January 27, 2013
Many of my posts are deeply nostalgic and self-indulgent under the guise of exploring some worthy and interesting subject. This one makes no attempt to hide.
I’ve often been startled when people with little experience of classical music announce that certain tunes, sometimes quite surprising ones, are ‘famous’. The reason of course is almost inevitably that they have been used in television, movies, or ads. Sometimes pieces of music borrowed in this way capture the imagination so effectively that they set down strong memories that last decades.
Looking back, I’ve tried to pull up some of these moments from my own musical pre-history, from the years before I was consciously exploring composers and compositions. Some of them are genuinely famous, but some attached themselves to me in a more personal way and are otherwise pretty obscure. I’ve limited my selection to television and completely avoided movies because that’s such a huge subject and, for me at least, TV is particularly about childhood.
I’ve been intrigued to consider what, if anything, each piece evokes to explain its use in its TV context. I’m sure some were simply random choices by people at the BBC, but others were undoubtedly deliberately picked for mood, evocation or more specific connections. I wonder what I would use if making these programmes. I’d be very interested to hear anyone else’s views and memories!
I have memories of this slightly eccentric daytime drama from way back in early childhood. It was shown on Granada TV from 1972 to 1984, and featured court cases in the fictional town of Fulchester acted out for judgement by real studio juries of local people.
The theme music from Janáček’s Sinfonietta (4th movement) must be one of the earliest pieces of music to really make a mark on me, and listening now it seems absolutely perfect for the context. Here’s the full movement on Spotify, and in a performance conducted by Rafael Kubelik:
The show itself is just beautifully dated and yet timeless: small town cops and robbers 1970s style!
2. The Sky at Night – Sibelius
An inspired choice; Sibelius at his most grandiloquent, evocative not just of Finnish lakescapes but absolutely of worlds beyond. The piece is At the Castle Gate from the incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande.
Patrick Moore launched the programme in 1957 and it’s run ever since. Interestingly Sibelius died that same year, just a few months after the first Sky at Night. Was this theme used from the beginning, or was it introduced in response to the composer’s death? I don’t know. Here is the full piece.
This meant so much to me as as child! For me Patrick Moore was always, first and foremost, The Man Against Astrology, and to this day I have slightly overcharged reactions on that subject.
The full movement:
3. The Great Philosophers – Shostakovich
In the autumn of 1987 the notable philosopher, Wagner scholar and all round comedy intellectual Bryan Magee presented The Great Philosophers, his second series of 15 hour-long dialogues on the history of western philosophy. Brutally austere television of the highest calibre.
The music chosen was the trio from the second scherzo of Shostakovich’s eighth symphony, which is surely notable for the breadth of musical knowledge it implies in ever coming across it.
Shostakovich was the master of these really nasty grotesque little militaristic scherzos, a natural development in the Soviet era of one part of 19th century symphonic tradition. But this trio creates an interesting mood that I can’t quite find words for. I wonder if Bryan Magee picked it himself.
Here’s the whole scherzo on Spotify, and also a version accompanied by a great collection of old photos. The Great Philosophers part doesn’t start until just over half way through.
And a taste of the programme itself – A. J. Ayer on Frege and Russell:
4. Ludwig – van Beethoven
I don’t believe I’ve yet met anyone as an adult who remembers the cartoon Ludwig. But I’m sure there was a day in 1977 when absolutely everyone was squealing about it at school – not exactly a water cooler moment, but the nine year old’s equivalent.
Ludwig was a charming, peaceful, creative, strangely abstract egg-like character who mysteriously appeared in the forest and solved problems to assist the animals and birds. The 25 episodes were narrated by Jon Glover (voice of the birdwatcher), who watched and commented as useful and playful objects, such as umbrellas, telescopes and tennis rackets, emerged from the Ludwig-egg.
The series was created by father and son team Mirek and Peter Lang. I guess it was considered too surreal to commission any more. It’s all now available at www.iLudwig.co.uk
And of course, there was continual accompaniment with the music of Beethoven (arranged by Paul Reade), most strikingly the finale of the first symphony. Because of Ludwig, I’ve always been surprised to find that not everyone thinks this movement is ‘famous’.
Here it is on Spotify, and here are two samples of the magical world of Ludwig:
Digging deep into the past again brings back The Onedin Line, a mercantile family saga set in 19th century Liverpool, of which nearly 100 episodes were screened between 1971 and 1980. This was definitely too grown up for me, but I have hazy memories of the general mood, period style and striking music.
Khachaturian’s Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia, from his 1954 ballet about the Thracian gladiator, had nothing nautical in intent, but that’s almost hard to believe so sweepingly oceanic it feels. I wonder what he made of this, use or abuse?
This is more what the composer had in mind (plus the whole piece is here) :
6. Reilly, Ace of Spies – Shostakovich
More Shostakovich, and again from the eighties. His cheesy but charming Romance, from The Gadfly, was used in the 1983 miniseries about the life of Sidney Reilly, a British spy active around the time of the first world war with a legendary reputation for espionage and seduction. Both the series and the tune were extremely popular at the time, and I think I even recall it being played on Top of the Pops, though that could be a false memory myth. Spotify link here.
There are some intriguing links behind all this. The Gadfly was a 1955 Russian film based on a novel by the fascinating Irish writer and revolutionary Ethel Voynich, who apparently had personal connections with the real Reilly.
7. Castrol GTX – Mahler
Music in TV ads is another huge subject, but I can’t resist including just one, especially as it’s a great example of the ‘wow that’s famous!’ moment – fantastic looks when this jolts the unexpected awake in the concert hall. And it’s a piece that certainly wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t for Castrol GTX, as its cryptic beauty is buried deep in one of Mahler’s least performed works, the 7th Symphony. Here’s a performance of the complete 2nd movement.
It was used in many variants and arrangements over the years of the campaign, but the early ads leaning on the mystery of the opening bars are the best.
8. The Open University – Salzedo
I almost overlooked this, but in a way it’s the most important of all for me, despite being only five bars of music.
Back in the 1970s, before 24 hour TV and technologies as basic as video recording, Open University students were condemned to actually tune in at specific obscure times of day and night to catch lecture broadcasts. As a child I would occasionally dip into bits and pieces of incomprehensibly exotic arts and sciences, probably mostly when I should have been asleep, which exerted a magical intellectual pull towards adulthood and the whole outside world.
Individual courses probably had their own theme music, but what I clearly recall is the generic OU jingle that accompanied a twisty animated logo before and after every broadcast.
The music is by little known English composer Leonard Salzedo, from his Divertimento for 3 trumpets and 3 trombones (1959). Salzedo was by profession a ballet conductor, and as a composer he is best known for The Revenge of Frankenstein.
Very very rarely (probably to fill unscheduled gaps) the whole piece was played. Normally just the first ten second phrase. But it was enough – mysteriously conjuring up a powerfully expectant sense of aloof, abstract brainpower.
Here it is: http://www.televisiontunes.com/Open_University.html. (And here you can download the ringtone.)
November 4, 2012
In August this year I was alerted by the wonderful @brainpicker to an intriguing sounding “17 Songs Based on the Poetry of E. E. Cummings”. Following the link I was taken to a review of a new album by the San Francisco band Tin Hat – the rain is a handsome animal – which is exactly and delightfully as described. I’ve included some of my favourites of the 17 near the bottom below.
