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Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Music to write to (part one)


Music is the pleasure of the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting. - Gottfried Leibniz

I have been intending to write this article for a long while but a couple of things happened recently that started me thinking I should stop letting other things get in the way and just get on with it. But first, to set the scene, a handful of quotes plucked from the Internet:

I pretty much just listen to film scores, but I'll also throw in some Stravinsky, Shostakovich (there is no more perfect music for angry, angry scenes than Portrait of Stalin [Symphony No 10, second movement]), Muse or Nightwish. Honestly, it depends what mood I'm trying to achieve and what genre I'm writing in -- I'm the kind of person that makes individual playlists for each chapter or scene, because I am just that much of a music geek that everything must be perfect. – Naranne, comment on Music to write to…, Script Frenzy

I can’t have any music at all when I’m writing. I get too distracted (maybe because I am a musician myself) and start thinking about other things. Being in silence is best for me, although I can work around noise. But I have never been able to be affective while listening to music! – Dylan Dodson, comment on Tentblogger

For years I wrote with music playing in the background. For one novel, partly set in the 1930s, I so completely immersed myself in the atmosphere by playing the songs from that era that the magical "You Go to my Head" became irrevocably bound up with one of the characters. – Deborah Lawrenson, comment on About Writing

I mostly listen to instrumental music when I write. If there are vocals, they can't be the main focus because when I'm trying to read or write, hearing other words really distracts me. I have so much instrumental music and film scores on my iTunes, though, so I can fit it to just about any mood I need. I think I just hate silence. I can't do anything if I can't hear something – with the exceptions of sleeping and taking tests, of course. – Rebecca Binns, comment on figment

I found this little poll on Matador:


There is no right answer to the question of whether or not one should or should not write while music is playing in the background so I’m not going to present some scientific study which says yay or nay, although there are undoubtedly health benefits attached to music. As with most things when it comes to writing my advice is to suck it and see. I can write with music on or off. If I’m engrossed in what I’m doing I can pretty much write over anything. I started playing music while I was working to drown out my parents. They had two rooms downstairs, one – inexplicably – called ‘the house’ and the other, which I monopolised from about the age of twelve and made my office, ‘the front room’. There was only a thin wall between the two and so, as the television was constantly on with them talking over it a lot of the time; I needed something to drown them out.

For some reason I chose classical music. Why, I have no idea. Just as my parents never read, they also never listened to music. We had an old radiogram growing up but that was it until the TV replaced it. Later I discovered the joys of the pop charts – about July 1973 to be specific – which was a good time to get interested in popular music as there was a lot good going on and it just got better, but here’s the thing, I never lost my love of classical music. As I’ve aged, my musical tastes have broadened to include a wide range of music: jazz, folk, blues, country, world – I’ll listen to just about anything – but what I’m passionate about is classical music.

Dark Side of the MoonWhen I was younger I could write over anything – Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Hawkwind, whatever – but as I’ve got older I find myself focusing more and more on instrumental pieces; I’m with Rebecca above, if there are words (English words) I end up listening to them and not the voices in my head. Carrie struggles with German and French lyrics for the same reason, so I tend to watch what choral music I play. Which is a shame because it means that a lot of the stuff I still enjoy doesn’t get played so much these days.

Classical music is one of those terms that make a lot of people shudder and if you ask most people to name a composer of classical music they’ll probably come up with Beethoven or Mozart; perhaps Bach or Vivaldi. If you asked most people who Handel was or Rachmaninoff or Schubert or Wagner, Liszt or Chopin they’d probably guess right and say they were all classical composers and if you played an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or Beethoven’s Symphony No 5 or Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in E major, Op. 8 (the first of the Four Seasons concertos) they would recognise it even if they couldn’t name either the composer or the work. But what about Elena Kats-Chernin'sEliza's Aria’ from her score for the ballet Wild Swans? Ever heard of that? Nope? If you live in the UK, own a TV and happen to watch one of the commercial channels like Scottish Television or Channel 4 you’ll probably have seen an advert for Lloyds TSB. Here’s a reminder:

In April 2010, research undertaken by PRS for Music revealed that the song is the third most performed in UK television advertising. Elena Kats-Chernin was born in Tashkent (now the capital of Uzbekistan – but then part of the USSR), and immigrated to Australia in 1975. The Australian Music Centre lists 357 works by her and I wonder even in Australia (If you’re reading this Lis perhaps you might let us know) how many people know anything about her. I suspect most people would be surprised by just how much classical music they have been exposed to. Naxos has a CD containing nothing but tunes used in TV adverts: see the track list here.

The term classical music is an unhelpful one. It encompasses 1500 years and a lot of different styles but broadly-speaking when people talk about classical music (with a small c) this is what they mean:

Haydn is a Classical composer (with a capital c). So are Schubert and Mozart, in the strictest sense. But the expression ‘classical music’ has been adopted to distinguish it from popular music despite the fact that, these days, most people would consider a polka by Johann Strauss classical music whereas, at the time, it was most definitely popular. It’s just like the word ‘symphony’ – in German, Symphonie was a generic term for spinets and virginals from the late 16th century right through to the 18th century but during the Baroque period, the terms symphony and sinfonia began to be used for a range of large orchestral compositions. It wasn’t until the Classical period with the likes of Mozart and Haydn that it became established as a specific form of composition and it was in this period that we see the rise of the hybrid form, the sinfonia concertante, which is essentially a mixture of the symphony and the concerto genres; in the 20th century this was replaced by the concerto for orchestra where the composers emphasise soloistic and virtuosic treatment of various individual instruments or sections in the orchestra, with emphasis on instruments changing during the piece. An oddity is the organ symphony which is actually only a work for solo instrument.

