A (Sixth?) Sense of Proportion

I am intrigued by aesthetic proportions, most notably the Golden Section. (Blame a second year undergraduate course on medieval and modern structures and living with somebody else’s writing a paper on the appearance of the Fibonacci sequence / golden ratio in nature and art!) When I am writing music I don’t consciously go out of my way to adhere to any particular proportions, but once a piece I am working on feels right in its span, scale and form, I do — merely out of interest — like to perform a few quick calculations to see what lies at a couple of critical moments. This evening, with the shape of my 6 minute Lenten motet now finally in place, I did the sums: the Golden Section just happens to fall exactly upon the great turning point of the piece; the start of the redemptive moment of hope. Not only this, but the prior petitions against oblivion begin at the exact half-way point in the motet. Sheer fluke! — but it does make one wonder what it is that the subconscious is up to, and whether and how we might feel or sense innately such proportions. A couple of minutes worth of notes need yet to be lived with and dwelt upon before it is finished, to determine whether or not they are right — and in a couple of passages have yet to be found prior to that settling process; but I feel now that the worst is over and that the piece will be completed before too much longer. 

Unlike the laissez faire approach to the artistic content of my work, when it comes to the design and layout of the recent print material I have produced, I have specifically calculated the proportions for certain elements on the page. In the case of the new poetry volume I am writing at present (a single, extended poem), I am — inspired by the fine press printer who undertook my first — laying it out for print on pages based on the Golden proportion with page margin’s similarly devised. The actual poem will remain at the whim of my feeling in its proportions. Overarching form is a major part of this poem, but I shall feel for it, as the poem evolves, rather than reach for the calculator. 


New Music

The first hearing of a new musical work is like the opening of a gift. Slowly, bit by bit, that gift is unwrapped, slow revealing a hidden and ever-surprising present within, each reveal bringing to sight something fresh and unknown, never expected. More and more of the gift is revealed, until the last bit of paper is removed and, in that instant, the gift vanishes. Only memory holds some vague sense of what has been revealed in that unwrapping. It cannot be held or contained, and if one can hear it again and come to know it better, it will never again have quite the same mystery of that first hearing. We all come to music and art with some sense of expectation, but there are times when you just don’t know what to expect. It is all rather like the writing of music, although in a much more contracted time-frame, hours of thought distilled into just seconds for the listener. We should all seek to embrace new music on a regular basis, and enjoy the mystery of that unwrapping, particularly when the well-trodden paths of the repertoire are so repeatedly down-trodden with the likes of Classic FM, taking comfort in what we already know well. Whether it is the personal discovery of a Dunstable motet, a Sibelius tone poem, a composer we haven’t encountered before, or a work that was completed last week, it is exciting to unwrap such a gift and to enter an unknown world of thought, discovering new villages, countries and continents.

Poetic Butchery: the Act of Artistic Appropriation

The setting to music of a poet’s hard-wrought text is an act of butchery. It is an appropriation of a work of art which can lift a poem off the page and bring it to life; it can bring a poem to an audience who would likely never have otherwise encountered it; and it can also rile a poet, who sees his the result of his labours as a piece of art ‘intire in itself’; a work that was the poet’s ultimate goal and vision.

I am reminded of this today as I work through some of the secondary correspondence in the Gurney archive. In 1925 Gurney composed a setting of Robert Bridges’s ‘Johannes Milton Senex’, ‘Since I believe in God the Father Almighty’, which Gurney set as a ‘motett’ for double choir. It is an extraordinary setting, and, after I brought it out of the archive and to performance in 2012, it has now been recorded twice for CD, by Gloucester Cathedral Choir and The Sixteen, and broadcast at twice on Radio 3, sung by the BBC Singers.

Robert Bridges, on being sent a copy of the motett in July 1925, shortly after its writing, showed it to Henry Ley — then organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford — who thought it interesting, suggesting that he might try it through [with the choir] if copies could be made. Bridges, however, was more circumspect about giving an opinion following any hearing of the work, stating that

‘I am not at all sympathetic with the way in which modern musicians treat words. They aim at effects which I do not desire. When they are successful I am pleased enough, but I do find their success very rare. I hope this may be one of them and that it will be possible to let Ley try it with his choir next term.’

Whether the work was ever tried through we cannot tell, although we know that a copy was made and reproduced, one such copy in Marion Scott’s hand being the only source for the motett now extant.