However, I also felt a note of disappointment: what I was really hoping to find was a collection of 17 songs by different people to words by Cummings. So I decided to make my own list. And here it is: in fact a total of 25 songs by 14 artists and composers, in an exceedingly wide variety of musical styles.
I’m quite surprised at the relative dearth of Cummings music. Before researching this I was only aware of one song or composition (the Boulez mentioned below). And I was disappointed not to find any bearable setting of a particular favourite of mine – silently if, out of not knowable – which I read at my wedding. (Maybe I should try to commission one … from … ?!)
Yet to me Cummings seems a poet who howls out for musical treatment. Perhaps the inevitable loss of the important visual aspects of his writing is offputting to musicians (though a dance project incorporating some of that spatial play might be interesting).
Cummings’ poetry varies from the cheesily romantic and even vulgar through every shade of playful to deeply felt nocturnes and ecstatic affirmations. It’s interesting to see which personalities across the musical spectrum have been drawn to it, and to which poems.
I hope Tin Hat’s beautifully crafted album prompts more interest from musicians of all sorts. We are after all still early in the afterlife of Cummings the poet.
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1. Joan Baez – All in green went my love riding
This poem has been set by numerous classical composers but this haunting version from 1968 by Joan Baez is by far my favourite.
2. Brad Mehldau – it may not always be so
Jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau collaborated with classical mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter on the album Love Songs, which includes this single Cummings setting as its opening track. Mehldau describes the sonnet as a “youthful, tragic poem for all ages” which is moving because it “telegraphs the speaker’s inability to put … a mixture of adoration and despair into words. His singular way of messing with syntax helps to make that despair palpable.”
3. Leonard Bernstein – if you can’t eat you got to
Bernstein wrote this set of orchestral songs for the American bicentennial, and chose a selection of texts by American poets including this comical one by Cummings. It’s unusual in having multiple solo singers.
if you can’t smoke you got to
Sing and we aint got
nothing to sing;come on kid
let’s go to sleep
4. Eric Whitacre – hope, faith, life, love
Popular choral composer Eric Whitacre has written several Cummings settings including his Three Songs of Faith (1999). The set includes i thank you God for this most amazing day; I will wade out, and (performed here) hope, faith, life, love. Whitacre takes just eight words from the poem to make an introspective, meditative piece. Apparently the musical treatment of each individual word quotes a different work by the composer.
5-6. Ned Rorem – in the rain
In Poems of Love and the Rain (1965) prolific classical songwriter Ned Rorem created an unusual structure in which eight poems are given two distinct musical settings each, arranged in pairs around a central interlude. The Cummings text – in the rain – appears as number 7 and 11 in the sequence, the former being especially watery, matching the slippery text. (Note the track names are all broken in Spotify).
7-8. Björk – Sun in My Mouth, Mother Heroic
I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that Björk has been drawn to Cummings for inspiration: she seems a perfect match for his combination of playfulness and intensity. These two songs are settings of the poems i will wade out; and oh, thou that bowest thy ecstatic face respectively. Björk has also created a version of it may not always be so.
9-13. John Cage – Five Songs for Contralto
Another perfect match for the poet. I’m including this set of early songs Cage wrote in 1938 complete because they are so tiny and delightful. The poems are why did you go, little fourpaws; little silent Christmas tree; in Just; hist whist, and another comes. While dating from before the innovations and experiments for which Cage is famous, they are thoroughly characteristic in their simplicity, peacefulness and whimsy. The third poem, describing spring from the viewpoint of a child, “when the world is puddle-wonderful”, Cage surprisingly but gorgeously sets on a monotone.
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I’ll take a brief pause at the midpoint of my list to mention a few things I’m not including, mostly because recordings aren’t available: a 1927 song by Aaron Copland – in spite of everything; a piece from the sixties (possibly legendary) by Philip Glass; a ballet by David Diamond to a scenario by Cummings based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and most importantly – to me! – A Sunbeam’s Architecture (title taken from the poem no man), a song cycle for tenor and chamber orchestra written by Elliott Carter in 2010. Rolando Villazón is set to give the European premiere in Berlin next April, and though no recording has been made yet, enthusiasts can peruse the score here.
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14. Ra Ra Riot – Dying is Fine
This song by American indie band Ra Ra Riot takes lines from dying is fine)but Death as its starting point.
15. Pierre Boulez – Cummings ist der Dichter
This piece for choir and chamber orchestra from 1970 is probably what first brought my attention to Cummings. The title comes from a linguistic accident. Boulez wrote to the organisers of the commissioning festival – in broken German – something along the lines of “I don’t know what I’m going to call it, but Cummings is the poet”. Which was promptly misinterpreted, and the name stuck.
Boulez takes as his text a mysterious miniature – birds(here,inven – and further scatters the syllables incomprehensibly through a kaleidoscope of startling harmonies and extremes of attack and duration. It’s very rarely heard, presumably because it’s almost impossible to sing, but more than anything else on this list it’s a setting that meets Cummings head on with a deeply thought out response to the elasticity of the text, including its spatial inventiveness.
16. Babelfish – it may not always be so
17. Vincent Persichetti – Flowers of Stone
Persichetti was a prolific composer in many genres and set numerous Cummings poems to music, both for choir and solo voices. The Flower Songs for choir and orchestra (1983) are all based on Cummings poems, this first of the set being these children singing in stone.
18. Luciano Berio – Circles
Another major European modernist drawn to Cummings, ten years before Boulez, was Luciano Berio, with this colourful and dramatic work for female voice (originally Cathy Berberian), harp and two percussionists. The poems set are stinging; riverly is a flower, and n(o)w.
19-22. Morton Feldman – Four Songs to E E Cummings
A set of tiny but impassioned miniatures by a composer more known for the opposite extreme of duration. The poems are !blac; air; sitting in a tree, and moan. (Note that track names are badly muddled in Spotify).
23-25. Tin Hat – the rain is a handsome animal
And finally three favourites from Tin Hat’s album of 17 Cummings songs: cloud on a Leaf; 2 little whos, and yes is a pleasant country.
all is merely talk which isn’t singing
and all talking’s to oneself alone
but the very song of(as mountains
feel and lovers)singing is silence
September 15, 2012
My first experience of Stockhausen was sneaking a day off school to hear concerts in the Barbican’s Music and Machines series in early 1985.
Karlheinz himself was there for introductions and to do the sound projection. I think he charmed me right from the beginning with comments like “for those of you listening on the radio … please do not adjust your sets … what you hear is what I have composed”. I’ve tracked down a 1985 photo of him in London with Suzanne Stephens and they really do look like just my type of people.
We were introduced to the early electronic studies, Gesang der Jünglinge, Kontakte, some improvisatory pieces from the sixties involving shortwave radios that struck me for the terrible vulnerability and courage demanded of the performers, and an incredible performance of Hymnen, scrambling national anthems into a world-sound-tapestry.
I loved hearing Radio 3 people announce the comedy instrumentation of pieces from the earliest days of electronica: “and now here’s … for three sine wave generators, six potentiometers and ring modulator with orchestra.” (In contrast, in a 1985 Radio 1 interview Stockhausen praised the Japanese people for making modern synthesizers available to all, “so much more interesting and useful than pianos that are always out of tune”.)
