Thursday, 22 May 2014

Humphrey Who?

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the link for more information or click on the British Composers label to read them all.

I won't say a lot about this, or about Humphrey Searle - just that when I hear pieces like this it strikes me that posterity is often kinder to art than to music. True, many paintings are left for years stacked in attics, facing the wall, but all a painting needs is a wall to be hung on. Some people might glance at it. A few might meditate upon it. Of them, only a few people might get anything out of it and many people might detest it. Whatever the response, the artist felt he or she had something that needed to be expressed - and expressed it. There it is, so long as someone provides the wall-space for it.

Music, on the other hand, needs people to perform it, needs people to have enough confidence in it to want to perform it. Unperformed, it exists merely as dots on a page, silent, in the dark.  Recording technology has brought the condition of music a step closer to that of painting but it still requires musicians to record the music and listeners to click on it. Music sleeps until it is woken up.

Humphrey Searle wrote five symphonies, not to mention music for a lost episode of Dr Who and the 1963 film, The Haunting. He was also a great cat-lover.

Monday, 19 May 2014


The other day, my friend Alex and I went for a walk in Coverdale. It was the most recent of a series of walks we've made over the hills of the Southern skyline of that dale - a long, broad-backed ridge studded with summits that stretches for miles, dividing Nidderdale to the South from Coverdale and Wensleydale in the North. It's one of my favourite places. The highest of the hills rise up suddenly from bleak, gentler slopes, creating an aura of remoteness that always reminds me of certain areas of Scotland. A few weeks ago, with a group of friends, we'd begun with a walk over "the Whernsides" - Little Whernside, Whernside and Great Whernside (none of which should be confused with another Whernside, the highest hill in Yorkshire). On a subsequent walk, we walked over Carle Fell. The other day found us tackling Great Haw.

We set off from the village of West Scrafton and took a path that follows the bank of Lead Up Gill. Unfortunately, we joined it a short distance upstream of the Great Force waterfall. (It would have been good to see it. Had I paid more attention to the map before we set off, we would have!) We followed the winding course of the steep-sided gill across the peat moor for a mile or so. Sometimes, looking downstream, there were aerial views of Wensleydale and Leyburn or, upstream, of the crags on the edge of Carle Fell. Often, turns in the steep-sided  stream cut off distant views of anywhere and we found ourselves in that rare situation (for England, at any rate) of seeing no obvious sign of human presence.

Finally the stream turned Southwards and the steep sides flattened out into a wide cwm, at the head of which stood Great Haw. We came to a tumbled-down drystone sheepfold, at which point we turned away from the stream and slogged over the rough, damp ground all the way to the top.

We stopped to rest for a few minutes on the heather dome of the summit  before heading off towards Little Haw, a less prominent top. On the way we came across an exquisitely carved boundary stone.  We came across another on the summit of Little Haw itself. Moors are more heavily managed than they often look as you walk over them. What looks wild at ground level can be seen from the air to be a patchwork of heather plots, all burnt back at different times. At this point, though, it's impossible not to be aware of the management of the moor - there are lines of recently built grouse butts and hard-core Land Rover tracks. We found ourselves stomping down one, back towards West Scrafton.

Just outside the village we met a man walking up the path towards us. He was the first person we'd seen all morning. On our previous walk, up Dead Man's Hill and over Carle Fell, we'd seen no-one. Walking over "the Whernsides" a few weeks ago I'm not sure - perhaps we passed a party of two on the way down? I can't remember clearly. These hills are as great to walk on as they are unfashionable - often the best kind.

Carle Fell, Little Whernside and Whernside

Boundary stone close to Great Haw summit

Little Whernside from High Crag (Carle Fell)

Track to High Crag

Great Whernside summit

Alan Rawsthorne features in a series on post-WWII British Composers. 
Click on the link for more information or click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

On a Raised Beach

It's been a while! Various things (broadly divisible into commitments and priorities) have contrived to stop the flow. However, I've been away from the blog for too long and it's time to get it going again.

