Writings on Music

From the Program Note to "A Suite of Curves", 1990

I have recently grown curious about those pieces of music that retain their identity, their meaning, and an important component of their beauty, regardless of instrumentation. For example, consorts, madrigals, Irish jigs and reels, hymns, Bach fugues, Telemann duets, jazz standards and so on.

This kind of music, that survives transcription, is often quite good, even as music goes, and yet is usually accessible to an amateur technique; also, it is very practical when looking for pieces to play with friends.

When writing for Andrew Sweeney and Stephanie Abercromby, I did not constrain myself to writing for amateur techniques; but I did find myself giving thought to the writing of transcribable music.

This particular compositional goal is less striven after by composers than it was, and I had few recent examples to guide me; but though the writing of "A Suite of Curves" was slow, it was also exciting.

The curves of the title depict such as stability and instability, bifurcation and fractal, the constant and the cycle, growth and decay.

From the Program Note to "Trombone Quintet", 1995

The instruments played by these five musicians are so different from each other that I decided for the first time in recent years to enjoy indulging their natures, to have each one speak in its own voice, to choose its own notes for the common purpose.

From the jazz quintet I took the idea of each instrument playing a role in a niche, with a turn in the spotlight; from the orchestra I took the width of range of mood and colour.

My language continues to develop along the path of recent works, not repetitious but with rythmic structure on a range of time-scales.

The piece is not without its serious side, but overall the mood is lighter, clearer; more happy, more human.

A New Approach to Funding Composers

The funding of composers over the last fifty years by state patronage or by integration into the tertiary education system has not provided any price signal which might convey information to the composers of music about the preferences of its readers. As a result, composers have had little incentive to write scores that give a reader sufficient interest and pleasure to make the reading worthwhile. This lack of incentive has noticibly infuenced the music that composers have written over the last fifty years. As a result, musicians who play for pleasure now seek their repertoire in the compositions of bygone eras.

In contrast, the funding of authors by book sales over the same years has resulted in a great period in the art of the novel.

Internet Commerce now makes it possible to re-connect the writers of music to the readers, to provide the price signal that will again allow the composition of music that is a pleasure to read, and that rewards repeated readings.

From the Program Note to "For Piano and a Solo Line", 2008

Of my Three Suites, written in the year 2000, the first is for the solo line, the second is for piano, and the third for solo line and piano. Thus, together, the suites form a kind of happy-ending story; song meets dance, or boy meets girl, or melody meets harmony, whichever way you want to see it.

During 2000 I was recovering from radiotherapy, and the Suites are a sort of invocation of the Spirit of Happy Endings. They remain important to me, though I think some of my subsequent works, such as the Preludes, or the Guitar Duet, are better compositions. All these scores can be downloaded from www.pjb.com.au

Each Suite has three movements (fast-slow-fast), and the outer movements of the Third Suite are marked "Flowing" and "Wild". These are the most technically demanding movements in the Suites, but the difficulties should meet more than their match tonight at the hands of Lloyd Hudson (flute) and Karen Smithies (piano).

Review for Music Forum magazine, 2011, of "Landscape - Australian Guitar Duets", played by The Brew Guitar Duo

    I really enjoyed this CD by Bradley Kunda and Matthew Withers, half of the Guitar Trek quartet. As a duo they play with a great variety of sound and of dynamic range, moving sul tasto and back with good musical purpose, and using vibrato when it's justified rather than when it's convenient. The playing is excellent, tasteful and vigorous.
    A guitar duo is a lovely unit and there should be more of them. It travels well, is socially pleasing, and performs well in small halls, in real, physical stereo. For the composer, it addresses the problem of getting fingers to both ends of the fingerboard simultaneously, and thus reduces the dependance on open strings for the bass notes. I find that decades of listening to the same open strings can become tiring, and thankfully, it doesn't much happen on this CD.
    Nigel Westlake's Songs from the Forest is one of my two favourite pieces here. The opening tune might sound naive, but then the textures and colours vary widely and without losing the pulse or the flow.
    Richard Charlton's Two Guitars Dine Out is unashamedly pastichy, but full of humour, built for fun, and written with confident insight as to what works on guitars. This would be a great crowd-pleaser and deserves to spread fast through the guitar-duo world.
    Bradley Kunda himself wrote Waterlilies, which is my other favourite. Its outlines are blurred, its textures more swirling and cloudy, and it accumulates a lot of tension and magic. Intelligently, it's recorded a little more reverberant than the other pieces. His other piece, Little Dancer of the Gutter, had too many alternations of E minor and C major to cast the same spell over me.
    The other pieces are Robert Davidson's Landscape, Harold Gretton's The Brood You Owe and Phillip Houghton's Three Duets. They're good too, with some enchanting textures, but sections often come to a halt rather than lead onward, there are some long passages on one chord and some stylistic lurches, and sometimes I find the open E's over-present. So I'll stick by my favourites.
    The packaging of the CD and the photography are beautiful. It might be helpful if the track numbers appeared also on the back cover.
    I like this CD and recommend it. So keep an eye on www.brewguitar.com ...

