The Benjamin Britten centenary year has ended, yet I feel I’ve only just begun. I know far too little of Britten’s work and hoped to use the opportunity to hear as much as possible live. I toyed with going to the Aldeburgh Festival, only to discover that an ostensible fox (Pierre Laurent-Aimard) had been let into the chicken coop. Aimard is a magnificent pianist and fiercely fine proponent of thorny modern works, but as Artistic Director of the Festival, what could it portend? In 2010, Alex Ross wrote of him:
. . . Aimard’s view of modernity suffers from myopia: Ligeti, Xenakis, Carter, Boulez, Kurtág, Birtwistle, and Lachenmann keep appearing. If we are to be limited to the modernist strain—at Aldeburgh, Aimard has yet to play a note of Benjamin Britten, who founded the festival—let’s at least hear more composers under the age of seventy. Aimard’s programs should be, in a word, more polyphonic.
In the event, attending the Festival in person proved a bridge too far. There was, of course, plenty on offer in New York City, notably at Trinity Church, all of which I missed. In an utter failure of good intentions, I made it to only one performance in New York City that featured a Britten work, the magnificent Sinfonia da Requiem. As small compensation, I rushed off to the Maverick Concert series in Woodstock for a concert of works for string quartet auspiciously entitled “Britten in Britain.”
The concert was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Only one of the four pieces on the program was Britten’s, String Quartet No. 3, tucked in just before intermission as if it were a risky premiere of a dubious new work. (The program began with Elgar and ended with that well-known Englishman Beethoven.) What I remember most, and not fondly, was the inclusion, after intermission, of a piece by Harrison Birtwistle, to which the performers seemed particularly drawn.
Neil Powell, in his biography, Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, recounts the story of Britten’s reaction upon hearing Birtwistle’s opera, Punch and Judy. Britten “had supported Birtwistle’s successful application for a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton,” and wrote that he was “exceedingly interested to hear about your projected new opera.” [Powell 416] Actually hearing it was another matter. “[T]he opera illustrated a central aesthetic dilemma for Britten, who wanted to support new music but found much of the 1960s avant-garde unendurable.” [Powell 416]
Britten later said, in response to a question from an interviewer,
. . . that there should be new directions is obvious. Any new thought, in whatever language it’s couched, has got to have this new element. But I sometimes feel that seeking after a new language has become more important than saying what you mean.
Britten went on to allude to the Birtwistle opera, noting it was odd that the “young composer” (left unnamed) “didn’t want to go and see how Mozart solved his problems.” [Powell 416-17]
I am reminded by this passage of Shostakovich’s advice to Valentin Bertinsky, cellist of the Borodin Quartet. Bertinsky told Shostakovich of meeting the composer Luigi Nono, “who had promised to write us a quartet.”
On this occasion, Dmitri Dmitriyevich suddenly went glum. Then he said, “Tell me, have you played all the Haydn Quartets?”
“No, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, of course not.”
“Well, please play all the Haydn Quartets, then all the Mozart Quartets, then all of Schubert’s Quartets. Only then should you play Luigi Nono’s music.” [Wilson 282]
Shostakovich’s statement strikes me as a bit absolutist, but I take his point. Britten couches his concern more diplomatically, though it’s to the same effect. I can’t altogether share their views, but, when it comes to 20th and 21st century music, which is where I want to continue to concentrate my listening, these observations highlight my own conundrum: how should I spend my musical time in 2014? Hardest of all is 21st century music: what composers and ensembles should I follow, and what live performances should I try to attend?
For recorded music, I give myself a monthly budget for the purchase of CDs. I’ve determined, after costly mistakes, not to buy a CD unless I can preview the music—and not just iTunes snippets—to decide what to purchase. That, for me, most often means Spotify, which many composers justly dislike for the miniscule payments per play. I decry that, too, and hope the continuing outcry will result in a better system. Meanwhile, it’s what I’ve got, and I depend on it. For live music, the question is what ensembles, programmers, and composers to follow. With the outstanding exceptions I’ve noted on Prufrock’s, that has been a considerable challenge.