Now and again, other bloggers I read write posts about their personal view of life, the universe and everything. When I read them I invariably feel inspired to do so myself. I've always ended up deleting my efforts, though. One of the great things about blogging is that the act of writing down one's thoughts is a great test of those thoughts. What seems to be profound a revelatory when one mulls it over in the confines of one's own head often looks trite and full of holes when written down. I'm sure I'm not the only person to experience this.

I've recently read And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson. I've rarely enjoyed a book more. It's a panoramic exploration of Scottish society in the fifty years that followed the Second World War. I'm not going to go into detail here - except to mention that the book features a walk-on part for the Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. I also spotted several allusions -surely deliberate- to his poem, On a Raised Beach. As soon as I'd finished the novel I reached for my complete MacDiarmid and started to reread it. I found myself reading that blog-post I could never write, written far better than I could ever write it! There is an insidious side to reading: one can read something and be profoundly influenced by it, only for the memory of the details of the book, poem or article to fade and influence remain.

From On a Raised Beach:

Deep conviction or preference can seldom   
Find direct terms in which to express itself.   
Today on this shingle shelf
I understand this pensive reluctance so well,   
This not discommendable obstinacy,
These contrivances of an inexpressive critical feeling,   
These stones with their resolve that Creation shall not be   
Injured by iconoclasts and quacks. Nothing has stirred
Since I lay down this morning an eternity ago
But one bird. The widest open door is the least liable to intrusion,   
Ubiquitous as the sunlight, unfrequented as the sun.   
The inward gates of a bird are always open.   
It does not know how to shut them.
That is the secret of its song,
But whether any man’s are ajar is doubtful.
I look at these stones and know little about them,   
But I know their gates are open too,
Always open, far longer open, than any bird’s can be,
That every one of them has had its gates wide open far longer   
Than all birds put together, let alone humanity,   
Though through them no man can see,
No man nor anything more recently born than themselves   
And that is everything else on the Earth.
I too lying here have dismissed all else.
Bread from stones is my sole and desperate dearth,   
From stones, which are to the Earth as to the sunlight   
Is the naked sun which is for no man’s sight.   
I would scorn to cry to any easier audience
Or, having cried, to lack patience to await the response.
I am no more indifferent or ill-disposed to life than death is;   
I would fain accept it all completely as the soil does;   
Already I feel all that can perish perishing in me   
As so much has perished and all will yet perish in these stones.   
I must begin with these stones as the world began.

Shall I come to a bird quicker than the world’s course ran?   
      To a bird, and to myself, a man?
      And what if I do, and further?
I shall only have gone a little way to go back again   
And be like a fleeting deceit of development,
Iconoclasts, quacks. So these stones have dismissed   
All but all of evolution, unmoved by it,
(Is there anything to come they will not likewise dismiss?)   
As the essential life of mankind in the mass
Is the same as their earliest ancestors yet.
My apologies to any Facebook friends who may have read this passage already. Oh well, if you ask me it's worth re-reading!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Daphne Oram

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the link for more information or click on the British Composers label to read them all.

We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep; likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it: and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.    Francis Bacon (1561–1626) , The New Atlantis

Daphne Oram was fascinated by this passage from The New Atlantis. While working as a sound engineer for the BBC in the 1940s, she had composed a number of pieces and begun to experiment with the creation of making music using tape recorders. Along with a colleague, she founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958. She didn't stay long, leaving to set up an independent electronic music operation. One of her most intriguing contribution to electronic music was the creation of the "Oramics Machine" - an electronic device which could convert drawings of soundwaves on strips of 35mm film into sound.

Oram has acquired something of a cult following. A Youtube search for her name yields a lot more hits than many more prominent "mainstream" composers active in the last seventy years (composers who featured far more prominently in the book which inspired this series of posts). Her reputation says something about the ways the musical world has changed - both in terms of its boundaries and what is included within them.