I like symphonies. If I see a CD with a symphony I’ve never hear I get excited. I need to hear it. Doesn’t matter if I know the composer or not but if I don’t know the composer I really wasn’t to hear it. I’m probably worse when it comes to concertos especially if the solo instrument is an usual one like a tuba; I have a whole CD with British Tuba Concertos on it, the most well-known being the Vaughan Williams. Here’s the opening movement to the Gregson Tuba Concerto though:

Concertos for the likes of the tuba tend to be on the short side because it takes so much wind to play them.

Classical music in the 20th century, as with art and literature, went through a period where it almost seemed that it was going out of its way to alienate its audience or if not exactly to alienate, to at least bamboozle. Take for example this work by John Cage (this is a version for solo piano):

The work is, of course, 4’33”, Cage’s favourite work; a work consisting of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of not playing a musical instrument. You can see why this might confuse the same kind of people who don’t get performance art because they can’t take it home and hang it over the mantelpiece.

Of course there are a lot noisier classical works that have managed to send audiences screaming from the concert halls – the première of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history – and I’m not saying that there aren’t composers out there writing challenging musical compositions because there are. Back in March the Internet radio station Radio Riel broadcast a “Not So Easy Listening” program dedicated to “music that might not otherwise have a place in our programming: long forms, oddities, music that needs explanation, and, yes, sometimes, music that’s hard to listen to.” There is an audience for it and I’m far more tolerant of difficult music than I am of difficult poetry, but some of it needs to be played when Carrie’s not in the house – seriously. But I’m not here to talk about the composers you probably want to avoid. Rather I want to show you that there is a great deal of great classical music out there that can provide a wonderful backdrop to write to. And I’m not talking about musak. I'm looking for something that will complement my writing. It’s no different than a comfortable chair or a good pen if that’s how you prefer to work. These things make a difference.

Let’s start off with my first love: Rachmaninoff. Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day. He also had very big hands. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Rachmaninoff could play a left hand chord of C E flat G C G. It is one thing to play a Keyboard12th but another thing to play a 5 finger chord. This is one reason why his piano works are so hard to play well because what he did with ease, ordinary mortals struggle with.

One of the main objections to a lot of modern classical music is that it is tuneless and much of it does neglect melody in favour of harmony and rhythm, but not so Rachmaninoff whose music is famous for its lush tunes. Probably the most famous is his Piano Concerto No 2 which featured prominently in the 1945 film Brief Encounter. But the piece I’d like to feature is the first movement to his Symphonic Dances, written in 1940, just three years before the composer’s death:

The work is remarkable for its use of the alto saxophone as a solo instrument for the only time in a Rachmaninoff composition. Rachmaninoff was apparently advised as to its use by the American orchestrator and composer Robert Russell Bennett. The composition includes several quotations from Rachmaninoff's other works, and can be regarded as a summing-up of his entire career as a composer. – Wikipedia

The central section featuring the saxophone and strings can almost bring me to tears. In fact, I’m listening to it as I’m writing this and I can feel myself welling up.

The next composer I discovered was also a Russian, but more importantly, an Armenian: Aram Ilyich Khachaturian. Everyone will know this guy for his ‘Sabre Dance’, a movement in the final act of his ballet Gayane, a virtuoso piece, not unlike Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee, or, if you’re of a certain age, as the composer of the theme tune to the BBC serial, The Onedin Line. The work that I heard first was his Symphony No 2, ‘The Bell’ – fantastic opening. In some respects it’s not unlike the Rachmaninoff which I’ve just played you. It begins in grand fashion before introducing a haunting melody on the strings:

And strings were what attracted me to my first British composer: Ralph Vaughan Williams (the ‘Ralph’ is pronounced ‘rayf’ if you’ve never heard of him). No one, with the possible exception of the American Samuel Barber, who I came to years later, writes for strings like Vaughan Williams. His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is an outstanding work for double string orchestra and actually has reduced me to tears and I doubt there will be many who have not heard him even in passing, because it gets used so much on TV, at least a part of his work The Lark Ascending. The orchestral version is one of the most popular pieces in the Classical repertoire among British listeners. But, again, I’d like to introduce you to a lesser known piece by him, the second movement to his second symphony, A London Symphony.