Nor was Bridges alone.  A. E. Housman, one of the most-set poets in the English language, while not disallowing the use of his words, resented the corruption that composers could impose upon his work.  The most famous case is that of Ralph Vaughan Williams: Housman was livid that RVW had had the audacity to cut two stanzas from ‘Is my team ploughing’ in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge. Reportedly, W. B. Yeats, heard a large group of boy scouts singing a setting of his ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ that so went against the vision and intention of his poem that he employed a musical agent to vet any future settings.  Peter Warlock fell foul of that censor in his Yeats cycle, The Curlew, having to fight to allow his settings past Yeats and his agent for publication under the Carnegie British Composers scheme.

The poetry selected for setting is a very personal thing to a composer, but it is, in my opinion, not merely a matter of subjectivity.  Not all poems are suitable for setting.  I have a number of times been asked to suggest some Ivor Gurney poems for musical setting, and it is a task that I find quite difficult — not merely because of the subjectivity of the matter.  Quite a lot of Gurney’s poetry contains so much innate music in its language and sound that it seems to preclude its setting.  It needs no further music.

As one who has dabbled in both poetry and composition, as well as gaining some insight (I think) into the separation between Gurney’s arts, I have become more sensitive to the matter of musical setting of poetry.  My role as an academic editor of poetry heightens the tensions at play.  In this latter, I strive always to represent as truly as possible the poet’s intentions.  The text is everything; it is the apogee of a poem, and the poet’s manuscript must be the last word on every aspect from punctuation to capitalisation of words, never mind the words themselves.  These details matter immensely.

In my recent composings, in the writing of the War Passion that is to receive its première in just over two weeks’ time, these tensions came to a head.  On the one hand I was interrogating  manuscripts of poems by Rosenberg to get to his original intentions where the published poem has been corrupted from its first, posthumous publication (see this blog-post).  Likewise, I sought out the corrected text of Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’, which was similarly corrupted.  Conversely, and much against my academic judgement, I also edited a few poems, for which I feel much guilt and underwent some very serious soul-searching.  The edits were made for purely dramatic purposes.  I have appropriated a work of art — several, in fact — and turned them to new use, which goes against the pains that the poets went through to get those poems right.  I left out a short stanza from ‘Into Battle’ — a poem which I also broke up across the span of the first movement; I made such selections from Edmund Blunden’s ‘Third Ypres’ as might be akin to roasting a whole chicken and then taking only a small bite from a leg, a bit from one of the breasts, and one of the oysters from the underside, before discarding the rest.  In Sassoon’s ‘Christ and the Soldier’ I omitted several words, and also took the decision to represent one of the stanzas in wholly musical terms, depicting in musical sound what was described in the stanza.  The words omitted from this were those descriptors and attributions that are un-neccesary when the words are being spoken or sung by an assigned character: ‘he groaned’, ‘he said’, and rhetorical statements that one can, I think, make out in the music, such as the closing line, ‘The battle boomed, and no reply came back’.  Such butcheries still play on my conscience — although I did seek express permission from Blunden’s daughters to be so selective about the passages chosen from ‘Third Ypres’.  They go against the grain, and I feel immensely guilty that I have appropriated the words of these poets, sometimes with great selectivity, and turned them to my own devices.  I can only apologise to those poets whose work I have butchered and appropriated — although I hope the Rosenberg at least will be glad at having had his text restored.

Whether butchered or restored, there still remains the question of whether the poets will have balked at the way I have used their poems in expressive, musical terms, or will I have used effects, as Bridges puts it, which the poets would not desire or have imagined?  We cannot tell.  All I do know is that it was the poetry, and my strength of feeling for the poems that led me to write the settings I have.  The music always started with the words, with vocal lines emerging directly out of them before textures suggested themselves around those vocal lines.  It is the way I feel the poetry, and the passion that I feel in my reading of them.  Whether they would pass the musical censor is impossible to say (I suspect it likely that it would not!), but it is what I felt, and I hope that might have sufficient validity to somehow overcome the great sense of guilt and betrayal I feel on the poets’ behalves.  In the form of the libretto I created, and in the music I composed, I have created a new work, a new whole, a new vision, which I think of as being very much my own.  But in that I am deeply indebted to the ten poets whose words I have taken and to which I have given voice, without whom the piece would never have come into being.  Their art and power gave me the thoughts to create anew. So all art can feed us, and future generations, whether as reader, listener, or as a creative artist who wishes to build on and give their own personal response to the work of others.  It is not that one is seeking to improve upon that work.  It is, I hope, more flattering than that; that they have created a piece of work that speaks so powerfully to another that they want to express that power, passion and meaning in the way they know how.


[Letter from Robert Bridges to Marion Scott is in the Gurney Archive, Gloucestershire Archives, ref. D10500/8/2/2/3.]

The Art of the Artless

War Passion coverIt has been a long while since I have made a post on here. Life has been poured into my ongoing Gurney work and the composition of my War Passion, which is to be premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in July 2016.