Later the same year came Donnerstag aus Licht at the Royal Opera House. Bizarrely, this was my first ever opera, and I distinctly recall sitting in the front row of the stalls (never again since!) next to a lady who described an installation project she was working on with Yoko Ono, and who commented in the interval “how else can we compose, in the space age?”. I also remember that my dad, who kindly came to collect me, had been chatting outside in Bow Street during the performance to Michael Tippett’s chauffeur.
My first opera was exceedingly striking, including a journey round the world on a giant meccano set, our hero tweaking the nipples of Moon-Eve to extract sweet notes from her basset horn, Lucifer storming around the auditorium hollering “Narr, Narr” with hugely trilled r’s, and finally the enchantment of the Abschied, played by solitary trumpeters from high windows and rooftops around Covent Garden.
Looking back, those were exciting times. I went to university just a few weeks later, and I must have talked a lot about Hymnen, Donnerstag, and all the rest, to largely uninterested people. There was soon a standing joke about ‘Tim music’ and I’m sure Stockhausen was firmly at its core. (As he became more generally the symbol of modernist strangeness.) My musical education had progressed from The Beatles->Jean-Michel Jarre->Mahler->Bartók->Stockhausen in the space of a couple of a years. It’s hard to keep up that pace of shock and revelation.
So for me Stockhausen was always a hugely accessible composer, far more so at first than others of his (musical) generation such as Boulez and Carter. And I think the distinction was the palpable sense of play, both from the man and his music. The names of his works sound like a translated trip to Ikea: Expo, Fresco, Harlekin, Komet, Spiral, Stop, Sukat, Thinki, Zyklus … And I can recall another characteristic Stockhausenism from a talk: he wanted to have such control over sound that he could send notes over to wake up any dozing audience members.
Stockhausen was most famously a pioneer of electronic music, though he also innovated with sound spatialisation (which makes him brilliant for the Albert Hall), and with a type of improvisatory and conceptual music making very much in the spirit of the sixties. His influence on non-classical musicians has been huge – from the Beatles to Kraftwerk to Aphex Twin – and he sits alongside Steve Reich as one of the great underground streams feeding into dance music.
One of the first pieces to demonstrate the expressive, communicative possibilities of electronics was Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), which combined synthesized sounds with recordings of a boy’s voice, creating a continuum of timbre.
The combination of prepared electronic sound with live performance quickly became a concern of Stockhausen and others, leading to Kontakte (1960), a groundbreaking work that brought together an intricately layered, bubbling, gurgling synthesized composition, itself astoundingly varied in texture and timbre, with live piano and percussion.
Stockhausen considered his piano pieces to be his sketchbook, and they are often where the most abstruse experimentation took place. Klavierstuck IX (1961) has become celebrated and notorious for its long fibonacci repetitions of a single chord. But as with most Stockhausen there is a collision of fantasy and rigour; the effects deployed in this piece are as much about mood, contrast, and ritual as they are about radical serial technique. In fact this piece made me realise that of all composers it is perhaps Messiaen who has most in common with Stockhausen in terms of overall musical personality, in his mystical play with bold extremities of sound. The Catalogue d’Oiseaux in particular often comes close to the Stockhausen sound world.
Stimmung (1968) is probably my favourite Stockhausen work. It’s a tender, mystical, nocturnal, erotic, comedic vocal sextet which elaborately explores harmonics using as its source material the names of dozens of gods from cultures around the world. It’s Stockhausen at his most gloriously trippy and hippy and has endlessly inspired me. I love that it was born in the same year as me. Though evidently it didn’t inspire the woman who fled, screaming “I can’t take anymore!”, halfway through a QEH performance I attended sometime in the nineties.
In the late sixties Stockhausen moved decisively away from formal complexity and the spiky sound world of serialism, and experimented with radically improvisatory music, creating numerous works that were simply sets of instructions, often cryptic, very much of their time, and reminiscent of many of Yoko Ono’s mysterious performance suggestions. An example is ‘Es’ from Aus den sieben Tagen (1968):
Wait until it is absolutely still within you
When you have attained this
Begin to play
As soon as you start to think, stop
And try to retain
The state of NON-THINKING
Then continue playing”
There are recordings, but it seems quite ridiculous to suggest one, as the intuitive process is so personal. These are really meditative exercises using sound; something to do, not buy on record.
In a way these pieces represented a crisis point, like Webern’s prior to the invention of serialism, and Stockhausen rebounded from it in the early seventies with his adoption of ‘formula composition’, a technique that I will refrain from explaining but which resulted in a very different sound world with much more overt melody, ideally suited to creation of very large forms and a more theatrical sense of instrumental characters.
Between 1977 until 2003 Stockhausen composed Licht, an opera cycle of unparalleled enormity. But before I share some extracts from that, in complete contrast here are some of the tiny zodiac pieces from Tierkreis (1975). Originally composed for music boxes (to be extracted from the belly of a giant bird in a ritual theatre piece), they are played here by a trio drawn from Stockhausen’s inner circle of devoted soloists – Suzanne Stephens, Kathinka Pasveer and his son Markus. The music boxes can be obtained from Stockhausen-Verlag for 310 euro each and could make lovely presents.
The final two sound clips are from Donnerstag and Mittwoch aus Licht respectively. Firstly Michaels Reise um die Erde (1978), in a recent staging by La Fura Dels Baus.
And finally the Helikopter-Quartett (1993) from Mittwoch! The Helikopter-Quartett is just one scene from Mittwoch, and by no means the most eccentric, but it has become, as usual with Stockhausen, both celebrated and notorious. It’s emblematic of his later work, and in fact of all his work, for drawing together ritual theatricality, utter disregard for practicality, playfulness, and of course a hint of the divine. The audience inside the venue is intended to see a live video relay from all four helicopters as they circle above, with one performer in each.
Birmingham Opera Company audaciously gave the world’s first complete staging of Mittwoch just a few weeks ago, in an abandoned chemical factory, to wide acclaim. I was sadly unable to go, but here are some first hand accounts from the LA Times, OperaCreep and Boulezian.
Over the years Stockhausen has dropped in and out of my life, and I’ve sometimes abandoned him for long periods when he’s seemed less relevant or less subtle than other composers I’ve come to love. Those were probably periods when I’d become less receptive to the visionary side of art.
I remember as a student my friend Heiko and I writing on some ridiculous pretext to Stockhausen-Verlag and being excited to get letters back signed by Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer. I’m sure I still have mine somewhere. And I recall a few other performances from those times. Karlheinz wished us all “happy musical space journeys” at the 1988 Huddersfield Festival, where he was guest of honour in his 60th birthday year. It’s always felt quite personal with Stockhausen.
I’ve listened to a lot of his music while preparing this, and I’ve tried to relax from thinking about history and technique and simply note down the words that come to me. Theatrical, playful, melodious, meditative, spacious, bold, mischievous, startling, ritualistic, amorous.
It’s such a very different experience to the scintillating frenzy of Boulez, and different again to the darker, earthbound ritual of Birtwistle, so strongly influenced by Stockhausen. Even in highly formalised serial works like Kontra-Punkte there is a not-very-buried sense of disorderly madcap that is completely alien to other major modernists.