I mentioned the American, Barber, as a composer who excelled in writing for strings (and I will get to him, shortly) but the first American I discovered was Aaron Copland whose music, as it happens, also features strings prominently. The first thing I heard by him was the rumbustious ‘Hoe-Down’ from his ballet Rodeo. If you thought that ballets were all tu-tus and men prancing around in tights then think again. Copland’s ballets, Billy the Kid, Rodeo and Appalachian Spring are all-American works full of gusto and catchy tunes. Again, though, I’d like you to hear a not-so-well-known piece by him, Quiet City:

Barber’s music certainly is indebted to Copland. What you need to understand is that pretty much before Copland all the music being writer by the Americans was heavily influenced by the European greats. It was decent music, but derivative, and for a long time composers had been looking for a sound that was ‘American’. The first composer who really did this was Charles Ives whose music I love but it is an acquired taste – he thought nothing of having an orchestra playing two different tunes, with different tempos, at the same time (they get around that by having two conductors) – but it’s also great fun, something a lot of people think classical music isn’t. If Ives was the grandfather of modern American music, Copland was its father, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Barber’s most famous piece is his haunting Adagio for Strings (if you’ve seen the film Platoon you’ll know it), an arrangement for string orchestra from the second movement of his String Quartet although other versions exist, most notably his transcription for eight-part choir, as a setting of the Agnus Dei. The first work I heard by him, and the one that is still my favourite, is Night Flight. Like the Adagio for Strings it’s actually part of another work, his Symphony No 2, a work he revised twice but, unsatisfied with the results, he finally withdrew it. He did, however, rescue the second movement which had been inspired by the novel Night Flight by Antoine de Saint Exupéry who is best remembered for his novella, The Little Prince. The work is slow and subdued, and sounds like an elegy for the doomed flyers, pulled to climb up by the calm of the starry night above but trapped by the unforgiving storm below. A repeated piano note suggests the radio beacon calling helpless in the night. I had always assumed it was birds flying at night. In the original work, commissioned by the U.S. Army Air Forces (which he had joined in 1943), Barber introduced an electronic instrument imitating radio signals for air navigation, an effect replaced in the revised version by an E-flat clarinet, and then a piano which is the version I prefer. This is from the revised 1947 version:

Usually I’m wary about composers who incorporate electronics into classical compositions. My first experience was Stockhausen’s Kontakte (five years or so before the first commercial synthesiser became available) and you’ve never heard anything like it:

Electronics have come on a long way since then and I’m not just talking about Switched-On Bach, the album released in 1968 by Wendy Carlos in which we got to hear classics played on synthesisers for the first time. Here’s Mothership by Mason Bates with a short introduction by the composer:

When we were at school we weren’t exposed to a great deal of American music apart from Copland. I knew names – Virgil Thomson, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions – but that was about it, but I was definitely drawn to learn more about American composers. The same goes for female composers. At school I could only name a handful of contemporary women composers, all British as it happens – Thea Musgrave, Elisabeth Lutyens and Elizabeth Maconchy – but it was many years before I heard anything by them. I knew of Robert Schumann’s wife Clara whose own career was subsumed by her husband’s and I knew of Imogen Holst who concentrated on recording and editing the music of her father to the detriment of her own work, and I’ve recently discovered Doreen Carwithen who acted as secretary and amanuensis to her husband William Alwyn and only returned to her own work after his death and damn good work it is too. I’m delighted to introduce you to the second movement of her Piano Concerto:

I won’t say I have a large collection of works by female composers but I have always gone out of my way to listen to them and to buy them when I could afford them. Often their work appears on compilation albums which is where the single piece I have by Imogen Holst resides but I’m pleased to say that more complete CDs featuring women like Elena Kats-Chernin are beginning to appear and at affordable prices thanks to record labels like Naxos and it’s them I have to thank for introducing me to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first female composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Here’s her Concerto Grosso featuring some interesting graphics and a definite nod to both Copland and Handel:

A few years ago I found myself asking a question of myself: How many Australian composers can you name? I came up with none. Actually I knew two, Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen's Music from 1975 until his death in 2003, and Percy Grainger, who arranged the English folk tune Country Gardens for orchestra; I had assumed both were English. After that I was stuck and so I started buying up the stuff – at the time I was flush and was ordering the CDs straight from Australia – and that was where I first learned of Kats-Chernin. But there are a lot more. Less than I imagined – one tends to forget that the majority of population crowd around the coast – but there were a few treasures there including Nigel Westlake, Ross Edwards, Peter Sculthorpe, Carl Vine and also the New Zealander, Douglas Lilburn. Sculthorpe is the best known internationally and the one I took to and bought most of. Here’s a marvellous (and typical) piece, Earth Cry:

When I was young I was attracted to dynamic music and usually by Russians like Prokofiev or Shostakovich, the popular ones. Only later did I start investigating lesser known Russians like Edison Denisov, Reinhold Glière, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Vasily Kalinnikov and Mieczysław Weinberg who, according to one reviewer at least, is regarded as, "the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich." But one of the most dynamic composers I came across early on was actually a Hungarian, Béla Bartók, and I fell for him in a big way. The opening movement to his Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta gets used quite often as a backing track on TV and in films (Kubrick used it in The Shining) and it is an astounding work once you get into it, even if the start is a bit messy – and by ‘messy’ I mean polyphonic. Here, however, is the last movement:

As I’ve grown older I’ve found myself drawn to quieter pieces and a group of composers generally referred to as Minimalists including Steve Reich, John Adams, Michael Nyman, Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt although I veer toward the mature output of each of them. I would think that Nyman is probably the best known for his soundtrack to The Piano but my favourites are Pärt and Glass especially. Here’s the track ‘The Sacrifice’ from The Piano:

Nyman has since worked the music into a bona fide concerto which I own. Glass, like Nyman, is part of a modern breed of composers that are as comfortable writing for the silver screen as they are for the concert hall. In the next part of this indulgence I’m going to talk more about the film composers I love, but in the meantime here’s something by Glass, the first movement to his Violin Concerto No 1 which I think is probably my favourite violin concerto of all time, although I also rank the Barber and the Khachaturian. This is not to dismiss the others out there like the Beethoven, the Brahms or the Sibelius and I have copies of them all, along with a lot of others, but these are the ones I particularly connect with:

Modern piano concertos struggle to hold their own against the Romantics, I’m afraid. Again I have a soft spot for both the Barber and the Khachaturian but the Beethoven (No 5), the Brahms (Nos 1 and 2), the Grieg, the Tchaikovsky (No 1) and the Rachmaninoff (Nos 2 and 3) are hard acts to follow. And I’m not even going to mention the Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. The Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is well worth a listen, as is the Concerto for Piano 3 Hands and Orchestra by Malcolm Arnold, but here’s a far gentler offering by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar:

Symphonies? Christ, where do I start? The list is enormous. The first I ever listened to was Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 ‘Pastoral’ on an old reel to reel recorder. I still have the tapes so I guess I still have the symphony, but I listened to it over and over and over again and completely sickened myself of it. If I had to choose a single symphony by Beethoven to recommend, it would actually be his Eighth Symphony because it tends to get overshadowed by the Ninth and the Seventh. His Fifth is still remarkably resilient, I have to say. On the whole, if you’re only just getting a feel for classical music I’m not sure that you want to dive into symphonies first of all; concertos are more accessible. That said, a lot of contemporary composers don’t bother with what they think are old-fashioned terms like ‘symphony’ and ‘concerto’. Harmonium by John Adams is a choral symphony in all but name and Burleske, by Richard Strauss, is effectively a piano concerto.

If you are keen for a few contemporary symphonies to have a go at, I might suggest Alan Hovhaness, one of the great twentieth century symphonists. He has written 67 numbered symphonies; 43 of them after his sixtieth birthday. Interestingly Havergal Brian, the English composer, also wrote most of his 32 symphonies late in life; 14 in his eighties and another 7 in his nineties. The world record, by the way, belongs to the American, Rowan Taylor, who composed 265 although the Finn, Leif Segerstam, at 244, is catching up fast, although I’ve not heard anything by either of them. Back to Hovhaness: He’s probably best known for his work And God Created Great Whales which integrates whale song into the actual composition much like Rautavaara did with his Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra or as Respighi did with Pines of Rome which incorporates a record­ing of a nightingale at the end of the third movement. Here is the opening to his Symphony No 22 ‘City of Light’:

I mentioned the New Zealander Douglas Lilburn earlier. His output is not huge – some composers like Ruggles and Varèse produced very little, usually because they were perfectionists – but it includes three excellent symphonies. Here’s the opening to his First Symphony:

In Britain we have a fine collection of symphonists: Vaughan Williams (9), Malcolm Arnold (9), Rubbra (11), Rawsthorne (3), Bax (7), Britten (2) and most of the others had a crack at one. Holst actually wrote three, but he’s one of those composers whose entire oeuvre tends to get overshadowed by the existence of a single great work, in his case, the orchestral suite, The Planets. The same goes for Carl Orff with his cantata Carmina Burana ('O Fortuna' has numerous pop culture references, the Old Spice ads in the UK jumping first to mind). Symphonic poems are actually quite a good way to get into purely orchestral music because there is a big descriptive element – symphonies can be a bit abstract I suppose (the more popular term is absolute music) – but when you sit down to listen to piece of music like Gershwin’s An American in Paris or Michael Easton’s An Australian in Paris you know there’s a story or programme which is why they get classified as programme music. Some of the best known pieces in the classical repertoire tell a story. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote many short pieces of program music which he called tone poems. His most famous are probably the Danse Macabre (the title music to Jonathan Creek) and The Carnival of the Animals. Then there’s Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list here. Bax’s Tintagel is an all-time favourite of mine:

Needless to say this little meander through some of my favourite pieces of classical music has barely scratched the surface. What I hope is that it has piqued your interest to investigate further. There are loads of clips in YouTube, most of which I have no doubt are infringing somebody’s copyright, but if you can live with that then you can get to try before you buy. Also, often the composers’ own sites have decent clips. (I recommend you check out this page on Scottish composer Malcolm Lindsay’s site, especially his CD Solitary Citizen – one of my wife’s favourites.) Granted, just because you find one piece you like doesn’t mean you’ll love everything that composer wrote – some of the early works by Glass (e.g. Einstein on the Beach) will drive you to total distraction with their repetitiveness (don’t let the first movement, ‘Knee 1’, fool you – see how long you can tolerate ‘Knee 3’), but his two works based on the albums by David Bowie and Brian Eno, the Low Symphony and Heroes Symphony are a good starting point – his first and fourth symphonies respectively – but personally I prefer his Second and Third Symphonies.

