkable technical ability (knocking socks off anything I could have managed at a similar age), but don’t always know what to do with it.

I think there’s often a downside to this technical expertise, and here comes the polemic. There’s a risk that it comes with a tendency to hide behind a combination of extended techniques, multiphonics and rhythmic over-complexity. These things are all part of the armoury, but to make them the basis of a language is, to my mind, a lazy approach. It’s an avoidance of what really matters, the tension between the notes – I can’t feel tension is achieved by what may amount to little more than texture, or by rhythms that end up blurring any sense of momentum.  Of course there are major practitioners who can do just that, and it goes without saying that Lachenmann, for one, is an absolute master. But his example is dangerous – techniques which took him years to develop and perfect are now at everyone’s disposal, yet imitation Lachenmann has no more validity than a Palestrina exercise. Ferneyhough’s achievement is diminished by an injudicious following which lacks the depth that he’s brought to his music. The trouble is that once you’ve adopted this camouflage, which can cover over what may be simple ideas, it’s not easy to back away from it, and so there’s a tendency to become defensive and truculent in the face of the the supposed enemy. It’s sad to see that there is still a Darmstadtian hostility to music which is perceived as not toeing the party line (which includes rather a lot of music). At the extreme end of this, I don’t like minimalism any more than they do : but it’s foolish to fly in the face of the evident demand for it and pretend it doesn’t exist, or wish that it didn’t.

You’d probably expect me to say this, as an ageing composer, no doubt considered in some quarters as pretty much reactionary and establishment. Perhaps I can explain by saying something about myself : I really don’t belong in the music profession at all, having had virtually no musical education until I was over twenty, with no advantages in my background and no obvious route into the profession other than my own enthusiasm, and luck in finding myself in the right places at the right time. When I was struggling to find a voice as a composer I was on the verge of embracing Cage and Stockhausen as a means to cover my lack of ability; but encounters with Terry Riley and (very early) Steve Reich pushed me temporarily in completely the opposite direction. I soon grew out of that too, I’m glad to say : but it gave me a sense of balance, and though it took me nearly another 10 years to achieve any kind of voice (not that I’m sure I’ve yet managed it) I can only be glad that I didn’t  begin by hiding behind what would have been a bogus modernistic facade.

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