I don’t like to stay with what I know, so I seized on year-end lists for 2013 from respected reviewers who cover 20th and 21st century music in depth and located recommended works available on Spotify to discover suggestions I might pursue. After a dispiriting morning of listening to samples from the lists, I gave it up. Was this music I was listening to, or musical curiosities created by means of strange effects?
By my lights, Shostakovich and Britten had it more right than wrong. The way I’d put it is this: “making it new” shouldn’t be the goal, but rather “making it your own.” There is far too much music that overuses extended techniques, batteries of percussion, and electronics in an endless desire to produce novel effects. On the other hand, there is too much music that sounds like warmed-over minimalism or otherwise planes down any sharp edges in a doomed effort to entice the popular music audience to come aboard.
I don’t want music the goal of which is either to “make it strange” or “make it tame.” What I do want is music that communicates directly and authentically from the heart and soul and creative intelligence of its composer and performers. Composer David Lang once said:
The point of making music is to communicate something. It’s to say “I have something I want to tell you, and I’m going to build a doorway so you can get to it.” And sometimes it’s interesting to build a door that a million people can go through. And sometimes you go with a door that a hundred people can go through. But if you’re not going to build a door, there’s no point in doing it.
I know I’ll not always be able to get through the door, but I’ll be continuing, in the coming year, to seek out new music that at least offers me the chance.
Postscript: I want to thank everyone who joined in here and elsewhere to make this the rich and thought-provoking discussion it has become. It may be at some point I’ll try to collect my further thoughts and write another post—it’s just such a fraught venture! For now, here’s a postscript. On the subject of experimentation, springing from Mark Kerstetter’s astute and lively observations, I don’t find the problem in contemporary music is experimentation per se (and, in fact, the “tame,” as I’ve noted, is just as much an issue for me as “the strange”). But on the issue of “the strange,” I think Mark has expressed it well with this: “I don’t have much taste for artists who are in love with strangeness for its own sake” (and his caveat is well-taken, too).
That’s very much akin, I think, to the statement from Britten that resonated with me so much: “I sometimes feel that seeking after a new language has become more important than saying what you mean.” Even though Britten was speaking about music in his own time, and particularly, I believe, what might loosely be called academic high modernism, I think a version of the issue holds today. I suppose perhaps it always has, though the problem may be more acute now because there is such a surfeit of everything and so many ways to listen. It’s simply overwhelming without trustworthy guides. (David Nice has proved to be such a guide for me.)
For me, the quest this year, after too many dispiriting wrong turns, is to figure out what the most fertile fields are that I might explore—and I’ve got a long and growing list of those already. But this necessarily means, because time, and my patience, are not infinite, rejecting some avenues of pursuit almost entirely (with some leeway to keep the door open a crack to try again). In this, as always, my guideposts continue to be those I wrote about in the post “What Makes Music Great.” For each person, the answer to that is different, of course. What I love is to discover music that surprises and delights me, and music that, at its very best, I find transporting and profound.
A wonderful site devoted to Britten’s music in honor of the centenary, which includes a compendium of excellent information on Britten’s musical works, may be found here.
For a playlist on Spotify, click here.
String Quartet No. 3 is the last major work Britten completed before he died. The fourth movement, which subtly uses extended techniques, pays homage to Shostakovich, who died in August of the year Britten completed the quartet. In the final movement’s recitative and passacaglia, Britten, with elegant economy, expresses everything that matters.
Jennifer Higdon, Violin Concerto
I was pleased to be alerted to this work by the Q2 Music 2013 countdown list.
Mary Kouyoumdjian, Dzov Yerku Kooynov [Sea of Two Colors]
Kouyoumdjian is a composer I became aware of only recently, through reading about the New Voices, New Music concert at Carnegie Hall. Matthew Mendez’s thoughtful review of her piece, This Should Feel Like Home, performed at the Carnegie Hall concert and conducted by the redoubtable David Bloom, may be found here, and a review of the entire Carnegie Hall concert may be found here. What I’ve heard of Kouyoumdjian’s work has piqued my interest, and I’ve added her to my “watch list” for 2014.
Credits: The photographs in the post may be found here. The quotations are from the links indicated in the text.