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“Firestarter”: The Cult of Prodigy in Contemporary Music

“Don’t give him that, you’ll just depress him” said my dad this morning, as my mother passed me the saturday Guardian opened to one specific article. Intrigued, I delved in. Ah, something about contemporary music! This is Relevant To My Interests.

So, it’s the Last Night Of The Proms tonight. As of time of writing, it kicks off in about 3 hours. Clearly I’m not going to get a ticket. But anyway, I’m not going to rant about my opinions on the event itself because I’d be here all day. Though, rest assured, I am of the opinion that the Last Night Of The Proms is quite lame.

But back to the potentially-depression-inducing article. The first piece in tonight’s is a short orchestral fanfar written by former BBC Young Musician Of The Year Mark Simpson. In an article written for the Guardian, the ubiquitous Tom Service writes enthusiastically about the 23-year-old. With a 1st from Oxford and a Master’s from the Guildhall, Simpson is the archetypal clean-cut Young British Composer, pictured casually among the music stands, dressed in a black shirt (top button undone) and salmon chinos. Clearly this is the new hand-holding-the-face when it comes to composer portraiture.

I’m going to try and avoid sour grapes. Obviously, it’s an incredible commission and I’d chew at least one of my fingers off to have that kind of exposure. But the article is emblematic of the Romantic notion of music-writing (which extends to the use of the word composer) that I have such a problem with. Referring to Simpson as a “prodigiously fast learner”, Tom Service’s usual emphatic style (as chosen Radio 3 Arbiter Of Modern Music) tends into the hagiography. Forgive me for extrapolating too much, but the language of his article (‘sparks’, ‘orchestral firecracker’, ‘ablaze’) conjures up the tired Beethovenian image of the composer-genius, furiously sketching out string passages at his desk; rapidly tearing up pieces of manuscript to fit all his Big Musical Ideas onto the page before they are lost forever.

[Personally I find the compositional process to be slow and arduous. Musical material fits together when you jam it in hard enough, in a process of trial and error that requires many cups of tea. But maybe that’s where I’m going wrong.]

Much is made of the music’s supposed difficulty. “There are a lot of notes and a lot of detail”, say Simpson, clutching his academic prowess like a shield aimed at populist criticism. But despite the acclaimed complexity, the piece, entitled sparks, is short. A fanfare to herald the opening of the last night. I can imagine the instructions from the appropriate BBC Executive now: “We’ll have just a few minutes of new music before we get to stuff people have paid to see. They’ll just have to buckle up and see it through, it’s good for you. Or something.” Although there’s little chance of it recreating the supposed riot and ensuing media storm that came out of Birtwistle’s commission at 1995’s Last Night.

Sad, really. Although is that good thing or bad? If it truly is Complex Music (so different from ordinary, Simple music), is indifference (because let’s face it, Complex music is unlikely to get standing ovations, even in 2012) better than disgust? I’ll leave that for others to decide.

And as for the title itself. That enforced no-caps thing, seemingly so common in contemporary music (I’m guilty of myself). Where does it come from? Modesty? Minimalism? In Simpson’s own words: “I’m really bad at titles, and a friend gave me this one and said it looked better all lower case”. Going out on a limb, I’d wonder whether or not it’s a reaction to digital press – enforcing a break in traditional style guide requires it to be written in italics. What that says about contemporary musicians, I don’t know.

Maybe I am just jealous. On the surface, we seem fairly similar. White, male, middle-class clarinet players who write music for some reason. But he’s got a Proms commission and I’m sat here on the internet writing about it. Still, I await it greatly, and it’ll be a damn sight more interesting than Pomp and Fucking Circumstance.

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Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory

I had the good fortune earlier this evening (as I write this at some ungodly hour of the morning fuelled by cottage cheese and cheap vodka) to catch Lawrence Power and the Philharmonia Orchestra and conducting the UK Premier of Olga Neuwirth’s Remnants of Songs … an Amphigory. And daaaamn was it a good bit of music.

I’d also been fortunate enough to see her interviewed by Andrew McGregor earlier that evening, which gave some insight into her soundworld and methods of writing, featuring performances of her earlier works by students at the Royal College. I don’t recall having heard of her before (though it’s likely she’s cropped up somewhere inside an episode of Late Junction) but god do I feel like I’ve missed out. Put simply, Neuwirth’s music is the type you just want to have written yourself, y’know? Sort of like, somewhere between Lachenmann, Shostakovitch and Derbyshire.

In the talk, Neuwerth cut a dramatic figure. Wearing a jacket covered in various handwritten scrawls, and her hair pushed back in a manner akin to old Ludwig Van’s she immediately took on the role of the composer of genius-touched “other”, the font from which music springs. Normally I’d find the affectation irritating, but her self-effacing manner and obvious propensity to introspection won over my cynicism of the cult of composer-genius. And anyway, she honestly came across as a little charmingly unhinged. As she said herself: “I think you have to be [slightly mentally unstable] to want to write music in the 21st Century”.

But the music itself. The concerto (for it was thus in all but name) was split into five uninterrupted movements of increasingly opaque titling, listed below. I just love the near-complete destruction of any semantic content of the 4th and 5th movements, so alike in their simplicity, but so shockingly dissimilar. It’s almost like a cryptic crossword.

1 Wanderer (Präldium) –
2 Sadko –
3 … im Meer versank [… sank to the bottom of the sea …]
4
5

An Amphigory is a piece of nonsense verse – think Edward Lear etc – but Neuwirth’s sense of the absurd is matched with a searing honesty to her writing that causes all notions of silliness to be blown away. The nonsense in this case doesn’t refer to the subject matter, but the way in which it’s treated, creating a giddy ride through style and form that creates the mental image (as she said herself) of ripped up posters layered on top of each other.

Power weaved a virtuosic viola line amid swells and snatches of quoted melodies from the orchestra. Dotting between pastiche and ambient soundscape, and flitting between unabashed diatonicism, chromatic harmony and rootless (with a few extended techniques and odd instruments), the opening two movements were a bonkers whirl of postmodern delight.

By the third movement, the music had taken a turn for the darker, with a viola melody scurrying around arpeggiated figures over a menacing low hum from the orchestra, punctuated by sprinkles of percussion. Descending chromatic lines begin to take over, chopped up with frenetic string work from the viola lying somewhere between a satanic barn dance and a particularly acid-fuelled episode of Tom and Jerry.

The final two movements, despite the minimalism hinted at by the title, are as gratifyingly complex as the first three, but tinged wit elements of regret and loss. The harmony has echoes of central European folk music, but never stays in the same place long enough to form any kind of schmaltzy pastoralism. The fifth and final movement, now almost fully displaced from the optimistic pan-tonalism of the earlier sections, starts out as a stark duet between viola and snare drum before ending on a brief and tragic viola solo in the upper end of the range, ending on a harmonic from the opening note.

The earlier comparison to Beethoven is applicable in matters outside of the capillary. Neuwirth’s work is grand, bold and almost sickenly Romantic in its constant shifts in harmonic approach. Almost as if a radio were being scanned through, Imaginary Landscapes–style, and re-orchestrated with a masterful subtlety and sense of colour.

Anyway. Neuwirth doesn’t need my adulation, I’m sure. But yeah. Check her out. I did copy the performance to my hard drive so I may put up an excerpt here after the iPlayer link runs out. But in the mean time, enjoy this.