Last weekend Susan explored that old battleground of ‘Classical’ versus ‘Pop’ in the shadow of the Cambridge Union debate, the motion being that ‘This House believes classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth’, with S Fry and a few friends batting for the heavy-mob, and DJ Kissy Sell Out bowling googlies from the Gasworks End. At best it is a tiresome subject particularly, in this instance, where the terminology alone seemed, to me, to be misleading and demeaning. Who cares for the irrelevance or otherwise of music? Not I. And who, may I ask, are ‘today’s youth’ that, according to ‘The House’, need music to be elucidated?
With X-Factor and off-shoots dominating popular ‘sounds’, and 120 million souls across Europe tuning in to the kak that is the Eurovision Song Contest (look, I wandered into the front room, OK?) I struggle to recall a time in the last 50 years when popular music reached such a nadir of despair.
Paradoxically, so-called serious music seems to be in rude health, and verging on the popular – with the likes of John Tavener, Philip Glass, Arvo Part and the late Henryk Gorecki finding a language that touches hearts (and heads) across the spectrum. But you will have noticed that this is a culture blog, and we can mix with the populist riff and raff any day of the week. On this day, almost exactly 100 years after the death of one of the pioneers of modern music Gustav Mahler, we look at a quartet of living composers who are trying to meet these challenges with an original voice: and it may be no accident that three of them hail from the frozen north.
The Dane Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen will be 80 next year. Although Conservatory trained, this eclectic soul has always had a taste for the off-beat, and the absurdist writing of Samuel Beckett has been a constant influence. In this short extract from his 1985 piece Triptycon, the composer wears his years lightly, writhing unselfconsciously to his own beautifully ritualistic music.
An almost exact contemporary of the Dane is the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, now naturalized in Belgium. His music has a cinematic quality, often exploring an extreme dynamic range quite suddenly, before relapsing into a sombre mood. This could be called Vesuvian and, because the forces required to play this music are often larger than normal, he could also be described not as a minimalist a la Glass or John Adams, but a maximalist, not afraid to use any forces available to him. In the wonderful concentration of this bleak piece Vom Winde Beweint (Mourned by the Wind), a Liturgy for Large Orchestra and Solo Viola, the large forces are hushed, creating an almost unbearable tension and, finally, a resolution of sorts.
Over the last few years, following the failure of the banking system, Icelanders have had very little to smile about, but they still have in their midst a huge talent in a small package. Bjork Guomundsdottir is an impish child/woman but she fears nothing in the complex soundworld that she inhabits. A multi-instrumentalist, she has a voice that is absolutely unique, but it is her broad musical sensibility that tugs away at you, and makes her very special. All these qualities can be heard in this short excerpt from her concert at the ROH; the innate theatricality as the curtain parts, followed by the majestic and uplifting theme from Dancer in the Dark.
A few years ago I heard the music of the Finn Kalevi Aho for the first time on the radio, and was dumbfounded by the originality of the concept and execution. It was his Symphony No.12 (Luosto), scored not for one orchestra but two – and to be played outdoors. The first movement, subtitled The Shamans, could best be described as a drum and brass ‘battle’ lasting an eardrum-testing 15 minutes. The symphony was to be performed upon the slopes of Mount Luosto, in Finnish Lapland, with the two orchestras plus vocal soloists surrounding the audience and creating, literally, surround-sound. Here we have a more recent piece Minea from 2009, but you will detect in the furious intensity of the music and the virtuoso playing, something of the flavour of this great symphonist, still in his early 60’s.