Ultimately I see Stockhausen’s work as radical play. Despite all his technical innovation, despite being the leading theorist of his generation, I hear his work as the music of an innocent, a child-man, someone apart from the musical world who combines astounding boldness with bountiful mischief and humour. He also combines relentless rationality with equally relentless mysticism. And the more I write about him the more I recognise myself in these dualities, so there’s no wonder I feel a strong connection.
Stockhausen was part of a generation following the second world war who seemed to demand utter destruction of the artistic part. As he put it: “At the middle of the century an orientation away from mankind began. Once again one looked up to the stars and began an intensive measuring and counting.” At a certain level his genius depended on being utterly disconnected from worldly reality. And yet there was obviously a charismatic force of will (not to mention practical intelligence) needed to make these works actually come to fruition in concert halls and chemical factories.
I’ve often thought of Stockhausen as having a knack for creating beautiful, startling music almost regardless of how barmy his ideas sometimes were. And as the narrator of the recent Birmingham production of Mittwoch said, “this is as bonkers as it gets.”
September 9, 2012
I’ve been thinking about gingham on and off for quite a few years now, but it’s finally inspired me to return to my blog via a particularly subtle and wonderful dress I encountered just a few days ago, which set my mind spinning, crystallising some vague ideas about fashion, time and change.
Gingham is (usually) a medium-weight cotton-based fabric dyed with stripes in both directions to create a checker pattern. Apparently the name is a distortion of an old Malay or Indonesian word meaning ‘striped’ – there are other theories, but to me this seems quite convincing, having seen it so abundantly displayed all over Bali in both religious and secular settings.
Gingham dates back at least as far as the 17th century, and is evidently quite simple to produce using traditional weaving methods. In fact I would say it’s just about the simplest fabric design that is deserving of being given it’s own name. As a concept it’s only marginally more complex than simply ‘striped’ or ‘spotted’. And as a visual phenomenon it has elements of both of those, which I think is what attracts me. It has a kind of spottiness that emerges when the eye focuses on the array of intersection points, and yet also a linear rigour.
It draws me into a kind of gentle visual grazing that I’ve done a lot of all my life. I find my focus wandering softly over the texture, my mind unconsciously sifting the pattern, feeling my way into it as it repeats across different depths of dye – intense at the cross points, milder between, and then the white – and noticing how it inflects with light and shade, the curves of the body, and movement. It’s a visual rhythm basic enough to pull me into a state of trance-like fascination sometimes (e.g. in business meetings), and I suspect that this potential for a strong aesthetic response, despite being so simple to make, is why it’s been popular for so long.
So Gingham represents a long line of tradition. As well as in Bali, where what I think of as Holy Gingham – usually in a bold black and white – is one of the distinctive sights of the island, adorning almost every statue, pillar and lingam in every temple, it’s found widely across Asia in various forms of traditional dress. An example is the gamucha, a thin towel / scarf worn by men in India. I believe in Bali the pattern has some kind of yin / yang resonance, which makes complete sense to me.
It’s also been used for centuries in the western world, typically for blouses and dresses, but also for curtains, tablecloths, aprons, etc. and even furniture and crockery. It’s one of the staples of design. But what meaning does it carry; what is its stylistic significance?
A whole book could be written in answer to that – and of course it changes with time – but what I sense is a combination of childlike, whimsical, and relaxed, with suggestions of country, prairie, and a sizeable dollop of kitchen. To which must be added that it now references historical periods when it has been most popular – particularly the 50s (Dorothy), but also to a lesser extent Victorian times, plus mods and skinheads. It can be found in the V&A collection as an example of 1970s skinhead clothing.
In this sense, with its modest range of colours and variations, gingham is always with us, morphing very slowly, picking up meanings over decades.
But what has caught my attention more recently is the way, over the past decade, it seems to have perfectly exemplified what I think of as the process of fashion.
The way a simple design meme becomes a heightened subject of creative attention, is subjected to waves of development and elaboration, changing, expanding, and distorting, until it eventually subsides and declines. Over a period of years, season by season, designers copy and inspire each other, competing to develop the basic form in what seems to me a process of squeezing every last drop of meaning from it.
Firstly, the basic traditional form of gingham simply becomes more fashionable – I can’t recall exactly when this happened – then, in the space of a few years, something like this takes place:
- Giant gingham
- Diagonal gingham
- Double gingham
- Multi-coloured gingham
- Gingham on black
- Rectangular gingham
- Curved gingham
- Patchwork gingham
- Collage gingham
- Gingham with skulls
- Gingham / plaid hybrid
- Deconstructed gingham
This proliferation that takes place during the fashion cycle has other dimensions too. The range of fabrics is gradually expanded, as is the range of garments and other artefacts decorated with it: pants, bras, notebooks, umbrellas, laptop covers, corsets, shoes … in all sorts of fabrics, natural and synthetic, printed as well as woven. Latex gingham? Of course: the specialist is William Wilde.
Which leads us to the point at which the fabric ceases to be gingham at all and simply becomes a historical reference in the designer’s palette. It then subsides into the background ready to be reborn at some future point, presumably when a new generation of shoppers has arisen who are largely unaware of it. The basic forms continue to be available in conventional ways, but as a fashion phenomenon it is dormant.
To me it’s the perfect symbol of the creative process as applied in contemporary culture. It also exemplifies the pace of contemporary design. My (very limited) understanding of Roman culture suggests that fashions from haircuts to togas, while important, played out over many decades, presumably due to much slower transmission of ideas. The gingham fashion cycles centred on the 50s and in Victorian times seem to have been slower, less frantic, variants on what I’ve seen in the 21st century.
So gingham has a background meaning, which is itself quite complex and slowly shifting, touching on Balinese gods, prairie life and the fifties, but also a foreground meaning, which spins out in an exaggerated creativity with the waves of fashion. And whenever those waves return they will be different, because they speak specifically of the patterns of their own times.
These layered processes at multiple paces of change apply everywhere across our culture – music, painting, interior decoration, food and drink, technology, typeface etc. – though with variations depending on the economic context. The application of developmental processes to a basic phenomenon both exemplify and symbolise change, growth and decay. Which in a way takes us back to those Hindu gods wrapped in cotton.
Gingham makes me smile because it seems such a transparent revelation of the way almost everything happens in the great game of social and economic creativity. And I can enjoy reflecting on that while looking at frocks, which is always one of the happiest ways to practice philosophy. I could bring Wittgenstein, Husserl and Barthes into the conversation but I’d rather explore their vintage wardrobes.
To finish on a personal note, my own inventory consists of one single gingham garment: a linen shirt acquired in Top Shop, Birmingham on a business trip circa 2009. It’s completely classic, but for me it’s the absolutely perfect example. The only trouble is, it now sends me spinning off into philosophical daydreams.
April 15, 2012
On a recent visit to the British Museum’s fascinating and admirable Hajj exhibition I was particularly struck by some images by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater showing iron filings bending towards a powerful magnet, suggestive of the faithful circling the Ka’ba. A sense of the life force itself at its most fundamental physical level being drawn to the sacred object.
My response to the Hajj is of both attraction and repulsion. I’m attracted to the strong sense of community, to the emotional force that arises from shared ritual, and to the idea of an arduous journey being a condition of great reward. But I’m also repelled by the sense of a vast volume of people with their collective power and will, and by the idea of sacred obligation or prohibition.
