Thursday, December 29, 2005

Unsung Composers

I just received an email telling me that Matthew Wallace has posted a new piece of music on the Sibelius website. I checked, and the "new piece" was his "Polar Landscapes," which is more a reposting than something new. However, the event put me in mind of the number of Sibelius Music composers about whom or from whom we never hear. I know Andrew Lowe-Watson wrote an appreciative review of Mr. Wallace's "Polar Landscapes" in 2004, and I wrote a short review of his "Jazz Preludes" in 2003, but otherwise he seems to be just another of the overlooked. I consider this unfortunate, as I really like a lot of his posted music.

Now, absence from the the forum is not a guarantee of Sibelius Music obscurity. There are several composers who have made few or no contributions to the forum, but are mentioned all the time and are familiar to most on the site. Peter Martin, Philip Buttall, Jay Anthony Gach, etc., etc., have never felt compelled to blow their own horns (or scrape their own fiddles) in the forum (although we do hear from Mr. Gach now and then), yet everyone knows their music, and knows about them. Sadly, there are many more like Mr. Wallace, who are seldom the focus of homepage publicity, do not participate in the forum, and are overlooked by almost everyone. This is unfortunate, indeed.

However, I am not advocating any publicity on their behalf, at least not within the SibMus forum. Listen to the music of Matthew Wallace, Raymond Warren, Geoffrey Alvarez, Horacio Uribe, Gonzalo Saavedra, and many others, and you'll see what I mean.

Composer news, December 2005

Some news from our little circle:

JJ has finished a song - There and back again - with the words taken from one of the verses I wrote long ago. The piece has attracted a bit of interest from other composers and musicians!

Andrew is making plans and constructions for a summer music festival in Muckleberry Gardens.

RAM is busy with many projects and duties, including teaching the little Duchess to appreciate and dance to the music of proper English.

Cedric Peachey's Fugal Fantasia for Clarinet Septet will be performed on March 18th 2006 by Southwark Consorts of Winds .

For news about Bernard, read his own report:
I'm working on two pieces simultaneously at the moment:

1. A children's opera for the W11 Opera company in London. Chincha-chancha cooroo is based on a Bengali children's story/animal fable and will be performed at the Royal College of Music in London on 9/10 December 2006 (book early to avoid disappointment).

2. A new piece for the BBC Singers based on the Norse myth "The Death of Balder." Initial ideas for the piece will be tried out in a public workshop at BBC Maida Vale Studios on 28 January, with the finished piece being performed at the Spitalfields Festival in London on 12 June 2006.

After these I shall have a rest!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Christmas concert

Some of my most enchanting students ever. My favorites are Silvia - in the middle, holding her score - she has been my private secretary this term -; Miriam, the smiling girl, very smart and lively; and the little Fabiola, who is next to Silvia, playing her violin. Those girls are really special and charming. They always brighten up my day, and when I see them in the classroom I can almost forget that there are also those ugly, tasteless and tacky girls and boys.

These boys are rehearsing my arrangement of La mer, the swing ditty by Charles Trenet. Even the little horn player did well his part this time!

Andrés and Dana switching their instruments. I enjoyed the special, convivial atmosphere before the concert more than the concert itself.

These smiles from Silvia, Miriam and Fabiola have been my best Christmas gift.

This beautiful young lady performed the Cantabile Op. 17, by Paganini.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Nature In Art

"For it is rather in nature that we see resemblance to art, than in art to nature; and we say a hundred times, 'How like a picture!' for once that we say, 'How like the truth!' The forms in which we learn to think of landscape are forms that we have got from painted canvas. Any man can see and understand a picture; it is reserved for the few to separate anything out of the confusion of nature, and see that distinctly and with intelligence."

— R.L. Stevenson, Across the Plains

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Immortal Hour

I thought the following assessment worthy of rescue from the wasteland of Sibelius Music:

Having so publicly announced my awakened interest in Rutland Boughton some weeks ago, I feel somewhat compelled to reveal (or is it mull over?) the results of my investigation. I have not heard the symphonies which are available (I think perhaps the 2nd and 3rd?), but I have listened to some of his instrumental music, such as the Flute Concerto, and other music for strings, such as "Aylesbury Games," and some other things. Paramount during the past few weeks, however, has been The Immortal Hour, and after repeated listenings and long musings, I have to say that I think it has been consigned to oblivion unfairly. Perhaps, with the renewed interest in all things heroic and/or archaic, as attested by the wave of Tolkien mania which seems to be sweeping the world just now, the time has come for this opera and its Celtic Revival roots to be reawakened.