As I’ve grown older I’ve also found myself drawn back to older composers that, in my youth, I skipped over in favour of the more adventurous twentieth century composers. I’ve just had to work my way back to the Bachs, if you’ll pardon the pun. Music plays constantly in this house. All kinds. I often spend a whole day listening to one composer, working my way through the symphonies of Sibelius or only listening to nothing but Baltic composers. Or choral music. Or string quartets. Or works for solo piano.

To start you off on your journey here is a page compiled by the site Meet the Composer providing links to dozens upon dozens of contemporary composers’ personal sites.

Oh, and what am I listening to this very second? Nino Rota’s Harp Concerto.


Art Durkee said...

I write music in total silence, often on the porch or outdoors, so there's ambient noise. But i need silence to hear the music in my head, so that I can write it down.

I can write poems or song lyrics almost anywhere. To date I have written probably a dozen or so poems and song lyrics while driving on the interstate. A lyric or a song can come to me anytime, anywhere, which is why I always keep a small notebook and pen in my shirt pocket. Just in case.

Jim, you're probably one of the few people I know who knows as much classical music as I do, probably in some areas more than I do. I liked seeing "Tintagel" mentioned, which is a great piece of music that lots of folks don't know about. My own tastes in classical veer more towards the modernist than the Romantic, usually, but I appreciate it all.

I listen to a lot of music when I'm driving, or when I'm working around the house doing chores. I listen to certain specific kinds of music, and pieces of music, when I'm in certain moods, because the music helps that move along and get unstuck. Music can be cathartic for me, more therapeutic than anything else. Music is central to my life, and my soul belongs to music more than anything else. I'm very sensitive to environmental noise.

I spend a lot more time in silence than I used to. I don't listen to music much at all when writing, anymore. I like to be able to hear those inner voices as clearly as possible, and usually that means no music on. My person who comes to dust and vacuum for me once a week says I'm the quietest house she works in, because unlike most people I don't have the radio or TV on all the time simply to fill the silence, for background noise. I don't do that. I find background noise more irritating than helpful. Because I'm sensitive to sound, I always listen.

In fact the only thing I can "tune out" as background noise is classical music—because I grew up with it, because I've played it all my life, because in my house my mother was a piano teacher and player and my dad an opera buff, there was always classical music on. So it's so familiar to me, so "normal," that I can tune it out if I want to. I usually still prefer silence, though.

So I don't really listen to any music when I write. Unless there is a specific connection between what I'm writing that might be fueled by a specific music—like if I'm writing a CD review I listen to it as I write—then I write in silence.

I agree with you about vocal music: I can't listen to words when writing words, because they get in the way. That's particularly distracting.

When I'm making visual art, I do listen to music. What I listen to is eclectic and wide-ranging, and is as likely to be classical avant-garde as Springsteen or Shriekback.

I often play certain kinds of meditative music when I fall asleep. Particular favorites are the series of "Tibetan Bells" recordings by Wolff & Hennings. I also use Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" (Op. 37). Ambient new age or meditation or sacred music, in other words.

There are whole periods of time when the only music I can listen to is my own pieces, that I've written and recorded myself. Those are periods in which I need to be clear of all other sounds, so I can hear my inner music better. Often this happens when I'm starting a creative project, and really need to focus on my own voices, rather than the voices of others.

There's a lot more I could say, but I'll stop there for now.

Jim Murdoch said...

When I composed, Art, it was always at the keyboard. I was—still am—so jealous of those composers who could sit at a desk and write music the way I might write a poem. I still have an old keyboard but I haven’t touched it in years. I did play around with Noteworthy Composer a few years back which was fun but it’s so time consuming. I had a go on a trial version of Sibelius too but I would have to give up everything else to be able to devote the time I’d need to learn how to use it properly. I’d rather make time to learn how to use the DSLR Carrie bought me which I can barely remember how to turn on.

When I had a car I always went in armed with a pile of tapes—never had a car that plays CDs and haven’t owned a car for about twenty years now—and that’s when I got to play all my vocal stuff. I miss playing it because I could write a post every bit as long talking about the rock and pop music I appreciate: I have fond memories of sitting in a van on Princes Street in Edinburgh playing AC/DC as loud as my ghetto blaster would go and of driving across Fenwick Moor playing Jim Steinman’s ‘Surf’s Up’ over and over again and of hearing Marillion for the first time on the way into Glasgow and stopping by Central Station to buy the album there and then. And then there’s the folk and jazz which could take up another post and another one for the electronica and one more for all the bits and bobs. I have written a second post concentrating on soundtracks. As I did with this post I restricted myself pretty much to younger composers and only mentioned the greats like Steiner, Rota and Waxman to show where people like Elfman were influenced and the next thing I knew I was running out of space.

People sometimes wonder whether it would be worse to go deaf or blind (as if any of us will ever have a choice in the matter) and I have to say that would be a tough call for me. I could live not writing—I have a respectable body of work behind me and I’m sure I’d be still able to knock out a few short poems—but to never hear music again makes me shudder. We’ve been watching the new series of Hawaii Five-0 recently. I can’t say I’m terribly impressed; it’s fun and glossy but give me Criminal Minds any day of the week. But I just love the theme music and every time the show starts—every single time—I get shivers listening to it; I just love that.