Review for Music Forum magazine, autumn 2012, of Beethoven - Diabelli Variations, played by Gerard Willems, ABC 476 4113

    This is the final CD in Gerard Willems' Beethoven cycle. It is a classical performance, emphasising steadiness, and coherence between the variations rather than contrasts. Its great virtue is clarity. He plays trumps sparingly, especially declining to score knockout-points with prestissimo assaults in the traditional places. It's not a reading which goes straight for the listener's "transcendent" or "cosmic" buttons.
    Willems' Theme is wonderful, revealing the minuet beneath the vivace. The first variation Alla Marcia maestoso, is usually given more forte, interpreting it as Beethoven declaring "all right, get out the way, now it's my turn! ". Here, it seems subdued; perhaps the recorded levels were adjusted after the Theme ?
    Variations V, marked Allegro vivace, and XV, Presto scherzando, and XXV, Allegro assai, are underneath most people's reading of the those tempi. Variations XIX, Presto, and XXI, commencing Allegro con brio, are often played as brilliant contrasts to the slow and mysterious XX, but here they offer it companionship. These tempo decisions are completely defensible, and yet by the end I did feel that continuity had been bought at the price of landmarks.
    But there are rewards; for example Gerard Willems is able to play the final notes of IX, XXIII and XXVI, usually precipitous, even garbled, with a gracefulness which I have not heard there before. Also the last notes of X (fortissimo) and XXV (forte) are beautifully played; it sounds like last notes in general are things that Willems is very alert to. The final fugue - very steady at 4:06 compared with Kovacevic's 2:56 - fares well from the extra clarity of the counterpoint.
    The piano could have benefited from an extra tuning, for example at the treble-clef B, or the E, F, F-sharp and A-flat round the top of the clef. This is unfortunate; it is perhaps the CD's major problem. In the bass, the forte seems to develop a zinginess which I don't remember from the other Stuart piano I have known, and which seems to confuse bass lines, and to limit their power.
    The concluding Andante favori and Für Elise make cute final words for the whole Beethoven cycle, but as a coupling for the Diabelli they're not conspicuously appropriate. The CD does at least give you 12 seconds to find the Pause button after the last variation.
    I was expecting to place this recording somewhere on a spectrum between Gulda and Barenboim, but those co-ordinates don't fit. Perhaps it has the classicism of Gulda, at the average tempo of Barenboim. Lovers of cosmic significance will still want Rudolf Serkin's version, and Steven Kovacevic's blend of the numinous with the alarmingly fast will always remain hard to beat. The particular strength of Willems lies in clear access to Beethoven's notes. If you want to follow in the score, or in August Halm's analysis, or just to listen intently to how those notes fit together, then do check this recording out. One for the Beethoven-connoisseurs, therefore.

Review for Music Forum magazine, autumn 2012, of Mahler Symphony No. 10, completed by Deryk Cooke, played by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, ABC 476-4336, recorded live in the Melbourne Arts Centre in November 2008