Returning to composition this last two years, after a gap of more than a decade, has proved a revelation. There is fire in my belly, and a very real feeling of release, after the years of lacking time and confidence to answer the very real and always present need to create and set down some of the train of ideas that both bless and curse. My efforts in composition over the last years have reaped greater reward than I could ever have imagined. Not only has the War Passion grown to the point, now, where completion is now within touching distance, but it has also yielded a song setting which I have had in mind as an idea since 2008: a setting of Ivor Gurney’s poem ‘Bach and the Sentry‘. (I may have written little or nothing for some fifteen years, but the ideas came and have remained with me, awaiting the moment when I can start to craft them and set them down on paper. There’s more to come.)

As a composer, I am somewhat wary of any reliance on the digital facilities now so readily at hand, and most particularly the playback capability of any scoring/music-typesetting programme. The playback sounds are often misleading and the textures can become skewed and opaque. It can be a dangerous tool, and there is no replacement for imagination and the mind’s ear. However, I am now at the stage with the fourth movement of my War Passion when it is about to prove itself rather useful: the checking and refining of the spacing and pacing of the movement. For so long I have been intensely focussed on a bar here or a passage or counterpoint there. Now is the time to sit back and, ignoring any anomalous and jarring sounds, use the playback facility as an aid to the mind’s ear to gain an overall feel of the movement as a whole. I feel the music I write very intensely, and worry about every note, but when working on such a large scale as this — a span of 64 minutes across four movements — that it helps enormously to be able to sit back and just listen to the movement and feel how its proportions are working out aurally. For all the crafting and calculating, one needs to be able to stand back and take in the whole as a listener. While the inner movements of the piece are yet incomplete, I know only too well how the third movement feels as a whole, and the way in which the fourth movement transitions from this and rounds off the work as a whole. In this context it is critical for the pacing and spacing to be exactly as I feel it, otherwise the work could fall flat on its face and lose the effect of all that I am striving to achieve. While one can capture this given space and time, this is a rare thing when working from home with three children below the age of five bursting in or doing battle in the background, and when one is trying to squeeze the writing of a piece into snatched half-hours in the midst of one’s day-job. So the software playback facility comes into its own, and I can sit back and listen, or perhaps record it and listen to it in bed before sleep starts to drift in (the only time of the day when true peace is possible), and feel and sample the whole in a way that will only otherwise be possible in performance. I have the time to live with it for a couple of weeks, deciding whether a little air needs adding to a passage; whether one point needs beefing up or making more urgent. It is the act of making the work sound and feel artless; to sound as though the work has always been, and it has merely been found in the air or earth, not made and slaved over for many days and weeks. How successful this will be can only be judged in July, when the first person other than myself at last hears and feels the work that has so long filled my mind.

Landscape in Man

Henry Moore discussing a two piece reclining figure. Still from the BBC's Monitor programme, broadcast 20 November 1960.

Henry Moore discussing a two piece reclining figure. Still from the BBC’s Monitor programme, broadcast 20 November 1960.

As part of BBC 4’s ‘Talk Collection’, releasing archive television interviews with ‘some of the most influential figures of the twentieth century’, the BBC has made available a couple of episodes of the seminal arts programme of the 1950s and 60s, Monitor.  Having long admired the work of Henry Moore, I was interested to see that one of these was an interview with the Moore, in his studio.

In watching this short programme, I was struck by a couple of things Moore said about his work.  Firstly, his desire not to explore too deeply the psychology and reasoning behind his creative fascinations, in case it should destroy those fascinations.  Secondly, the relationship between man and earth embodied in some of his sculpture, which I had not considered or noted before.

Some of my great interests, artistically, are in the creative act itself, and in the relationship between man and earth, and the embodiment of that relationship in the arts.  This relationship between man and earth is obviously inherent in poetry and visual art, and to some degree in music.  However, while sculpture can often sit within the landscape, I have rarely considered it as landscape itself, and never so in the work of Henry Moore.

In discussing one of his two-piece reclining figures, Moore spoke of it as

‘a mixture of the human figure and landscape […] show[ing] what was in my mind, the connection with mountains.  You could imagine yourself walking along here, climbing up […].  This and the other [two-piece reclining figure] are sculptures in which I’ve tried to amalgamate the figure and landscape and mountains; a kind of metaphor.  Like in poetry you’d say ‘the mountains skipped like rams’, here there is a figure that is connected with the earth, with rocks, mountains.  It’s metaphor.’

For me, this thought opens up a whole new vista in Henry Moore’s work, and I shall revisit it afresh from hereon.