I am not one who particularly favors the division of past composers into "major" and "minor" categories. Mr. Boughton's music easily stands comparison to that of his peers and contemporaries. What instrumental music I have heard is quite well-crafted, and can easily stand with that of Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Bridge, Bliss, Butterworth, Holst, Brian, etc., etc. I suspect that much of Boughton's later obscurity had more to do with his politics than his music, for the same socialist stance that ultimately separated him from the Glastonbury Festival (apparently the authorities did not like King Herod portrayed as an upper class, top-hatted English gentleman, among other things) probably condemned him to a more or less official shelving. But for those who insist that there are no English operas between Dido and Aeneas and Peter Grimes, I honestly believe that The Immortal Hour should be nothing less than a revelation. Of course, anyone who believes such is willfully overlooking such works as Savitri, The Wandering Scholar, and Sir John In Love, as well as innumerable others, but that is another discussion entirely.

This is not meant to be a proselytizing document, but rather a belated attempt to provide some impressions for others—something that few seemed able or willing to do for me when I began this inquiry. First, let me say that it appears the idea that Boughton got caught up in the Edwardian fairy fascination is quite mistaken. There is a distinct difference between "fairy" and "Faery," and there is no pigwiggery about Fiona MacLeod's realm of the Lordly Ones. Having mentioned Tolkien above, let me also say that I think this impulse to create or promote a British mythology was certainly in the air in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fiona MacLeod (aka William Sharp) pursued a certain Celtic angle, whether Scottish or Irish, building her writings on existing legend and mythology, whereas Tolkien decided to strike out on his own (apparently around the time that The Immortal Hour (the opera) was written, as it turns out) and write a new mythology for England (as opposed to Britain, you understand), but some of the same ideas, sentiments, and language are common to both efforts. If you are familiar with The Silmarillion I think you will recognize much of the style of the original play. (Strange to think, isn't it, that while Tolkien has been lionized almost beyond belief, the authors of similar efforts have been thrown away as "old-fashioned." There is something rather sad in that.) But I digress.

Some interesting points:
1. Boughton does, indeed, use musical mottos or leitmotivs, but they seem distinctly un-Wagnerian. Owing to the relative brevity of the opera (and having read the original play, I think Boughton...or his librettist?...did an admirable job of compressing and editing, although what remains is still recognizably Ms. MacLeod's original language) the motives/mottoes are easier to remember, and on repeated listenings lend the utmost assistance to the drama and its subtexts. The manipulation of the motives, i.e., their use, distortion, introduction, variation, etc., is very subtle, and charms the listener's ear immeasurably.
2. The harmonic and melodic languages of the opera are of the same family as those of Boughton's peers, with an extra Celtic (i.e. Irish) influence distinctly palpable, probably owing to the subject matter. Other works of the composer that I have heard do not necessarily share the same language, so it does not appear that this was his habitual mode of expression.
3. The use of the pentatonic scale is common, and in this The Immortal Hour seems to share much with some American works of the same period, or the period just preceding, at least to my ear. An interesting side-note is the perceived resonance with many of the forgotten works of the Native American-inspired dramas and operas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It would seem that this search for "roots" occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, but how strange that music inspired by Irish myth and Native American legend should end up sharing so many characteristics.
4. One thing that makes this work stand out is the liberal use of the chorus, much of the time unaccompanied or with a simple instrumental obbligato. The chorus is an overwhelmingly important part of the drama, and is given a prominent musical role, as well. In this, I believe, the work is tied even more firmly to English taste and tradition.

In conclusion, let me urge any readers to find and study the fine recording of this unjustly forgotten work. I would imagine it might not be easy to stage, but I believe The Immortal Hour deserves to regain its place in a list of highly regarded English operas. (Check the link at the title of this entry for a copy of the referenced recording.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Less is less

Is anyone familiar with Steve Reich's Variations for Wind, Strings and Keyboards? This was one of the first 'minimalist ' works I heard and it made a great impression on me at the time, I suppose about 12 years ago. Now, listening to it again after a long gap, it strikes me as impressively monumental, fascinatingly colourful wallpaper. I am a stick-in-the-mud and I like to hear bit of a tune, even a Schoenberg tune if nothing else is on offer. And you ain't going to find tunes in Steve Reich. It just keeps on with those chattering woodwinds and majestic swelling brass chords, the endlessly flatwards harmonic circles and spirals - but it's like a compere warming up the audience for a star act that never happens. They keep saying "in just a few moments you will see X in the flesh, ladies and gentlemen'' while all the time the star dressing room is empty.