I’ve never tried going to sleep to music but I did try setting a timer so that I could wake listening to music of my choice and not what the radio threw at me. I’ve not listened to the radio for easily fifteen years and so have to rely on the TV to keep me up to date on who’s who these days and since the sad demise of Top of the Pops ,which I would still watch were it on, there are a lot of new acts whose names I know and nothing more; I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever heard Lady Gaga or Estelle even sing.

There really isn’t much when it comes to music that I won’t listen to. I don’t have much patience for rap (unless Debbie Harry is doing it) or opera. I can enjoy the odd aria—who doesn’t like ‘Nessun dorma’?—but I couldn't sit through a whole opera (and I have tried because I hate being beaten) especially if the libretto is in English. My jaw fell to the floor the first time I heard an English opera—probably Benjamin Britten—it was just laughable. It reminded me of the kind of stuff Morecambe and Wise would sing sending opera up. But choral music is okay. Love it, in fact.

As you say there is a lot more I could say but enough for now. You get the idea.

Art Durkee said...

I do compose at the piano sometimes, but it's mostly to check that what I'm hearing in my head is what I'm actually writing down. I improvise a lot at the piano; one or two improvisations over the years have become notated and/or recorded pieces. But yeah, I do mostly sit at the porch table for writing music, because I can hear it in my head. Sorry. :)

I want to re-read and reply to this long and involving essay of yours in more detail, but I also don't want to monopolize your comments, so I'll come back later.

One little nit-pick: Bach is technically of the Baroque era, not the Classical. Even though he lived into that latter era, he was always writing in the "old style," which made his work less popular in some circles as a result.

Jim Murdoch said...

Quite right, Art. I should have caught that myself. Bach now replaced by Schubert.

Dave King said...

I find there is a great deal of overlap here between your experience and my own. I began to interest myself in classical music somewhere around the age of ten or eleven. Like you, I don't know why I chose classical, but I did.

I started with Beethoven, acquired a few records of his music and never really looked back or looked for anything else - until, that is, well into my thirties when I was involved in a schools T.V. project as part of the production team. Working at the schools T.V. centre I was introduced to Led Zeppelin and became very passionate about his music. I had meanwhile developed an equally passionate liking for the work of Benjamin Britten.

Since then I have been taken very much by the music of Cage, Barber and Glass, all of whom you mention.

I do not usually write to a musical accompaniment, but do like to read to one and find it especially helpful if I am studying.

A humdinger of a post, Jim, I look forward with great anticipation to part two.

Dave King said...

I have now realised that I seem to have said that I never really looked for anything other than Beethoven's music! That is not what I meant. I meant to say other than classical music.

Jim Murdoch said...

As far British composers go, Dave, I have quite a list whose work I appreciate beginning with Holst. One of the first LPs I bought was Sir Adrian Boult’s recording of The Planets and an austere interpretation it is too quite unlike the dynamic versions that came later (I’m thinking Karajan and Bernstein) and for years you’d think that was the only thing the man wrote. I have several albums of his music now and am rather fond of his choral works. Vaughan Williams was the next big discovery—the Tallis Fantasia—and for years I held all string writing I encountered up to him and it wasn’t till I discovered Barber that I found someone who could satisfy me as much. It wasn’t long before I’d worked my way through all the British pastoral composers. Britten never impressed me much (bar The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra), and the same is true of Walton. I have major works by both men which I listen to but none of it ever sticks. I’ll listen to anyone though and there’s nothing I love more than discovering a composer I’ve never heard of. The sad fact is that even just looking at the UK there are plenty whose works have hardly been recorded and even some quite well known composers or they have but only on expensive labels and the simple fact is I’ll buy three Naxos CDs to one Chandos any day of the week. With the exception of the Naxos the majority of my collection is second-hand. Dirty and cracked cases can be replaced.

I was never a huge Led Zeppelin fan—Deep Purple were my great love—but I like them well enough. I won some prize at school and got a gift token which I was advised to spend and bring the book (they were quite specific) in for the award ceremony so I could be handed it back with the appropriate sticker inserted therein. I bought Twenty Four Caret Purple with my certificate and was made to take it home and bring back one of my existing books; they did not consider an LP a suitable item to hand over at the presentation; one has to wonder what they would have said had I bought an album by some classical composer and not a rock band.

Art Durkee said...

Schubert is a great choice. His writing straddles the Classical and Romantic periods, as does Beethoven's. Anyone who has ever written for (or been interested in studying) choral music or music for solo voice and piano needs to study Schubert. He was one of the originators of the "art song" or "lieder" tradition, solo voice and piano, and remains one of the great exemplars. A great deal of Schubert's best writing is in his smallest-scale pieces, like his songs.

The art-song tradition is still going strong. Robert Schumann was a great songwriter. Ned Rorem in the 20th C. was a great American song composer, and Leonard Bernstein has yet to receive his proper respect as a great composer of art-songs; Bernstein's settings of Walt Whitman poems are terrific.

I humbly place myself in that tradition, now, having written a major choral work that has at least a few lieder in it, in various styles. I intend to do more of this genre of music, too. I like writing smaller-scale music, rather than symphonies, in part because it's more likely to get performed. I've written a symphonic-scale work which sank without notice; I'm sure I'm not alone in that. Chamber music is cheaper to perform.