    The Tenth is one of Mahler's approach-to-death symphonies, like the terrifying Sixth, which Wigglesworth recorded with the MSO in 2006. It is the journey from first premonitions, through to the drum-stroke that Gustav and Alma heard from their eleventh-floor room by Central Park, dimissing a funeral procession after the oration, and that reduced Gustav to tears.
    This is my first encounter with Mark Wigglesworth's conducting. It's an exciting moment; this is far more than just competent conducting. The style of music-making here is new, and individual to him; and it works wonderfully.
    Every voice is seen as a human voice, not as a sound-effect. Every note is full of detail, shaped with some crescendo or decrescendo; and every phrase is given is given a character, specific to its shape but also to its instrument and register. The expressiveness comes not from vibrato; it comes from shape. The impeccably clear recording displays the conversation more as counterpoint than as durchgebrochene Arbeit.
    It must be exciting for the players to be treated as voices not components, to be asked to deploy the expressive powers of their instruments. In any case it seems to me there is an alertness in the playing here, a committment, beyond normal top professional standard.
    There are five movements, in a symmetrical design. In the opening Andante - Adagio already the opening solo line announces the Wigglesworth style clearly. The even-numbered movements are Scherzos. The big finale, introduced by the famous drum-stroke, is marked Langsam, schwer.
    The first recording was by Eugene Ormandy in 1965. This one totals 77 minutes instead of Ormandy's 70, averaging about three metronome-notches slower, but because of the detail in every phrase it sounds no slower at all.
    The recorded sound is excellent. The violins are more shrill than velvety - perhaps they were miked from above - but that clarity reveals such finely detailed expression that I would have it no other way. Some of the balances are more musically intelligent than realistic, if realism means the middle of the stalls. The difference between mezzo forte and fortissimo is smaller than it would be in reality; I think this comes from spot-miking the solo lines.
    Apart from a few nit-pickings, there's really no improvement I could suggest. Moments of disquiet are still played with scrupulous care for the beauty of the phrase, and this can defuse the disquieting effect; perhaps the hushed, awed end of the palette could be dwelt in longer ? But I hate to suggest this, because it feels like I'm advising Mark Wigglesworth to become more average, and this is the last thing I would want to happen.
    Both conductor and orchestra can be very proud of this clear, vivid, detailed, vigorous, shapely, expressive, highly coloured, moving and beautiful recording.

Review for Music Forum magazine, winter 2012, of Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs, sung by Yvonne Kenny, played by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Johannes Fritzsch, ABC 476-3954, recorded in Brisbane in 2008

    Richard Strauss died at 85 on the 8th September 1949, and Georg Solti conducted the orchestra at his burial. During the singing of the famous trio from Rosenkavalier, "each singer broke down in tears and dropped out of the ensemble, but they recovered themselves and we all ended together." Richard's wife Pauline died on the 13th May 1950, and the Vier letzte Lieder were premiered nine days later by Kirsten Flagstadt and Wilhelm Furtwängler in the Royal Albert Hall.
    'Frühling' remembers youth and passion. This is an unprecedented, exhilarating soprano line, utterly dictating terms to the harmonies.
    In 'September', our hero, in late middle age, contemplates his garden. The garden mourns; the rain sinks cool into the flowers, and the solo horn closes in D major.
    In 'Beim Schlafengehen', the soul, in this case a solo violin, floats happily into the stars, in this case D-flat major.
    'Im Abendrot' is the farewell to Pauline. Two larks, in this case flutes, sing: "The time for sleep is soon; let us not lose our way in this great solitude", and strings and brass sing to an E-flat conclusion.
    The recording by Gundula Janowitz with Karajan in 1973 would still win most polls, even given Flagstadt, Schwarzkopf, della Casa, Pryce, te Kanawa, Norman, Studer, and others; so it must be an intimidating arena to enter. Eleanor Steber also recorded these songs in 1971 at the end of her career; moving, but no longer flawless.
    Johannes Fritzsch's choice of territory is intelligent. His conducting is very steady, and the beginnings and ends of the notes are clear; this gives shape to pieces that are not much differentiated by tempo or texture, and can easily suffer from blurred outlines. The effect is to present Strauss' exciting voice-leading very clearly. In every piece he chooses a relatively fast tempo; I like them all, particularly the passionate tempo of 'Frühling'.
    I don't feel worthy to criticise the voice of an artist of the stature of Yvonne Kenny. I will say that it sounds pushed and somewhat thin, and the vibrato does not bloom into silver as richly as it would have done in earlier years; but the intonation is firm and clear. Some of the consonants are indistinct, so you need to know the poems; but you need that anyway, because every inflexion of harmony or melody flows from the words.
    The identity of this CD is dictated by the Four Last Songs; the other tracks extend the music to 44 minutes but they seem small and unrelated, apart from the inclusion of that trio from the Rosenkavalier. For a full-length CD I'd suggest the Heldenleben, but my ideal pairing would be Metamorphosen, even though that still only totals 50 minutes.
    This recording is an overdue contribution, by a great voice in its later years.