More information about Daphne Oram can be found at The Daphne Oram Trust.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Moebius Music

I came across this Youtube video - an excuse, I thought, to repost the poem below, which I wrote a while ago.

Moebius Love Poem

Take a strip of paper:
twist it once and then
glue the ends together
so that when
you run your finger
along one side, it turns
into the other side.

This is extraordinary,
you think. A one-sided
piece of paper,
proclaiming the reality
of strangeness
in a world full of
two-sided pieces of paper.

Somehow we got twisted up
like this, so that
when I run my finger
along your side,
I'm no longer sure
where you end
and I begin.

Friday, 3 January 2014

A Poem...


we find ourselves

scouring the beach
over and over

lifting the pebbles
just enough

to rattle them
we say

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

I found this video on Youtube the other day. Christy Moore and Co. gigging around the time I was doing my mock O-levels, forty Christmas Days ago. Words come to mind: water, bridge, a lot. Tapestry, life, rich. Sideburns.

This video works really well on "full screen".

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Elisabeth Lutyens

I think of the composer Elisabeth Lutyens (1906-1983) every time I go to the island of Lindisfarne. The reason is quite a tenuous one - her father, the architect Edwin Lutyens, renovated the castle there in 1901. Her music definitely falls into the "potentially difficult" category, although I don't think one should be deterred by this. For me it has an engaging, haunting quality about it.

The few British composers I've featured so far in this series produced, by and large, accessible music (an intriguing exception is John Tavener who, as the only "avant garde" composer to be signed by Virgin Records raises interesting questions about what constitutes "accessible" music). Lutyens, on the other hand, was one of the few composers in Britain at the time to follow the lead of continental composers writing atonal music. She adopted, modified and developed their methods to suit her own needs. Think of her, if you like, as a Barbara Hepworth of postwar British music.

I particularly like this Youtube video of Lutyens' Five Bagatelles for piano. OK, it could be all sorts of places but I'm guessing  the illustrations are of Norfolk. They certainly go well, I think, with the music, which is interesting, as British landscape is usually associated with the sound-world of Vaughan Williams.

Lutyens also worked as a film composer. She was the first woman to compose music for a British feature film - Penny and the Pownall Case, starring Diana Dors and Christopher Lee.

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the link to read them all.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Lighting a Fire

We've had an electric fire here for years now. We used to light fires but with one thing and another, it seemed a lot less trouble to put a board in front of the fireplace and stand an electric fire in front of it instead.

Recently, we thought it was time to sort out the fireplace again. We got the chimney swept. It turned out to be full of old birds' nests - the sweep managed to fill a whole binliner with twigs and mossy tufts. He recommended we get a wire contraption fitted to the top of the chimney to prevent a repeat performance. I went outside and had a good look at the other chimneys in the village. No wonder ours was birds' nest central. Just about everyone else had one of the aforementioned contraptions fitted.

I went to a hardware store and bought one. I then borrowed a neighbour's ladder with a view to fitting it onto the chimney pot. It shouldn't bother me -I climbed huge rock climbs in my youth- but I really don't like ladders. It doesn't look that far from the ground to the top of our chimney - from the ground. However, once I start up the ladder everything looks a bit different and I have to admit I had what climbers term "a bit of an epic" getting up the last few feet and getting myself into a position next to the chimney pot where I could actually fit the thing. The "thing" (I still don't know what it's called) is a springy, conical cage of wire legs, all of which need to be squeezed in while it's put into the chimney. I'd tied string around it to hold the legs in and intended to cut the string once it was well in, allowing the legs to spring out and grip the pot. Everything was just six inches further away than I wanted it to be and, of course, everything had to be arranged so it could be done with one hand, the other hanging like grim death onto the nearby "stench pipe".