Monday, December 05, 2005

One More Musical Poem


Where goes the uttered music?
Transformed, our exhalations fly
Aloft, and live an invisible and
Fervent moment, then pass away into
Prescient nothingness.
Colored, yet colorless,
Moving, yet motionless,
Ardent, yet insensible,
Music moves the world with but a shrug,
Yet dies as it is born.
Where goes the uttered music?

Where sleeps the uttered music?
It floats, ethereal and clear,
Over nations and serrate centuries
Until its resurrection—new empowerment.
Ancient voices,
Vanished tears,
Wakened to life and
Enigmatic power,
Music is an art ever new
Which speaks the language of the dead.
Where sleeps the uttered music?

Ever created,
Ever born anew,
Where rests the uttered music?

[January 13, 1994]

Sunday, December 04, 2005

More Musical Poetry

Since Maria asked for it, here it is. There is a connection between music and this poem that is a bit closer than that previously published.


O Wondrous Thing, to find love here—
To lie enwrapped in music and his arms—
Mahler bleeds in the darkened room—
O Röschen rot!” she sings, and breathes a
Miracle of sound—a benediction laid upon us
Softly, like a mantle of wandering snow.
Ach nein! Ich liess mich nicht abweisen!

Fingers touching lips, motionless in admiration—
Music heard as never before, two hearts listening,
Eyes half closed, glittering with unbidden tears.
Hör’ auf zu beben! Bereite dich zu leben!
Tenderness unlooked for, softness once disguised,
Hearts opened in sudden understanding—
Dein ist, was du gesehnt!

O Wondrous Thing, to find love hidden here—
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du…”

[December 2, 1993]

Friday, December 02, 2005

These original poems are really terrible!

There And Back Again

Saturday dawn; snow-striped lawn.
On I go. Away from you.
Now I must yawn!

Out in the city, with myself I had pity.
But time-table I got, and the sorrow was not.
This bus is so pretty!

And when I arrive, completely alive,
from a road covered with ice,
it is probably nice I survive!

Here is my place. The star's is the space.
On I go, thinking of you.
Can you lift this case?

I walk on the road, with a heavy load.
On I go. Back to you,
in a tiring mood.

[circa 1973]

City of Shadows

Our world is a dark one.
We illuminate it with hundreds of
yellow and red and blue lamps.
Nobody knows a real face
- not even his own - as it
looked in the rare, green daylight.

Our city is a bundle of
shadows and coloured lights.
Like withered flowers on a grave
rustling in a dance with the
cold wind by night.
Nobody knows the sun or the moon.

Our souls are of melting ice.
We cool it down with fluid lies.
Or struggle on with trickling truth
in head and heart, and pebbled shoes.
Nobody knows a Holy Ghost
more good than marmalade on toast.

[circa 1976]

..and, no, this has nothing to do with music! But the texts are offered as original lyrics for unwritten masterworks, if someone wants to make a fool of himself and set them to music!

Music, Poetry, and Party Pieces

Inspired by Philip Buttall's ubiquitous "Lone Ar-ranger," I thought I would, with your indulgence, revive an old piece of mine that I once used in the poetry-reading circuit (over ten years ago). It was meant to illustrate a problem similar to that I have when trying to compose music, in that I can often only recall bits of others' work, and have no imagination for things of my own. It may be that others have this problem as often as I do. (With Christmas fast approaching you might want to use the following as a party-piece to see how many poems/poets one can identify.)


Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
Cause they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.
And I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade, but
Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land—
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
Of course the Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat, and
The sea is calm tonight.
But by the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink, but
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree, and
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
Where yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.
This is the forest primeval.
Now, whose woods these are I think I know.
But then I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils.
So, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, but
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.
There he saw King Jesus. They were face to face,
And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Yes, the blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven,
But jest ‘fore Christmas I’m as good as I kin be.
In fact, ‘twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,
Nor some rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Little Lamb, who made thee?
His name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on his works, ye Mighty, and despair!
For in Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree.
There, come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove—
Let me count the ways.
One: My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.
Two: She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And three: she was a phantom of delight.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
I raged, raged against the dying of the light, but
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
So, blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
Unlike Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Who grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
But tell me not in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream.
They also serve who only stand and wait.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done.
So, shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag—
For the gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat, and
The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and stanch he stands, like a
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
Piping down the valleys wild.
But, quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me,
Nor let it be brillig, with the slithey toves
That gyre and gimble in the wabe.
Please—Terence—this is stupid stuff.