I came out of the exhibition feeling that I would very much like to have the possibility of something like the Hajj in my life, but that I basically want to have my cake and eat it: to be able to share in some kind of profound sacred journey, yet be completely free to choose how I participate.
We speak of all sorts of things in contemporary life as pilgrimages – artistic, musical, historical, mystical, gastronomic, retail – including various types of inner journey. But I always have the feeling that these are at least in part just metaphor. (And the word ‘Mecca’ of course has been completely trivialised in English right down to being a grubby brand of bingo.) I want the real thing.
To paraphrase various dictionary definitions, a pilgrimage is normally thought of as “a journey of great spiritual significance, typically to a religious shrine”. The journey part is easy enough to understand, but ‘spiritual’ and ‘shrine’ are both problematic. And there is also a fourth element to think about that seems to me implied though not stated in definitions: that there is something collective about the experience or at least its motivation.
Going on holiday is not pilgrimage. It has to be more than that – though I don’t doubt that in most traditions pilgrimage has an element of fun, of play, that overlaps with the contemporary idea of a holiday.
But travel is an essential element of pilgrimage, and to me the idea of that travel being really challenging is central to the sense of heightened emotional significance I would expect. Many traditions see repentance as an essential part of pilgrimage. I don’t, but the ordeal of long travel fits nicely into that.
Walking half way across the country to a cathedral, climbing to a high mountaintop, crossing a desert – these kind of ordeals make total sense to me as a way in to a very special experience. Tourists try to access this feeling by, for example, walking to Machu Picchu. The Burning Man Festival is placed far away from civilisation in a maximally inhospitable place in part to create a sense of achievement in getting there.
The spiritual experience
My social circle seems divided into people who use the language of spirit a lot and those who basically find it embarrassing or laughable. Personally I think of ‘spiritual’ as one of those words (like perhaps ‘terrorist’ and ‘feminism’) that has been so stretched and drained of meaning as to be pretty useless, though I’m fairly comfortable using it as a kind of sloppy shorthand – for something, I don’t know quite what – if I’m pushed.
I was once put on the spot in a workshop and asked to talk about ‘spirit’ for three minutes! I decided that for me it’s not really separate from emotion – it’s simply the top slice of emotional feeling (in terms of depth and significance, not intensity). I’ve also been toying lately with the definition that the spiritual is “where philosophy meets emotional force”.
Obviously for religious people that means religion. And for people with strong belief systems that don’t fit into traditional religions there are clear places to look for the spiritual element in life.
For me it’s less clear, but there are certainly a few things in my life that sit in that space. Much of that is around art, music and literature. I sometimes wonder if worship is basically the same as art. When I attend a performance of, for example, music by Bach, it seems to me that I am doing something very similar to going to a church service. There are also things I do – dance, meditation, just being with nature – that take me into those same deep areas of reflection and connection.
So I do (sort of) know what it means for an experience to have spiritual force – and that is what I would be looking for as the goal of a pilgrimage.
The sacred shrine
This is where things get difficult. I love the idea of, say, Canterbury Cathedral as a destination. It’s very big and very old, with a massive collective history and physical presence. It’s a great focus for a long walk, and seeing it on the skyline for hours before arrival would be deeply exhilarating.
But, just as if I did a Richard Burton and attempted the Hajj in fancy dress, I would feel, at least in part, that I was piggybacking another community’s rituals. I’m not authentically part of that world for which Canterbury is a spiritual home, and it would have a distinct element of exotic tourism.
In the absence of organised religion, finding a potent physical destination for a spiritual journey is very problematic. In the age of communism phoney political shrines were developed to tap into the communal power of pilgrimage. For some people scenes of battle might play this role. For me the possibilities I have considered are artistic and natural.
Places associated with great artistic endeavour, such as birthplaces and deathplaces, are plentiful, and from a practical point of view can easily be made into destinations. The journey would have to be strongly focused on the specific destination, and not just be a holiday including dropping in at someone’s house as an afterthought. The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of John Eliot Gardiner took this idea to another level, going way beyond simply visiting the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and other major Bach related places.
But I do have a certain discomfort at treating such places as shrines, with holy relics of old pianos and paintpots and fountain pens. These were people after all. Nothing supernatural. I love them because I relate to them as real individuals who lived and worked and loved and sinned.
Natural wonders are also attractive for great journeys, and again I’m sure I could devise very powerful experiences around them. But still it would only really be analogous to a pilgrimage, not quite the real thing, unless I was part of some community with a special relationship to place – e.g. perhaps native peoples around Uluru or the Grand Canyon. But I’m not. In my world those places may be awe-inspiring and even elicit spiritual depths, but visiting them remains only somewhat like a pilgrimage. This lack of collective relationship to place leads me onto the final topic.
The community of pilgrims
For me I think pilgrimage fundamentally has to be a shared experience. Not necessarily as strongly collective as the Hajj, with everyone congregating at the same time for the same rituals, but at least in the sense of there being a shared goal, a shared purpose, within a community. I guess my ideal is something like the Canterbury Tales. And this is the biggest problem for me in finding something that can be considered a pilgrimage.
Discussing this with friends over the past weeks I’ve noticed that people find it easier to adapt the concept of a retreat to modern secular life, and I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s something you can plan entirely according to your own needs and potentially without the involvement of a community. A solitary week in the mountains of Wales with a sketchbook and pen is absolutely a retreat, not just a bit like a retreat. It’s a physical displacement from everyday habits that has the potential for exceptional meaning and depth.
So my conclusion has to be that only various partial approximations to pilgrimage are available to me. I can’t combine all four of the above criteria in a meaningful authentic way – at least not where I am in my life now.
I would love to have my own community with its own rules and celebrations and places to venerate. I’m not going to create my own religion. But in time that community may yet emerge, in a modest, personal way.
- – - -
Apart from the exhibition, the other reason I’ve been thinking about pilgrimage is that last summer I travelled with some friends to my first Bayreuth Festival.
I was determined not to see the trip in tiresomely mystical terms. Wagner fanatics can be terribly excessive, and for me moving away from that sort of hero worship has been part of growing up.
But the feeling of pilgrimage crept up on me, unanticipated, once I arrived. Something about the collective purpose of so many people present in that place, including the collective purpose of my own little group, plus the particular seriousness and personal significance of the work itself, combined with the presence of the Wagner house – and especially the Wagner grave, with its attendant mood of silence and reflection.
I suspect I’m being overly delicate in resisting the parallel between artistic and religious shrines. In many traditions hundreds of individuals are held up for admiration and celebration – saints, bodhisattvas, etc. – not to mention the gods of the ancient world. If I stop trying to be cool about it, avoiding cheesy hero worship at all costs, not wanting to be the person crawling on hands and knees to Graceland … well, there’s no doubt that I really do have these figures in my life, and they are very significant for me. In the same way as saints? Perhaps.
April 9, 2012
I’ve heard it said that more has been written about Richard Wagner than any other person in history except Jesus Christ. Now I’ve no idea if that’s true, but the thought of it has certainly been discouraging me from adding to that vast pile of often-fanciful idolatry and speculation.
I’d rather write about composers that are little-known to most people – Elliott Carter for instance, or perhaps Guillaume de Machaut – and in future I do plan to stick mostly to lesser-known favourites.