To my amazement, everything went according to plan and I didn't fall off. To celebrate, we went and bought a sack of coal. We're never short of kindling round here and I've always got a pile of old newspapers handy, so lighting a fire was no problem. Walking up the lane gathering sticks had a real whiff of self-sufficiency about it. I had visions of  keeping chickens, of turning over the front garden to vegetables - now, I reflected, would be a good time to dig it over, let the frost break up the clods... So far, I've got no further than sitting in front of our "real" fire drinking a Martini and watching Youtube videos about vegetable-gardening. It can't be that hard, can it?

Monday, 9 December 2013

Benjamin Britten - Phaedra

I also enjoyed listening to another Britten piece I didn't know the other week - the cantata Phaedra, written for Janet Baker in 1975. Britten was seriously ill when he wrote it (he died the following year). It was one of a number of pieces he wrote towards the end of his life -the most famous being the opera, Death in Venice- that featured in the recently re-shown documentary, Britten's Endgame.

In it, Phaedra, the wife of Theseus, finds herself passionately infatuated with his son, Hippolytus. He rejects her and she decides to kill herself. The documentary included an interview with Janet Baker  in which she said how, when she was rehearsing the work with Britten, she felt overwhelmed by the evident personal significance of the words (those I've put in italics) in this excerpt and felt hardly able to sing them:

Oh Gods of wrath,
how far I've travelled on my dangerous path!
I go to meet my husband; at his side will stand
Hippolytus. How shall I hide my thick adulterous passion for this
youth, who has rejected
me, and knows the truth? Will he not draw his
sword and strike me dead? Suppose he spares
me? What if nothing's said? Can I kiss Theseus
with dissembled poise? The very dust rises to
disabuse my husband — to defame me and accuse!
Oenone(1),  I want to die. Death will give me
freedom; oh it's nothing not to live; death to the
unhappy's no catastrophe!

(1)Oenone is Phaedra's nurse and confidante in Racine's Phedre. The text of Britten's Phaedra is taken from a translation of this by Robert Lowell.

And finally, another powerful revelation of the Britten centenary for me were the letters that passed between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears...

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on this link or the British Composers label to read them all.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Fleak!

Last weekend I got in a couple of short, local walks.The first was with friend Alex and my son, Daniel.  Oxnop Beacon is a top on the broad ridge of moorland that separates Swaledale from Wensleydale, the highest point along which is Great Shunner Fell, famous for the fact that the Pennine Way crosses its summit.

Oxnop is visited less regularly. I'd not visited it before - mainly due to the fact that although I'd seen it on the map there was always something to do that looked more exciting. Much of the track to the summit is a well-established landrover track.

The walk itself was a pleasant surprise. Half way to the beacon the track peters out into a line of faint ruts and the signs of human activity are generally intriguing rather than intrusive - at one end of the gentle summit-ridge a sturdily-built cairn marks the summit itself, beside which is a stone shelter which may have been built for miners, walkers, or shepherds - we could not make our minds up which. The "beacon" is another tall cairn at the other end. It is often said that the lower tops in hilly areas offer the best views and this fell is no exception - you can see virtually all the major hills in the Yorkshire Dales from it. Unfortunately, though, we didn't take a camera.

This was not a mistake we made the next day. From the beacon I'd noticed a tarn, Summer Lodge Tarn, further along the ridge, to the East. It sits on a fell known as The Fleak. With a name like that, who wouldn't want to explore it? Lots of people, apparently. It seems to be rarely visited by walkers. From what I could find on the internet its main fans seem to be trig-point collectors (a hobby not without its attractions, I thought). What may put some people off is the fact that a road passes quite close to the summit. It has to be said that as roads go it's not for the faint hearted: it is an exceedingly steep, narrow thread of tarmac that, at it's highest point (1,775 feet), known as Windgates Currack, runs along the top of a steep edge - almost a cliff. We've often driven along this road, usually stopping to admire the view. It must surely come close to the top of any list of wild, hilltop roads in England - and ahead of several better-known ones. I had never, though, left the car behind and set off to the summit - the eccentrically named Conny Tammy Currack.