[December 5, 1993]

Wednesday, November 30, 2005


"Art is not the recovery of the innocent eye, which is inaccessible. 'Make it new' cannot mean, set it free of all learned frames and names, for paradoxically it is only a precise use of learned comparison and the signs we have made to distinguish things seen or recognized that can give the illusion of newness…One cannot think at all without a recognition and realignment of ways of thinking and seeing we have learned over time. We all remake the world as we see it, as we look at it."

— A.S. Byatt, Still Life

Monday, November 28, 2005

Listening to...

...Cathy Berberian sings Monteverdi. On the kitchen stereo, while I was checking the lamps in the Advent lights, that have been stored away in a box in the small house in the backyard since last Christmas. (Click on the header of this post, and you will hear Monteverdi and more from a site dedicated to Berberian).

Found a whole new concept was introduced at SibeliusMusic today. A website for streaming or download of classical music (and some other sorts of serious music). The site looks ugly, but the things offered are a little bit of everything. Maybe not with the artists I prefer always. I only searched what they had of Schumann lieder. Margaret Price, mostly. And a barytone or two. A hasty overview gives the impression of a mix of commercial download/streaming site, and educational resource site. Interesting idea, however.

A while ago I found an interesting variation on the web radio theme - Pandora. It is a commercial site where you can design your own "station" with a theme based on an artist or song you like and wish to use as a reference point for further explorations in popular music. From a database with classifications of thousands of pieces of recorded music (judged by humans!) the "station" will play music that has something in common with the choice you started it with. The idea sounds stupid at first - who wants to hear only the same, and more of the same?, but the result is varied enough, and you can retrain the programming with your reactions (thumb up/down) to the pieces. Chances are you find more music you like, but never knew about before. (Only pop/rock/jazz music.)

[Sunday night:] ...Purcell's Dido & Aeneas. Wonderful witches.

[Monday morning:] ...interesting big band jazz on a personal Pandora station. This far it has played pieces by Carla Bley, Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, Maria Schneider, Duke Ellington, and Don Ellis.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

BBC Philharmonic & SPNM Concert

On 25 November 2005, the BBC Philharmonic under the direction of James MacMillan gave a concert of four new works by four young composers in the Studio 7 Concert Hall for future broadcast. The concert was given in association with the SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music).

James MacMillan introduced each of the composers and gave them a brief opportunity to expand upon their programme notes which helped the modest audience of about 100 to understand the pieces.

“Six Pieces” by Jordan Hunt was written originally as six separate movements based on the same Chaconne. They were then ‘spliced and re-ordered with a certain amount of serendipity’. The thinking behind this was to create one movement assembled from the fragments like a film put together in the editing stage.

The idea is intriguing, however for this listener the individual movements which made up this collage did not appear to have an individual enough character so that one felt that the splicing was being taken from a different camera angle. The piece was well written and the construction was sound, but the sum of the parts lacked sufficient audible individuality, either in orchestral sound or tempi for the original movements to make it work. I did not make a note of how long the piece lasted, but it struck me as overlong. Having been negative, I am sure that the basic idea could be better presented with more contrasting music.

The second piece was “Illumination” by Fung Lam. Here I must state a bias, I already know him and I went to the concert specifically to hear his piece. He also sent me the score, which gave me a head start. Although he is not a religious person (his words), he was trying to convey the sense of achieving enlightenment, an aim which succeeded. The opening reminded me of Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” or “Lontano”. This soon takes on a life of its own leaving the unconscious model behind. Glissandi and colouration from the mainly tuned percussion and rhythmic repeated notes built up to a magnificent climax. The music shimmered and a sense of enlightenment arrived in a state of ecstatic serenity as the strings and flutes ascended through their registers.

The intensity and relentlessness of “Illumination” was followed by “Ausland” by Ed Bennett. This too was relentless as it built up with an inevitability achieved in the climax and resolution. In its construction this was an ‘old fashioned’ piece, but the language was intelligible. Stabbing brass interrupted the flow. The piece as it built up put me in mind of Birtwistle’s “The Triumph of Time”. There is very little of detail to recount as the entire piece was one large sweep, organic. The closing was reminiscent of the technique of Davies, another Mancunian composer. All in all, this was probably the most satisfying piece.