But Wagner has been massively important to me for a quarter of a century, and I do feel there’s a personal angle to share – which is probably more about me than him. Just yesterday, visiting the British Museum’s Hajj exhibition, I started sketching out a second blogpost that will definitely draw him into its web, so I think I’d better not put the first off any longer.
The great philosophical narratives of love, power, suffering and liberation at the heart of Wagner’s dramas have woven themselves into my life along with the other big experiences that built my emotional world. Responses and interpretations shift and grow as I do. These are like old friends that have fabulous stories to tell when I meet them again.
But aside from all that, there are certain little things – somewhere between aphorisms and anecdotes – that stick with me. Words of wisdom that are potent but of a more everyday nature, and in some cases really quite trivial or comical. They all come from The Ring and Die Meistersinger; I will start with the former.
1. If you get a chance to ask questions, ask the ones that really matter.
“Was zu wissen dir frommt, solltest du fragen…. Nach eitlen Fernen forschtest du; doch was zunächst dir sich fand, was dir nützt, feil dir nicht ein.”
The opera Siegfried includes a classic forfeit-your-head-for-three-riddles fairytale scenario, and Mime makes the mistake of engaging in general chit-chat rather than actually asking for the crucial information he needs. As a project manager this thought helps me on an almost daily basis.
2. I’ve never seen such a thing before – well, you have now!
“Heut hast du’s erlebt! Erfahre so, was vob selbst sich fügt, sei zuvor auch noch nie es geschehn”
The context for this is Wotan’s row with Fricka in Die Walküre, in which she furiously defends convention while he sharply dismisses it with modernist aplomb. This touches the heart of the Ring’s conflict between morality based on rules and based on individual feeling. But it’s also simply a reminder that all can change, and to have a certain humility about perceived certainties.
3. Go and find adventure before breakfast.
“Zu neuen taten, teurer Helde, wie liebt’ ich dich, ließ ich dich nicht?”
After an inspiring night with Brünnhilde, Siegfried heads off with his horn at the crack of dawn to seek noble deeds and acts of heroism. Brünnhilde acknowledges that it wouldn’t be true love if she tried to hold him back. There’s simply a lot I like about this, as an aspirational way to be.
4. Make up your own rules, then follow them.
“Wie fang’ ich nach der Regel an? Ihr stellt sie selbst und folgt ihr dann.”
Moving onto Die Meistersinger, the opera that means the most of all to me, this is a great piece of advice for the young from Hans Sachs, applicable to cobbling, poetry and all of life. I appeal to this thought when I don’t know what is expected of me – for example, going into some new coffee shop or bakery that has a really bewildering process flow.
“Wer als Meister geboren, der hat unter Meistern den schlimmsten stand.”
Sachs supports this line of thought by pointing out that those who have genuine talent are often judged harshly when seen through traditional eyes.
5. From time to time check that the rules are still useful.
“Doch einmal im Jahre fänd ich’s weise, daß man die Regeln selbst probier’.”
This is really a variant on the previous point. Very useful in the corporate world!
6. Relax, nothing’s under control.
“Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn.”
The slippery concept of Wahn is at the heart of Die Meistersinger, and while it has a metaphysical meaning in the context of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, it’s also potent at a more basic level. Everywhere in life is folly, disorder and delusion, and while it can be maddening, nothing is ever achieved without a touch of this madness.
Sachs intends to guide it for noble ends, in both creating the Prize Song and facilitating Walther and Eva’s romance:
“Jetzt schau’n wir, wie Hans Sachs es macht, daß er den Wahn fein lenken kann.”
And in the same scene he goes on to place Wahn at the heart of poetry – fuelling the inspiration that comes from the world of dream, the unconscious:
“Des Menschen wahrster Wahn wird ihm im Traume aufgetan: All’ Dichtkunst und Poeterei ist nichts als Wahrtraum-Deuterei.”
7. Non-attachment to the joys of youth.
Die Meistersinger is powerfully expressive of the loss and gain involved in progression through life. It presents an unusually subtle picture of the joys and sorrows of youth and maturity and the conflicts between them, covering similar territory to Der Rosenkavalier, which I find comparably moving.
Sachs explains his decision not to compete for the hand of Eva by recollecting the tragedy of Tristan und Isolde, set in train by an arranged betrothal to an older man that cannot compete with the reckless intensity of love.
“Mein Kind: Von Tristan und Isolde kenn’ ich ein traurig Stück: Hans Sachs war klug und wollte nichts von Herrn Markes Glück.”
Sachs wants none of it. But interestingly, one of the joys of art is precisely that it connects us to that intensity of feeling which is not always compatible with reality.
Fortunately, there is more to life than the first flush of youth, and ultimately Die Meistersinger delivers a profoundly generous message. I’ll finish with this, which is one of the passages I most often recall (it’s at 4:45 in the clip below):
“Mein Freund, in holder Jugendzeit,
wenn uns von mächt’gen Trieben
zum sel’gen ersten Lieben
die Brust sich schwellet hoch und weit,
ein schönes Lied zu singen
mocht vielen da gelingen:
der Lenz, der sang für sie.
Kam Sommer, Herbst und Winterszeit
viel Not und Sorg im Leben,
manch ehlich Glück daneben:
Kindtauf, Geschäfte, Zwist und Streit: –
denen ‘s dann noch will gelingen
ein schönes Lied zu singen,
seht: Meister nennt man die!”
- – - – -
“My friend, in the sweet time of youth,
When the breast swells high with the mighty impulse of first love,
Many have succeeded in singing a beautiful song:
Spring sang for them.
But when summer, autumn and winter come,
with much hardship and care,
Much married joy as well – baptism, business, discord and strife:
Those who can still succeed in singing a beautiful song,
They are called ‘Master’!”
March 18, 2012
A few weeks ago I wrote a little about my old friend Jan Thomas. She was a fellow student back in 1989/90 on the Music Technology masters course at York University. It was one of the first specialist degree programmes for electronic music and it brought together people with a composition background like Jan and people with a more technological background. I was sort of in the middle: I was accepted on the course purely on the basis of my spare-time composing activities while I was supposedly a philosophy student in Manchester, but the terms of my grant committed me to a tech-based project, which ultimately led into my career in (non-musical) technology.
It was a pretty intense year, with a lot of madness, hard work, smoking, drinking, late night study, heartache, politics, friendship … and of course making music. For me I guess it was one of my big years of change and expansion and growing up.
I thought it would be interesting to fish out my old pieces from that extraordinary year and see how they sound after twenty years.
For some reason the standard format for storing work on the course was betamax, which was already totally obsolete by 1989. Apart from those useless tapes, all I have now are a few cassette copies languishing at the back of a cupboard gradually turning to dust, so I decided this week to invest in a USB cassette converter so I can preserve them (along with any other rarities I might find before finally disposing of all my old cassettes).
I’ve shared three short pieces here that seem to me the least bad! I won’t say a lot about them; just a few comments that are no doubt a mixture of memory and invention.
After Webern is entirely made of manipulated snippets of Webern, mostly the string trio. I think I’d probably been listening to Brian Eno when I did this. It’s totally derivative, but it’s the one piece from that time that I still really quite like.
Added Bran came out of a project I was working on using granular synthesis, a rather intricate technique that works by moulding clouds of tiny particles of sound like putty, rather than composing with individual notes. Xenakis was the inspiration.