Bartok needs to be better known. His solo piano music is as good as his orchestral work. I think many people would really like his opera, "Bluebeard's Castle," which is a magnificent work.

My two favorite Rachmaninoff pieces are "Isle of the Dead," one of the great tone-poems, inspired as it was by the Boecklin painting, and his "Vespers," which is a brilliant piece of a capella choral music based on Russian Orthodox chants.

I like Benjamin Britten a lot. I've done a number of his pieces, including of course several performances of "A Ceremony of Carols." I think most of Britten's best writing is his choral writing, songs, and his operas. The Cello Sonata is also great. What I like about Britten is his willingness to explore, and to break the rules about what categories people think classical music is supposed to stay compartmentalized in. His chamber opera for church performance, "Curlew River," is a masterpiece of small-scale opera; it is heavily influenced in style by Japanese Noh drama, and uses a lot of dramatic musical techniques atypical in opera. The "War Requiem" is a masterpiece of 20th C. music, basically being an oratorio that combines the Requiem Mass with settings of poems by Wilfred Owen, the great young poet who was killed in WW I. Britten also has a wonderful setting of "The Ugly Duckling" as a long piece for boy soprano and piano.

John Cage's music remains largely misunderstood. While he was an iconoclast, it wasn't because he was trying to tear classical music down, it was because he was trying to expand beyond it, and explore new sonic ideas and materials. He's of the category of Marshall McLuhan and Marcel Duchamp, in some ways: great thinkers about art and media and culture whose ideas everyone has encountered, and must deal with, even if they don't know where those ideas came from.

One of the most subversive and funny of early 20th C. composers was Erik Satie. He was in some ways an early performance artist, he invented "furniture music" which was a direct influence on ambient music as invented by Brian Eno and others, and his piano music is a delight to play. It's deceptively simple, and really quite deep. Satie's sense of humor in his music was ultimately an influence on Frank Zappa, too.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m afraid I have little tolerance for lieder, Art; it’s just opera without the advantage of an orchestra to drown out the singing. On the whole—I’m not sure if I mentioned this in the article—I tend to prefer orchestral music to chamber pieces. I’ll listen to anything and if I see a CD of string quartets by some up until that point unknown composer from the back of beyond if it’s cheap enough I’ll buy it and, of course, I have all of Bartók’s and Beethoven’s late quartets. After that it has to be something special like Schubert’s Death and the Maiden but even there I prefer the orchestral version arranged by Franz Schreker; I’ve not heard the versions by John Foulds and Andy Stein but I would love to. It’s the same with Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, I prefer the orchestral version to the original sextet.

Naxos have a number of CDs of Ned Rorem’s music but I steered clear of the one of his selected songs. I have one with three symphonies and another featuring The End of Summer but I see they’ve now released three CDs of his concertos which I must investigate: so much music, so little pocket money.

I have all Bartók’s major orchestral works and I have sat through some of Bluebeard's Castle but couldn’t last to the end. It’s not as if I don’t give opera a chance because I do and it really doesn’t matter how much I love the composer as soon as the singers open their gobs I lose interest. I’m much the same with Rachmaninov in fact without checking I couldn’t even tell you if he wrote any operas and it’s not that long since I watched a long documentary about him on BBC4; if he did write any I’ve blocked it. I heard once a version of Wagner’s The Ring sans vocals; that was interesting.

Cage I need to listen to more of. My problem there is that his output is not small and without knowing what one’s getting into (and with Cage you really can’t be sure) I tend to play safe and go for someone I’m pretty sure I will like. I have his works for prepared piano which I enjoy but I couldn't tell you what else I’ve heard over the years because a lot of his titles aren’t exactly that memorable either; the same goes for Feldman.

Everyone knows Satie’s piano music. Well, to be fair, everyone knows Gymnopédies and possibly Gnossiennes. I bought a CD that included a lot of other stuff none of which really impressed me that much. There was one piece that refused to end and I was reminded of a piece Dudley Moore performed once that just tagged on ending after ending. I think Satie was probably the first composer who got across to me the notion that music could be fun. I’d always considered classical music to be something serious—which much of it is—and I internalised my enjoyment (the idea of playing air guitar to Beethoven is plain ridiculous although I have ‘conducted’ him after a fashion) but now I’m not so stuffy and get quite a kick out of pieces like Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand Grand Festival Overture (featuring three vacuum cleaners and a floor polisher) or Symphony No. 5½, A Symphony for Fun by Don Gillis. And, of course, so much of Ives’ music is fun too: seriously, who else would think to blow a raspberry at the end of a symphony? Mind you Arnold comes close in one of the Scottish Dances.

And, finally, Zappa. Now there is a fellow I seem to have missed out on. Not quite sure what I’ve heard but he’s certainly an acquired taste. We have Apostrophe (well Carrie does) but I think that’s about it. I do remember the first time I heard him—which would be thirty years ago at the same time as I discovered Tangerine Dream and The Velvet Underground—and I was blown away but I don’t know what LP is was and I’ve never run across it since.

Art Durkee said...