By Summer Lodge Tarn. Oxnop Beacon  is in the background.

The next day, Daniel and I set out to find it, armed with water, digestive biscuits, tangerines - and a camera. I drove most of the way up. We parked on the edge of the moor and set off along a ghost of a path, a landrover track that the fell was gradually reabsorbing, its ruts full of spongy moss. We found ourselves walking though an area of pits and low spoil-heaps, probably dug by lead miners years ago. There were shake-holes, too - natural pits where surface material has fallen into openings in the limestone underneath, like sand into an egg-timer. Oddly, though they were similar, there seemed to be subtle differences between these and the man-made pits. One fancied one could tell one from the other.  On our left, we caught sight of Summer Lodge Tarn. We made for it, as from it we'd be able to clearly see our way to the summit.

Great Whernside and Buckden Pike from The Fleak
As it happened, the top was easy -almost too easy- to find. A new-looking wire fence runs over the top of the moor, from the tarn to the trig point. Once there, recreational eating being one of the great pleasures of hill-walking, we stopped for a while, to admire the view and consume the biscuits and tangerines. I'd planned on walking from the summit to the highest point on the road (and, from there, back to the car). This turned out to be a boggy, pathless adventure, the peat riven in places with impressive, rambling groughs - the sort of place that cannot help but remind a Sherlock Holmes fan of the Great Grimpen Mire.

It wasn't that far to the road - but at least it was invisible almost to the last minute. Once on it, one could not help but wonder why anyone would build it there. I can only think that the builders opted to go up and along the top of the edge, rather than round it, as it provided the driest, firmest ground available. Either that, or they just did it for kicks, which I doubt.

Smoke by Semerwater, from The Fleak
A cairn on the Fleak, looking towards Summer Lodge Tarn and Swaledale

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Benjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Frankly, I'm not a great fan of the centenary industry - the world seems to be full of people poring over lists of dates looking for things that happened in years gone by, arbitrarily hitching them to the fact that we count in base 10. However, in the recent case of Benjamin Britten, I've found everything I've seen and heard about him quite gripping.

Best of all for me was the opera Billy Budd. I must admit it's decades since I last devoted time to sitting through a whole opera  and I'd not seen this one before (I'm guessing I'm not the only one). I watched the Glyndebourne production of it  on TV last week and I was glued to it from beginning to end. It's based on the novella by Herman Melville of the same name (which, I have to say, I've not read). The libretto was written by EM Forster and Eric Crozier. Written in 1951, the opera has, unusually, an all-male cast. It's set on a British battleship during the wars with the French at the end of the 18th century. Billy Budd is a very likeable man, almost angelic. Significantly with regard to the plot, he stammers. Like Tom Bowling in the song, he's the darling of the crew.  However, one man aboard the ship, the Master-at-Arms John Claggart, hates him. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of plotting mutiny. Called to account for himself before the incredulous Captain Vere, Billy, rendered speechless by his stammer, lashes out in frustration at Claggart, killing him. Although Billy is univerally loved and Claggart universally hated, the Captain -who compares Billy's actions to those of an angel- and the officers can find no alternative but to sentence Billy to hang from the yard arm, the only punishment for striking a senior officer in time of war. "Starry Vere, God bless you!" sings Billy as he faces execution, horrified by the thought that those who have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to sentence him to death will have to live with the consequences.

It's a many-layered story made richer by the fact that in it, the monarchist British are fighting the republican French. Opera is often said to be an elitist art form: Billy Budd is a good example of why it is not. I mentioned the song, Tom Bowling and a quick look on the internet tells me that the work of the author of the song was known to Melville and that the song itself may have influenced the creation of the story. Significantly, perhaps, Melville tells us Billy "was illiterate; he could not read, but he could sing", a talent among several he shares with Tom:

Tom never from his word departed
His virtues were so rare:
His friends were many and true hearted
His Poll was kind and fair;
And then he'd sing so blithe and jolly
Ah! Many's the time and oft;
But mirth is turned to melancholy
For Tom is gone aloft
For Tom is gone aloft.