The third piece is a chunk of a much longer studio improvisation with Peter Adamson on spooky synths and Taxiarchis Diamantopoulos on guitar. I’ve included pictures of my collaborators to give something of the characteristic mood of those times. The picture above of me in my grim breeze-block room reveals some of my motley collection of heroes in those days.
I can’t help wondering what has happened in the world of electronic music in the two decades since my time in York. I’m very much out of touch with the contemporary classical scene, but I get the impression that the pioneering electronic work of figures from Stockhausen and Xenakis to Reich and Subotnick has had much more impact on dance and pop than concert music, which has largely retreated from radical forms of expression. The most significant innovator in electonic music since 1990 could arguably be Aphex Twin.
March 4, 2012
Please head over to The Cross-Eyed Pianist for my guest post on songs written in unusual time signatures – fives, sevens and elevens from The Beatles to Björk.
February 19, 2012
I was reminiscing recently about my old composer friend Janet Owen Thomas, who sadly died some years ago. A few of us wore specially made JANET OWEN THOMAS t-shirts when she had a piece performed at the proms – I wish I had pictures! Anyway, she once told me a story about showing her Oxford tutor a half-finished composition assignment in which she’d only got round to writing out the rhythms for the main voice and hadn’t put in any melody. Apparently he thought it was just great, and so she decided to leave the whole thing as a monotone.
There’s an enormous amount of music that sits on or hovers around a single note, and depending on the context it can be extremely expressive or hypnotically serene. There are whole genres and musical traditions that use very little melody – from rap, punk and minimal techno to numerous and varied forms of chant and ritual music around the world. Other types of music are built upon drone notes, such as Scottish bagpipe music, didgeridoo playing, and most Indian classical music, which typically uses the tanpura or an equivalent to provide a core tone grounding a complex elaboration of melody.
But what I want to write about today are examples of specific songs or compositions with radically stripped-down melody written in musical styles that generally do prioritise tunes. And the really outstanding example has to be Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Samba de Uma Nota Só.
The One Note Samba was a big hit during the global bossa nova craze of the mid 60s, and for me its studied simplicity contributes to it exemplifying the softly swinging, very non-street sexiness of that whole style.
It has long, highly syncopated lines sitting on the tonic and then the dominant, plus a contrasting section running up and down scales that provides a delicious balance in a burst of sunshine. Here’s Antônio himself performing live:
The lyrics by Newton Mendonça draw cheesy but slightly ambiguous parallels between the rules of music and human relationships:
“Anyone who wants the whole show,
Re mi fa sol la si do,
He will find himself with no show,
Better play the note you know.”
“So I come back to my first note,
As I must come back to you,
I will pour into that one note,
All the love I feel for you.”
As with many things, it’s better in Portuguese. (Though these lyrics were evidently too subtle for Cliff Richard, whose horrendous version substitutes a more easily comprehended message!)
The One Note Samba is all about harmony, rhythm and texture, and by taking away melody it really pushes the listener to notice what bossa nova is all about. It’s been recorded dozens of times, and one of my favourites is this version by Walter Wanderley, whose group gives it a gorgeous variety of instrumental colour using electric organ, guitar and trumpet.
The thing I love best about Spotify is being able to feed an obsession by listening to all the obscure different recordings of a piece of music one after the other. Some of the more interesting ones in this case are by Astrud Gilberto, Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz, The Modern Jazz Quartet, João Gilberto, Joe Pass, George Shearing, Quincy Jones, Barbra Streisand, Stereolab and The Postmarks. It was even performed in episode 123 of the Muppet show according to the Muppet wiki.
However there definitely remains plenty of scope for new interpretations of the song. I was slightly surprised by the relatively narrow overall range of all the performances I found.
Before I move on, here’s a rather serious performance by guitarist Laurindo Almeida & the Modern Jazz Quartet (I love the introductory comments!):
There are two distinct ways in which a piece of music can be focused on one note: like the One Note Samba, using a monotone melody, generally above shifting harmonies and colours; or using a fixed drone as a central point around which the different elements of music are explored. The classic example of the second type is the celebrated Fantasia Upon One Note by Purcell, dating from about 1680.
Written for five viols, the alto sustains middle C for the entire duration of the piece, while elaborate polyphony and sometimes startling harmonies hover around this immovable centre. Elliott Carter describes the effect as “having a bell ringing throughout”.
There are good recordings by the Rose Consort Of Viols, Fretwork, the Ricercar Consort (YouTube), and adapted for modern instruments by the Escher String Quartet. I also found this vuvuzela enhanced version (in B flat):
Purcell’s piece has fascinated many modern composers, leading to a range of interesting realisations, elaborations and recompositions, including Oliver Knussen’s “… upon one note” (1995), Elliott Carter’s “Fantasy about Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note” (1977) for brass quintet, and versions by Peter Maxwell Davies and Steve Martland.
Staying with Elliott Carter for a moment, his serene Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for wind quartet include movements probably inspired by the Purcell that take things further. The third etude is composed entirely of a D major chord and the seventh truly is upon just one note.
Moving back closer to the world of Jobim – and perhaps this gave him the idea – we have Johnny One Note, a Rogers & Hart show tune with a ‘normal’ melody but featuring a high drone that reminds me of the expressive wire effects in Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman. Here’s Anita O’Day singing it.
There’s also a sweet One Note Blues by Norwegian jazz ensemble The Real Thing. “Forget the samba, I got the one note blues.” Listen to it here.
Moving back to classical music, there’s an intriguing early set of piano pieces by György Ligeti called Musica Ricercata which progresses from extreme simplicity in the first pieces to using the full 12-tone scale by the end. The mournful second piece in the series, using three notes, was used to notable effect in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. But before that comes a piece almost exclusively on the note A, which gradually builds up a tremendous rhythmic propulsion:
Much of the mature work of the bizarrely little-known Italian master Giacinto Scelsi consists of subtle, meditative but often sonically lush microtonal explorations of single pitches. There’s an interesting article about him by Alex Ross here. And here’s the first of his Quattro Pezzi (Su una nota sola).
Experimental artist and composer LaMonte Young took some of these ideas to an extreme, effectively bringing together the one-note melody and the one-note drone in his Composition #7 (1960), which consists of a perfect fifth with the instruction “to be held for a long time.”
I’ll finish this post with a swift survey of a few other pieces I’ve been drawn to over the years that definitely aren’t one-note pieces, but dwell on a single note or chord at length for expressive purposes. It would be interesting to explore the different musical meanings a monotone can have: in some of these examples it clearly creates tension, seeking release in melodic movement; in others it gives rise to a certain inherent ecstasy that needs no resolution.
And finally, this astounding moment from Peter Grimes:
February 12, 2012
My first awareness of Bali as anything more than an exotic faraway place came from reading the liner notes in a recording of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie that I’d borrowed from the local library, as mentioned in my last blogpost. As well as the extraordinary ondes martenot, Turangalîla includes an elaborate percussion section that evokes the clattering metallic sound world of the gamelan emsemble central to Balinese and Javanese traditional music.
A couple of years afterwards my Dad visited Bali en route to see family in Australia. I remember the stories and pictures of mountains, temples, monkeys, dancers, and especially the carvings he brought back: Garuda, king of birds and ruler of the sky, and one of those appealingly scary Hindu goddesses with flailing arms and perfectly hemispherical breasts.