Knowing your classical and humor leanings, if I were to recommend some Zappa to start with, I'd say:

Sheik Yerbouti

Jazz From Hell

FZ Meets the Mothers of Prevention

The latter two show his Varere influence, and were done on the Synclavier in part so he could get his more experimental stuff going. There's also a couple of late and posthumous orchestral versions that you might like, such as

The Yellow Shark

Regarding vocal music, I can understand a certain amount of dislike. Maybe I've been lucky to have always been exposed to great singing rather than painful or mediocre singing. I know it's taste, but it's also understandable if some kinds of music just hurt out ears. I listen to very little Wagner. My favorite Toscanini quote of all time goes: "Wagner has some wonderful moments . . . And some dreadful half-hours." I totally agree.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ll keep a note of those Zappa albums, Art and see if I can find cheap copies. Final comment on art songs and opera: I really hate to be beaten by stuff like this. It’s why I persist with composers like Gloria Coates with her interminable glissandi—no one can make an orchestra groan like she can—because I want to get it. I refuse to believe that I’m being conned and that every instance of avant garde music or literature of art is someone trying to get one over on me. There are too many people who pay good money to sit for three or four hours listening to opera and not avant garde opera, run of the mill opera, Verdi or Puccini; there must be something I’m not getting (and would appear to be incapable of getting which really irks). But it doesn’t look likely that I’m going to run out of other stuff to listen to any time soon or ever. I can live without opera (and lieder and rap) and if I never heard any death metal again that might not be a bad thing.

bruce dorlova said...

when writing, IF i listen while i write (probably less than 30% of the time) i choose music i know very well, and keep the volume way down. i find then that lyrics (when present) dont intrude on, but can inform, whatever i'm writing. i once wrote a short story (less than 1500 wds)over the course of three or four days (daze?) by putting Pärt's "Cantus for Benjamin Britten" on repeat - it had just the right sparcity & mood that i was trying to achieve. occasionally, something i'm listening to (or just hearing, which is of course a whole other thing), whether i know it well or not, will spark the 'a-ha' moment, and induce the frantic search for pen & paper - interesting, if one happens to be hurtling down the motorway at the time...

Jim Murdoch said...

Probably not much Pärt I’ve not heard, Bruce, and not much I don’t like, even his earlier pieces, but probably my favourite CD of his music was released under the title Alina by ECM Records in 2000. There are five tracks:

      1. Spiegel im Spiegel (violin version)
      2. Für Alina
      3. Spiegel im Spiegel (cello version)
      4. Für Alina
      5. Spiegel im Spiegel (violin version)

Never seen a release like it before but it works. One of our cockatiel’s favourite albums along with the soundtrack to The Hours and Aerial by Kate Bush. Like most people the first thing I heard by him was the Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten followed quickly by Fratres.

Estonia is blessed with a number of interesting composers and I have a few albums by Veljo Tormis, Eduard Tubin, Lepo Sumera and Erkki-Sven Tüür; all worth a listen.

bruce dorlova said...

Jim, i have "Alina", and return to it often. i love the different interpretations and voices. the first, violin voiced version of 'spiegel' has such frailty, such fragile humanity. the cello voice seems older, wiser, more knowing and accepting. i find his composition exquisitely poetic, and aspire to write something, ANYthing that has an ounce of such beauty...

i'll chase down the other composers you mention - thanks for the headsup.

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re right, Bruce, and I’ve always been a fan of minimalism; it is so much harder than it looks to pull off than people imagine. Its why I enjoy Beckett’s later plays because they have all the fat trimmed off and only what absolutely needs to be said and done is left; pure distillation. It’s what I aim for in my own poetry and I guess that’s why I write so little of it these days because I’m never happy to say what I mean—anyone can say what they mean—I need to say it right. Besides I’ve already said so much and so, if I have anything more to say, it needs to be refined.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to share a recollection that emerged as I was reading this. Apparently an attempt was made to play Cage's 4’33” on commercial television. After 30 seconds the station alarms starting going off and the test pattern cut in. An attempt was made to reset and restart with a pattern override but as I recall it failed and the full 4’33” ended up being left to play under the test pattern.

Come to think of it that sounds like what happened to my state of mind when I turned my hand to writing and turned off the music so that I could concentrate.

Jim Murdoch said...

That reminds me of a time I asked to listen to the radio in the car while my parents were there. The work was by Charles Ives, Central Park in the Dark. After a few minutes my mother complained about the noise to which my dad replied that the piece hadn’t started and we were just listening to the orchestra tuning up. Needless to say we’d been listening to the actual music from the very beginning; it wasn’t a live recording, there was no tuning up. I can only imagine their faces if they could hear what I’m listening to just now: Mothertongue by Nico Muhly. My wife’s just said to me, “No redeeming features whatsoever.”

Senetra said...

This actually made me think about when I write best. Music all kinds is the oil to my imagination. It helps me see what I want to write, but I have to write in silence or my ideas continue to create and I can't focus on getting the story out. Thank you for the knowledge. I got hooked on classical when it was the only station that I could get on my radio at work. I'm glad it was because it is a beautiful form of music.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your comment, Senetra. Sorry to take so long to respond but your comment was awaiting moderation and I hadn’t checked there for months. (Google really could make it a bit clearer when comments need moderating.) I don’t know if you caught it but I posted a follow-up to this post which might interest you.

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