Charles Dibdin (1745-1814)
This song made me cry as a child when my mother played it on the piano. It still does. And I defy anyone to sit through Billy Budd with a dry eye.

The DVD of the Glyndebourne production of Billy Budd can be bought from the Glyndebourne website.


This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A Walk in Wensleydale

A friend -Alex- and I have taken to going for walks together around the local hills. We're not talking long expeditions here, just walks that take a morning or an afternoon. Though it's true that there are wonderful places to be found for those who go further afield, as I tend to do, it's easy to overlook what's on our doorstep.

Regular readers of this blog may well say that I don't. It's not long since I did what I'm about to do - write about Pen Hill, the nearest "big hill" to Leyburn. It is true that I am besotted by the place, but my regular visits are usually made running, not walking. When we were discussing where to go the other week, I suggested Pen Hill for this very reason. It had been a while since I'd simply wandered around on it, soaking up the details that usually flash past.

Pen Hill: Southern Edge
We parked at the highest point on the road over Melmerby Moor, at the Eastern end of the hill and walked up the track over the moor, over the area known as "Little Pen Hill" before veering North to take East Gate path, which leads up to the Southern edge of the plateau. This one of my favourite local places. There is a small, natural outcrop of rocks there. They're just too small for "bouldering" but big enough for one to enjoy sheltering behind them or sitting on top of them. The spot has a wildness about it - it takes just enough effort to get there for it to feel set apart from the world below. I touch here on an aspect of big, sprawling plateau-topped hills: they're not the only place with this quality but they do often have a magical feel to them. Perhaps it's because what looks like a single great lump from a distance turns out to be a collection of seemingly self-contained worlds.

Cotton Grass: Pen Hill Plateau
We moved on from the world of the rocky outcrop to the world of  Ram's Gill, a small, but steep-sided clough where we stopped for a few minutes to look at the map and set a bearing from there to the true summit of the hill. A fence leading from there to the summit is shown on my OS map - but there's no fence there now. I say the summit, but it would be wrong to call it the summit of Pen Hill. That name, strictly speaking applies to the Eastern end of the plateau, slightly sharper in outline than the Western end. Although the hill as a whole is known locally as "Pen Hill" the area of the true summit is actually called the Height of Hazely.

This section of the walk was extremely hard going underfoot - one had to be continually on the lookout for holes under the thick mat that makes up the surface of the moor. If one is not careful one is forever stumbling. The photo of cotton grass (above) was taken looking towards this bleak area. There is no "cone" to walk towards. One simply becomes increasingly aware that more and more of the horizon is visible. Finally, one enters a zone with a 360-degree view. The summit is somewhere within it. We found a tussock that seemed to be just a little higher than the others but I know from experience on other hills that one can while away an afternoon looking for that elusive highest point! From the "zone", the hill seemed to slope away in all directions - obviously, you might say, but from other vantage points the whole plateau area does look pretty uniformly flat. You know you're more or less on the top when you get there.

Pen Hill: cairn overlooking Coverdale and "the Whernsides"
The rest of the walk was easier. Until we turned towards the summit we'd been walking along the wilder, Southern edge of the hill. Fewer people visit it so the paths are fainter and less easy underfoot. However, in my opinion, that quality of wildness I referred to more than makes up for this. It also overlooks Coverdale (one of my favourite Dales) and "the Whernsides".

The Northern edge, where we now quickly found ourselves, is more frequented. The paths are well-worn by more adventurous dog-walkers. They tend to run along the cliffs of Black Scar and Penhill Scar - it's a spectacular area, and probably affords the best aerial view you can get of Wensleydale without leaving the ground.

