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