Review for Music Forum magazine, summer 2012, of Mahler Symphony No. 6, played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, SSO 201103, recorded live at the Sydney Opera House in March 2011

    "There is only one Sixth", said Alban Berg. But there are many recordings of it . . .
    The immediately striking feature of this one is the wonderful standard of orchestral playing, and the recording technique does not let it down.
    Ashkenazy's version is vigorous, clear, dry, and steady in tempo. It eschews piani; indeed Mahler's characteristic subito-piano effects seem to be almost missing. It reveals the symphonic shape well, but drives straight through life's little road-blocks as if they were of little concern to the Sixth.
    For example, in the first movement, the lyricism at 2:30 and 6:40 is done with taste and effectiveness, but the threatening brass chord at 6:00 doesn't seem sufficient to reduce the mood to anguish; likewise with the trumpet at 10:26. The strings at 12:00 could cast more magic, maybe the horn could have been quieter ? But beware my prejudices of taste; the unity of the movement is beautifully preserved, which is overridingly important. As is increasingly common these days, the Andante is taken as the 2nd movement and the Scherzo as the 3rd.
    My heart is still with Solti's 1967 recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, which is more dramatic (to be disparaging one could say theatrical). Karajan's classic 1975 version with the Berlin Philharmonic is of course beautiful (to be disparaging one could say beautified), and is shaped with an impeccable long-term control of rhythm. Abbado has recorded the Sixth at least three times; already in 1980 with the Chicago Symphony he is balanced, refined and subtle. Bernstein in 1988 with the Vienna Philharmonic is the most emotional, in any case as intense as Solti. Haitink's 1990 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic is classical. Simon Rattle's 1990 version with the Berlin Philharmonic over-exaggerates details and loses long-term shape. Mark Wigglesworth recorded the Sixth with the MSO in 2006, but, alas, this one I haven't heard.
    Vladimir Ashkenazy with the Sydney Symphony offer us a performance of wonderful quality and intelligence. It is not terrifying, the precious human helplessly facing disaster is not obvious; but it is beautiful, it is firm and it has purpose and energy. Here we listen to great symphonic music. I prefer this version to several of the great classics, and, again, the quality of the execution yields to no-one.

Review for Music Forum magazine, autumn 2013, of The Ring of Bone, the piano music of Elisabeth Lutyens, played by Arabella Teniswood-Harvey, Move Records MD3354.

    Elisabeth Lutyens wrote "no amount of work has enabled me to play the piano better than a typist using one finger." Well, she's exagerating; but these are relatively sparse pieces, gesture-based, often bell-like. On an orchestra any arranger can make single notes sound opulent; on a piano they form introspective, private music, to be heard at close range.
    The piano in this recording is not credited, but it deserved to be; it's a beautiful sound, impeccably tuned (except the treble f goes out in the Seven Preludes), and with a most impressive long sustain.
    This music is gestural, without any beat lasting more than a few seconds, and without many audible barlines (Lutyens disliked barlines). It's probably best not to play the whole CD through all the time, but to adopt just one piece and get to know it well; then the next piece likewise. Best of all would be to get the score and play it; for this is meditative music rather than concert music, best heard from close to the strings.
    The pieces here range from Five Intermezzi (1942) through Three Improvisations (1948), Five Bagatelles (1962), The Ring of Bone (1973) and Seven Preludes (1978) through to La Natura dell'Acqua (1981), becoming more expansive and evolving from a sort of Schoenbergian serialism into a more free-atonal style, thus gradually reversing the leap Schoenberg made around 1920.
    In the english-speaking world, Elisabeth Lutyens is the link between the atonal styles before 1939 and the serialism of the Marshall-Plan era. A product of her class, and of much alcohol, she aged into a eloquent intransigent whose accurate barbs annoyed many influential people. For decades she was shunned for adopting her 'twelve-note' style; in the 1960s she enjoyed a brief period of acceptance, but by the late 1960s, when post-Webern serialism became mandatory, she was looked down upon as belonging to the reactionary fringe.
    Indeed, she did denounce the new norms. In her autobiography A Goldfish Bowl she writes: "The walls in the rooms of my younger confrères of that time appeared to be lined with pages of pre-compositional diagrams, arrows in all directions, blocs sonores and other scaffolding for their contemplated musical edifices. I suddenly became completely bored with all these laborious preparations, dull to do and deadly to listen to."
    I was there, living in musical London in the 1960s and 70s. That crucial period lies now like a gap in our culture, so poorly documented, almost vanished from contemporary performance.
    There is no other recording to compare this one with, and indeed that's the whole point of it. Arabella Teniswood-Harvey has made a very important contribution, a recording that could remain authoritative for decades. This is high-quality playing; firm, clear, and strong, with a beautiful sound over a huge dynamic range.   Thanks and congratulations!   So now, who will revive Lutyens' big pieces ?

You might also be interested in a radio interview with Peter Billam, an old press release, a newspaper article, and collections of favourite quotes or of contributions to mailing lists.

Back to www.pjb.com.au or to www.pjb.com.au/mus . . .