The good paths made for fast going and we soon reached the Iron-Age chieftan's grave and the pile of stones that stands at the Eastern  end of the hill. The sun was setting and the full moon rising as we dropped down the steep hillside and crossed the fields on our way back to the car. We left behind us a landscape bathed in an extraordinary light.

Astute readers will realise the photos I've used to illustrate this post are ones I took a while ago as the cotton grass isn't out right now.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Soundtrack to the Spectacle?

I've never thought of post-war British composers being like London buses but for me recently this has certainly been the case. To my shame,  I've given  them little thought in recent years and then, all of a sudden, several caught my attention. I've recently written posts about one or two of them (Alan Rawsthorne and John Tavener).  Also, the media have devoted quite a lot of its cultural coverage to the Benjamin Britten  centenary. It occurred to me that one of my favourite books at the time I first discovered them all (the 1970s) was Contemporary British Music, by Francis Routh. This book, written in the early seventies, set out to survey the work of post-war British composers. I decided it would be interesting to return to the book and take a look at the composers he thought to be worthy of note back then (I realise it's a minority interest, so I'll try to think of other things to post about, too).  How many of them, I wondered, are still taken seriously - and how many should be? How many, for example, have made it onto Youtube? Routh obviously thought the composers he wrote about were important. In his introduction he wrote that the book was "specifically concerned with British composers, whose work has multiplied so exceedingly since 1945, particularly as London is now the musical capital of Europe, if not of the Western world." In the early seventies is was still possible to write or talk like that and be taken seriously. In those days, there was still a significant paternalistic tone to cultural life (strikingly expressed through the BBC), not to mention funding for the arts. 

Routh's informative reference book is just the kind of book that really has been replaced by the internet (it's text, without musical examples, is, in fact, on the internet). Since he wrote it,  massive changes have taken place. Today, we don't need to read what a writer says about music (often all you could do in those days unless you had an unlimited vinyl budget!) - we can simply search for and listen to it. Huge social changes have taken place, too - we know, now as never before, that we are, first and foremost, consumers. In an earlier post I said that although it's heard everywhere, music generally is far less likely to get listened to these days. It really does get used more as a soundtrack and less as something to be listened to in it's own right. Any music that -to use that wry phrase- "repays repeated listening" will most likely end up on the floor of the cutting-room of life. If  Guy Debord was right, and 'the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing,"' (in other words, the reduction of authentic life to spectacle), then it's hardly surprising that music that displays the qualities of a good soundtrack increasingly takes precedence over more thoughtful music. Such music might be more readily available via the internet but will people take the time -and feel a need- to listen to it?

It wasn't just my recent musical encounters prompted me to write about this. I've been to several art exhibitions in recent years (notably, at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield and of Ben Nicholson's work in Kendal) which got me thinking. Many British artists from the middle of the 20th century are still thought worthy of gallery space - is similar attention paid to as many composers from the same era? If not, why not? I decided that going back to see if listening to their music might prove as enjoyable as the time I'd spent looking at art. I would try to pay more attention, too, to what the composers where trying to say as opposed to how they said it.

I said I thought this project might be a minority interest but, then again the composers covered by Routh are many and varied, ranging from William Walton to the electronic experimentalist Delia Derbyshire (see above - she also was responsible for realising the Dr Who theme). There should be something in it for everyone - and a few surprises.

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Manx Suite

I wrote this suite a while back. I've just realised it's sitting out there on Soundcloud and I don't think I've ever put it on my blog!

It's for piano duet. There are three movements, each based on a famous tune from the Isle of Man. The first takes the tune of the folk song Ellan Vannin - the tragic story of the wreck of a ship of the same name. The second is based on the tune known as The Frog Dance. The third, tongue-in-cheek, is based on the Laxey Wheel song (there is a momentary allusion to Yorkshire, where I live).

This performance is 100% computerised piano, I'm afraid, so nuances are lost. However, I'm posting in the hope that there might be a couple of pianists out there (the score below can be printed out)! It's not difficult to play and it's not yet had a public performance...