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Routh's informative reference book is just the kind of book that really has been replaced by the internet (it's text, without musical examples, is, in fact, on the internet).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.