Even if you have little interest in Moore himself, this programme is valuable viewing for anyone interested in the wider arts.  It is also a fine model for arts programmes of the future, with a deep respect for the work and creator, with a sense of space allowed to appreciate the work, such as has rarely been recaptured. (The recent ‘What Do Artists Do All Day?’ series for BBC4 is the only worthy successor that I can name.)  I sincerely hope that we can look forward to a further opening up of the extensive Monitor archive.

You can watch the programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00drs8s/monitor-henry-moore

The Acts of the Artists: What Do Artists Do All Day?

The act of creativity and the place of the Artist in society is something that has become an increasing fascination. It is perhaps a result of my increasing desire, as told elsewhere on this blog, to express myself through my own work rather than through my research, editing and writing of/on composers and poets of the early twentieth century, which is the mainstay of my work.  Indeed, it the creative act and the place of the Artist is the central theme in a short collection of my own poetry that I am preparing for publication, for issue on 1 June 2014: Fulcrum (more details about this here). I sincerely believe that it is the Arts that are the defining vestige of humanity, and that they are the most important facet of our being.  It is what separates us from the mere bestial.  There are some who would beg to differ; those who see the Arts as an economically fruitless frivolity (because a growing economy is the be-all of everything, obviously, and if you aren’t an accountable cog within this machine then you are worthless); and there are those who believe that science, pushing the bounds of knowledge, is everything.  Some aspects of science can tend towards art in its outlook and ideology, one might argue; however, that aspect of scientific pursuit which is cited as the apogee of usefulness is medicine, which to my mind is merely a refined form of the bestial instinct to survive (I am in no way ungrateful of the medical profession: they do remarkable things, maintaining our well-being and quality of life, but it is, as I say, a refined form of the bestial instincts and is not something that defines us as human. That is for the arts alone.).

There has been, to my mind, only one television programme broadcast this year (in the first ten months thereof) has been worth watching (yes, only one – although by no means have I seen all that has been broadcast – far from it; indeed I haven’t yet watched any others in the series to which this programme belongs).  This programme showed something of the work of the artist, and is something that I recommend heartily: BBC4’s portrait of the great Norman Ackroyd, ‘What Do Artists Do All Day?’.  Having just joyfully stumbled across the programme on YouTube, I thought I would share it here.

Part one:

Part two:

A Question of Context

I was interested this afternoon to stumble upon a handful of reviews of the rehanging of the collection at Tate Britain, the ‘unveiling’ of which has followed hot on the heels of a very similar rehang of another national collection, with the reopening of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum (a summary of reviews of that reopening can be found here).  The Tate’s new approach, ‘A Walk Through British Art’ from the 1500s to present, is one that breaks the boundaries between schools of art, reasserting a chronological – an almost ‘as it happened’ view – of our nation’s art and its varying contemporaneous facets, rather than one navigated by academic theories and classifications.

It is a problem of which I have become increasingly aware in my work in music and poetry of the early twentieth century – and also more widely: we research our little pockets of interest, most often solely in the medium that is the focus of our research, be it literary, musical or artistic, and can lose sight of the ‘broader picture’, and how our pockets of research relate to the other arts or even different ‘schools’ within the same arts.  The Tate’s rather more radical decision to give very little information beside each of the items on display is one which will perhaps help to bridge some of these divides and will be an invaluable eye-opener, removing many of the ‘labels’ and categories which have previously separated these works.

While such a view of a national collection of art is most welcome, it does no more than sound a reminder that as we explore our corners of the arts, as well as broadening our horizon within those corners, we must cross over to the ‘other side’, and remind ourselves what is happening in the other arts, and how they might relate to our own corners.  As I have found to my own benefit, being a musician who has recently completed a PhD in English literature (albeit the poetry of a composer-poet), crossing the boundaries can bear great fruit and be enormously informative.  However it can at times leave one wondering quite where one belongs!  While ‘interdisciplinary’ is a hot watchword in academic circles, when you truly fall between two stools, people aren’t quite sure what to do with you; and indeed one is oneself torn between disciplines, for departments of study are specific and not at their root interdisciplinary.

As well as crossing boundaries within our national arts, it is essential that we keep an eye on worldwide developments in our respective ‘periods’ and arts.  I am surprised by how little researchers and writers in the arts make such comparisons.  How many realise that Bach was born towards the end of Henry Purcell’s life?  Or that Wordsworth was an exact contemporary of Beethoven, who died in the same year as William Blake?  Indeed, do these facts matter at all?  Perhaps not, but it is interesting to consider them and to ask these questions.

Various pictures of the Tate’s collection and its rehang can be found here.  For now, this glimpse must satisfy, but I cannot wait to peruse the collection for myself.