Finally, Philip Venables’ “Arc” was performed. A magnificent finish to a well constructed concert. Various solo instruments surface and subside into the orchestral texture, starting with the viola. He used the orchestra effectively, though there were times when the winds could have been more clearly audible. Although Bennett said the starting point for his piece was visual, ‘Riley, Pollock and de Kooning’, “Arc” conjured up images in my imagination of bubbling hot springs or lava. He could be another excellent art composer to transfer his musicianship to writing soundtracks, not unlike Glass in the ‘skatsi’ films.

The orchestra played commendably as one would expect. A few bumpy moments happened, but this is pardonable given the four different new pieces they were called upon to perform, and probably without sufficient rehearsal time to iron out all the wrinkles. Although an orchestra is an ensemble it is fair to single out some for particular mention, the percussion particularly in Fung Lam’s “Illumination”, the solo viola (Steven Burnard) in Philip Venables’ “Arc” and the brass in Ed Bennett’s “Ausland”.

MacMillan directed each work sympathetically, with the kind of understanding and insight that only a composer can bring to the works of others.

The BBC and the SPNM should both be congratulated on such an excellent event. It shows what can happen when a public service broadcaster and a single minded organisation can achieve together.

The memory I have taken with me from the concert was of four young and able composers, each of them writing convincingly in a different way for the orchestra. But the most important feature of the evening was the music was written with full knowledge that the twentieth century had happened. Each composer has moved into his own world, looking for his originality, his understanding, and with composers like these the future for art music is secure.

tim ellis

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Music to drive by

I have a battered old cassette deck in my car. Rather unwisely I have started to listen to my old collection of personal favourites while driving in and out of Norwich and Cromer. Today it was the turn of Prokofiev - his first Violin concerto and Cinderella music. Is there a more exquisitely delicate piece of orchestral scoring than the return of the main theme in the first movement of the concerto? If there is, I don't know it. It could melt the heart of a mass-murderer. What a wonderful, amazing, miraculous thing music is!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A look at other blogs

Just making some notes of what I am looking at on the web. Will edit and comment this later, ongoing.

NewMusicBox Chatter I looked at the dialogue with arguments pro/con buying and/or downloading music online, or getting it via traditional formats and a real life shop.
Sequenza21 have some (good?) resources from the portal page; other subpages are:
The Sequenza21 forum which is in blog format (worth reading sometimes - today a little discussion of the concept "harmonic rhythm")
A list of music blogs (useful)
The wiki page (project) about new music.

[and in the grey light of the next day's morning, Lady M was drinking her instant coffee, when something interesting appeared on the screen:]
Look! I found a blog written by a friend!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Santa Cecilia

I use to narrate her life to my students, every November the 22th: Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Today, I asked to the class: "Do you know? Today it is Saint Cecilia's day". To my astonishment, my students had never heard about her. I decided not to narrate her life to them. Anyway, they always find Saint Cecilia very dumb; she kept her virginity and she could not avoid to be beheaded and it looks like she could't sing or play the organ after all. I must tell my students that she actually sang while she was being beheaded. "And then the executioner did not kill her, at the last minute!". No, I answer, she was killed, what did you expect?. Naturally, she looks even dumber, what a fraud. Sometimes I change the ending: Saint Cecilia is about to be eaten by a lion. And then she starts to sing. The public is in awe, suspenseful. "And then the lion did not eat her!" I answer: but naturally, the lion ate her all the same. "And why is she the patron saint of music? She was dumb!".

Furchte nicht!

[the picture - called "Hope" - is borrowed from Anna. I will return it when everybody has viewed it. Don't copy, please! Look at more paintings and other works at the artist's site. BTW, the Swedish word for "hope" - hopp - is the same as the word for "jump", and you can see the double-meaning played on in the picture!]

Don't be afraid of words. They can be wrong; they can be right. They can be music.

Two-page piano painting

This is what I told my friends when I had published a short new piano piece:

for all of you: if you detect an influence / plagiarism in my piece that I haven't understood about myself, please report! The obvious sources of influence when I write like this are the short piano works I have played or listened to, by Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Kabalevsky, Stravinskij, Fryklof, L-E Larsson, and other German, French, Russian or Swedish composers, mainly from the 1920s. The more subtle and harder to detect and entangle, are influences from fellow Sibelians, since I listen so much to works on the site, but not always remember what I have heard and seen, and where. Piano works by JA Gach, J Gardner, B Hughes, MW Morse, RA Moulds, and many more.

The piece is called Lady M pays a visit to a painter, and the sheet music can be found at SibeliusMusic.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Yet another experiment

This is a blog site which will be used for promotion and discussion of new music by a group of composers who met on internet some years ago because they used the same notation software, and became friends for quite other reasons than just that fact.