There is much more to contemporary serious music than Alan Titchmarsh’s choices on Classic FM. Mahlerman selects some ‘post-minimalist’ composers who should stand the test of time…
Look, let’s get one thing straight, I have got nothing against Dr Karl Jenkins, the most performed living composer in the world. Before the doctorate and the millions, when he was plain Karl Jenkins, oboist and keyboard player with the late, great Ian Carr’s Nucleus and later, the wonderful but uneven Soft Machine, his reed-playing formed at least one of the soundtracks to my spotty youth, before Clearasil arrived at the chemist, allowing me to appear in rock and jazz clubs without looking like an extra from the Quatermass Experiment. Jenkins’ commercial success has been spectacular, and grows daily, but the inclusiveness that he strives for is from the lowbrow down. The lack of ambition is also spectacular, matched only by a tsunami of saccharin. Bonded to the crutch of a video or a thirty-second advertisement and his music has a certain lifeless charm. Remove the visual support, and it is cast adrift, sounding as flat as an excuse. As Jenkins has said himself “I write accessible nonsense”. He values style over substance, and the royalties from the ‘Adiemus Project’ alone (ten albums and counting) have ensured that he will never have to check his bank balance again.
What does the proliferation of music like this tell us – not about the composer, but about ourselves? Are we so crushed by the tidal wave of ‘sound’ that we are invited, by the day, by the hour to sample, that we prefer to withdraw from any intellectual rigor, and let Myleene Klass ease away the stresses and strains of the day with ‘a sublime selection of relaxing music designed…..etc.’ ? Or perhaps ‘all round national treasure’ Alan Titchmarsh will have something for the ladies? The Classical ‘Charts’ are dominated, not by composers, but by performers (the other Jenkins, Katherine + Andre Rieu), mood manipulators (Hans Zimmer+ Ludovico Einaudi) and the odd Shaman-plagiarist (James Horner + John Williams). And make no mistake, many of these people are spoken of in hushed tones by millions of their fans, Zimmer being elected by that right-on publication The Daily Telegraph to rub shoulders with the likes of Dolly Parton, Damien Hirst and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, in their list of the one hundred greatest living geniuses. Geniuses at making money, that’s for sure.
Many of the serious composers who could loosely claim to be members of the New Simplicity Movement have featured in these posts over the last few years chosen, selfishly, because they speak to me in a language that is often found in Medieval and Renaissance models – the Estonian Arvo Part, Valentin Silvestrov’s devastating Silent Songs and, of course, the Third Symphony of the late Henryk Gorecki that ‘spoke’ to so many, and racked-up sales of over a million in the process, making this obscure Pole’s name around the globe.
Today we look at a further handful of living composers (except John Cage) making serious and often beautiful music that may, one day, lead to something great. If we have to categorize them, how about the Post-Minimalists? Often created with an ‘artistic’ film backdrop, the acid test for me is whether they ‘work’ without the image. Jenkins’ music, for me, does not; see what you think about the rest.
Were he still with us (1912 – 1992) the great American pioneer John Cage could reasonably lay claim to being the spiritual father of what we now understand as the musical avant-garde and, by extension, the father of all the musicians featured below. His capricious nature was behind the serious message revealed (if we have the ears to listen) in his most famous work 4′ 33″ where, famously, a solo pianist lowers himself (it is nearly always a man) onto the stool next to a concert grand and, for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, does nothing – except perhaps for checking the time or dusting the keys with a handkerchief. The message, of course, is that music is all around us if we have the ears (and imagination) to hear it; in the modern world there is no such thing as silence and music can be ‘what you want it to be’. Before this great iconoclast pushed-on, in the second half of his life to promote, for example, Musical Indeterminacy (broadly, different ways of playing the same music), he employed a simpler style, particularly in his piano writing. Here is the short meditation In a Landscape (1948) with the marvellous backdrop of images from Cage’s almost exact contemporary Ansel Adams. Two pioneers for the price of one.
The Latvian Peteris Vasks is still among us at the age of 67 and, in the same way that his near neighbour Jean Sibelius expressed the vastness of the Finnish landscape in sound, this composer’s richly expressive music treads much the same path, eschewing the classical symphonic tradition in favour of the powerfully evocative tone poem or, as here, the Russian-sounding Latvian Chamber Choir in the wonderfully shifting harmonies of his Pater Noster.
Isabel Mundry is not, as her name might suggest, a Scot living in a crofter’s cottage on a Hebridean Island; she is a young-ish (50) German composer and teacher who seems to have found a unique voice in modern music – not an easy task in itself. The present piece Dufay-Bearbeitungen means, almost literally adaptations or workings on the original by the 15th Century French composer Guillaume Dufay. Listening to the first two movements (of seven) it sounds like a refraction, an Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass adaptation of the ‘old’ sound into a modern format, with particularly pungent use of percussion. I find it magical, and disturbing.
Back in 1967 Steve Reich created a piece of conceptual music that was possible to score, but not listen to – because the technology did not exist to express it. Put simply, his idea was based upon the (correct) assumption that when we hear speech or music ‘normally’, we miss a lot of the detail, and that if it were possible to gradually slow down a piece without lowering the pitch, those ‘details’ might be revealed. It remained an interesting idea until, almost half a century later, computer technology made the reality of the idea possible. The English record producer (and one-time Ant along with Adam) Chris Hughes had the technology at his finger-tips and, with film-maker Paul Ridout made this interesting facsimile of Reich’s idea which, I must admit, has a certain hypnotic power – Slow Motion Blackbird.
The US based Norwegian Kristin Norderval is another doctor, this one pushing back the frontiers of what we understand as avant-gardism in music. Principally, in her early career, a world-class soprano, she is now increasingly concentrating on composition and, as a middle-aged gay woman (albeit in New York) she has met with plenty of opposition to her radical ideas, particularly in the fields of electro-acoustic music, and her exploration of the nuances of the human voice, her own included. Here is her musical collaboration with the choreographer Jill Sigman in Papoose.
With a population roughly the size of Milton Keynes, Iceland has produced a surprising number of world-class composers – not even counting the unique and wonderful pixie Bjork Guomundsdottir. One of the most prolific and recently successful is Johann Johannsson, a 45 year old from Reykjavik – and if I were a betting man, I might have a flutter on this ‘intrepid musical enigma’ becoming much more than the sum of his many parts. A few years ago there appeared a new seriousness in the oddly named album And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound Of Bees followed, a year later by, for me, his most impressive work The Miners’ Hymns, a plangent soundtrack to the Bill Morrisson film of the same name, recorded in Durham Cathedral. This ‘elegant, haunting and melancholic’ music has a somber, dark beauty that, I’m pretty sure, has a lasting value – with or without the video.