Then I spent a year studying music in York, and that was when I really got interested in Bali and the gamelan. Asian music expert Neil Sorrell had set up one of the UK’s first gamelans in the York music department, and I was able not only to hear performances but even to have a go at playing.
I won’t try to explain Balinese music in any detail here as it’s a huge subject and it’s been done hundreds of times before. Suffice it to say that the gamelan is an ensemble dominated by percussion – particularly gongs, chimes and a variety of instruments with tuned bars similar to the glockenspiel and xylophone. Other instruments and also voices are used, but the overall effect is of a hypnotic, repetitive metallic sound built up of subtly shifting interlocking patterns. The sound is utterly unique because of Bali’s distinctive position as an isolated Hindu culture, preserving and independently developing cultural threads for centuries that have long been lost elsewhere.
I remember reading a quote from John Adams to the effect that great music needs to fully engage the listener’s emotional and intellectual faculties, and mentioning the Balinese gamelan as an example of music that fails that test. Well, possibly … its impact is certainly more on the sensual, psychedlic side of things than intellectual, and I’m sure that partly explains its appeal. It’s often highly reminiscent of seventies minimal music. In my life there has always been room for the sensual, emotional and intellectual in music, and they don’t all need to be present at once. And of course Balinese music only really comes to life in its religious and theatrical context.
The York gamelan is actually Javanese, which is a little different to Balinese, more in performance style than instrumentation. Balinese music is louder and faster and has a reckless intensity quite unlike the beguiling ritual sound of the Javanese gamelan. The other major difference is the social context: the sheer abundance of music all over Bali. Virtually every village has a gamelan, and it accompanies religious rituals from birth to death, plus dance and wayang performances telling the vivid stories of gods and heroes, and has now become a major tourist phenomenon.
So when I set off travelling in 1995 Bali was inevitably going to be a top destination for me. But I didn’t really know what to expect.
I’ve turned to my travel diary to see how I reacted, and it’s clear that there was a double process going on. Firstly, a gradual realisation, including frustration and then acceptance, of how busy, densely populated and simply teeming full of stuff Bali is, with mile after mile of choked streets lined with shops and every kind of trade – immediate abandonment of any fantasy of a conventional tropical paradise being essential. But secondly, a growing awe at the abundance and concentration of art, music, religious observance, myth – and really every form of creative human activity, all apparently bound up with everyday life. A few quotes from my diary:
“first day in Bali and I walked along a black-sand beach lined with fishing boats bearing monster heads with bulging eyes and gaping jaws”
“a disappointing 16-mile walk to visit various crumbling thousand-year old temples surrounded by traffic and wearisome commercial bustle”
“Barong dance far more wonderful, fascinating and entertaining than anything I had expected … a large benevolent monster operated like a grotesque pantomime horse; highly operatic hollering and squealing as the gamelan clanged”
(I also saw the kecak, an extraordinary spectacle in which instruments are replaced by a whole villageful of people crammed into a small space who sort of imitate a gamelan – trancey rhythmic chak-e-chak-e-chak patterns mixed with howls and screeches in old Balinese, while serene dancers face down snarling monsters with angular grace.)
“eerily calm walking past a kilometre of souvenir stalls as I approached the temple in the early morning … only those wishing to pray could enter, but pray and pay seemed to be interchangeable words”
“the aesthetic of Bali: a dancer so heavily laden with costume as to be almost a cube, muscles constantly tense, limbs bent, standing at a wonky angle and always aghast in a fierce bulging snarl”
“an 11km walk to see some white herons … passed football games, outdoor table tennis, a lengthy street entirely consisting of Garuda carving workshops, a tug of war about to be won by a large group of women, and a colourful shop advertising PARASITE – ANGLE – DUCK”
Well I left Bali absolutely loving it.
I distinctly recall meeting an American gentleman who told me his story of having felt a sense of homecoming on first visiting the island, and so had decided to stay, and had become a Balinese Hindu priest. At the time I imagine I was quite challenged not to find that ridiculous. Now, having known so many people who have taken extraordinary paths through life, it makes complete sense to me that an individual could make that kind of choice.
Back home I bought the CDs (see below) and spread the word, and when I started dancing myself later on I drew that spiky monstrous (and anti-monstrous) aesthetic into my own repertoire of movement.
It’s hard to find good quality videos of Balinese performance that give any kind of fair impression – the one below and these here and here are among the better ones. There are also some great images of musicians and dancers here.
I’ve found that many European composers have been drawn to the gamelan and influenced more or less explicitly by it. Here are a few good examples (all links open in Spotify):
Britten’s late work is particularly steeped in Balinese sounds, following his trip there with Peter Pears in 1957. In The Prince of the Pagodas he uses rather intricate forms of counterpoint and polytonality to simulate an oral tradition – the texture and tuning of gamelan instruments.
Finally here’s a ‘Balinese’ étude by Ligeti. Apparently ‘Galamb Borong’ is a made up cod-Indonesian phrase that has no meaning!
Fifteen years later I returned to Bali, with Vanessa and our good friends Matthew and Maureen. I wrote a short guest post on their blog soon after we arrived, describing the unique Balinese urban jungle that seemed largely unchanged, though I’m sure the amount of road traffic must have increased.
I noted that over the intervening years I’d gained much more appreciation of two things that would enrich my experience in Bali – eastern religion and plant life. I still loved the music and dance – we saw the legong, barong, kecak, and also wayang kulit – but this time I was much more drawn to nature, and even more to the profusion of religious art and architecture visible all around.
On our second day we visited a watery palace to the east of Ubud in which I fell in love with the statues in various stages of mossy decay. Everywhere you look in Bali are reminders of impermanance; destruction and renewal. The island is so wet, and so green, that the soft stone crumbles and rots giving a sense of antiquity that isn’t always real. Statues therefore seem more alive, part of the community, than works of art to be admired and preserved. And they are so extraordinarily and publicly abundant.
Looking out from a café we noticed two piles of bricks stacked high, one on either side of an approach to a building. A few days later we were sitting in exactly the same spot when two sculptors arrived with tools and buckets of water and started turning these bricks into art. We watched in fascination. There’s something very palpably Hindu about these ongoing processes of creation and destruction being apparent the whole time in the streets of Ubud.
My fascination with Balinese carvings led to a huge number of photos, and back home I decided to make something as a souvenir. Perhaps encouraged by the startling, luminous, repetitive feel of Balinese music I decided to take a single representative statue and make a bold, simple pop image by manipulating colours in various ways and fixing together a big rectangular array of prints. The image here is just an approximation in Photoshop to give the idea – the real thing is made of many more prints glued together and framed.
A few final words about the gamelan. There are now far more ensembles in the UK than back in 1990 – as listed here – though most are Javanese. Lila Cita is a London-based Balinese ensemble, and the Southbank Gamelan Players perform Javanese traditional and new music on a gamelan that is also available for workhops and courses. This is the second Gamelan I’ve had a chance to try – highly recommended!
The York University emsemble is still active and is in the forefront of composition of new music for gamelan instruments.
For composers and producers who want an easier option, there’s the sample library from Soniccouture.
Recommended recordings of Balinese music: