The test of time

There’s a wonderful story in Joel Sachs’ fantastic biography of composer, pianist and musical theorist Henry Cowell, of when he went round to composer Carl Ruggles’ house.

King of Cantankerous Old Man, composer Carl Ruggles aged 132.

“Ruggles was sitting at the old piano, singing a single tone at the top of his raucous composer’s voice, and banging a single chord at intervals over and over. He refused to be interrupted in this pursuit, and after an hour or so, I insisted on knowing what the idea was. “I’m trying over this damned chord,” said he, “to see whether it still sounds superb after so many hearings”.

“Oh”, said I tritely, “time will surely tell whether the chord has any lasting value”.

“The hell with time!” Carl replied. “I’ll give this chord the test of time right now. If I find I still like it after trying over several thousand times, it’ll stand the test of time all right!”

Cowell himself seems to have met everyone, his life touching many cornerstones of turbulent political and cultural change in early 20th century America. However, so far pretty much everything I’ve heard of his so far sounds slightly crap – eg his 1925 piano classic The Banshee in which the pianist wafts fingernails eerily up and down strings under the bonnet to create spooky sounds;

Henry Cowell demonstrating his forearm and fisting combo technique 

(I like the YouTube comment after this Banshee performance:“My music teacher always plays this in awkward silences or when we are doing a test.”)

The tides of Manaunaun (1912), featuring a faintly dodgy Irish folk tune over maximo fortissimo cluster chords employing the left forearm, a subtle technique that impressed Bartok enough to ask Cowell if he might nick it for his own purposes; and the rather sweet Ostinato Pianissimo (1934) for 8 player percussion ensemble that sounds a tad Balinese.

Whatever the limitations of the music itself, his musical thinking is staggeringly innovative, and the scrupulously thought-through ideas about rhythm and harmony laid out in his magnum opus, “New Musical Resources” (begun in 1917, finally published in 1930), and experiments using non-Western instruments, structural techniques and tuning systems in a concert hall setting, were to have a powerful effect on the American musical avant-garde for decades to follow.

The hands of Henry Cowell. My Grade 3 piano teacher Mr. Tickle (sic) would have had things to say.

Conlon Nancarrow, for instance, would refer to this treaty years later as having “the most influence of anything I’ve ever read in music” and there is fair evidence to suggest that Stockhausen would have known Cowell’s bible before writing his seminal work Gruppen (1955) for three orchestras.

There is a piece by Cowell called “Fairy Bells” for piano and ensemble (in my view not worth rushing to iTunes to acquire) which immediately reminded me of the consistently hilarious Nigel Molesworth -“the curse of St. Custards” – books. Alas, Google images wouldn’t render up the Ronald Searle illustration to go with this memorable quote:

‘His piece “Fairy Bells” on the skool piano will never be forgoten by those who hav heard it.’

Sachs’ book is STUFFED with entertaining stories, including unforgettable accounts of games of tennis between Cowell and Schoenberg (in Berlin), who were both more or less hopeless on court.

Arnold Schoenberg, Self Portrait (1935). Inventor of the 12 tone system, “one of the most important composers in history” (Schirmer). Crap at tennis.

And, judging from this pic, perhaps a bit of a downer at parties.

Speaking of early 20th cent avant-garde movers and shakers in America, here’s a story composer Alexander Goehr  told me about Varese who, incidentally, was apparently a total bastard to Cowell who selflessly slaved away to promote American new music only to be rebuffed again and again by the more glamorous Frenchman.

Goehr had gone round to dinner to the Vareses with Italian avant-gardist Luigi Nono and, as a young man anxious to make a good impression, politely asked Varese what his new piece was about:

“Cunts”, replied Le Maitre in his heavily accented French American.

(He was referring to his 1961 piece “Nocturnal”).

Goehr described Varese (above) as “somewhat louche and a tremendous drinker.”

Early 20th century musical America seems to have hosted a fair number of larger than life characters and eccentrics who dug their music straight out of their young country’s earth, free as it was from centuries of western symphonic tradition. Perhaps rather late in the day for someone who’s spent a fair chunk of their professional life playing contemporary classical music, I’ve just been introduced to Harry Partch’s outrageously original music and it has blown me away.

Harry Partch playing his microtonal “cloud chamber” bowls

I’ve long known about his inventions: magnificent instruments made from assorted junk, but had no idea that the music he makes with them is so haunting, compelling, beautiful, strange and utterly unlike anything else. Like Ives and Cowell, he explores untempered tuning systems in sophisticated ways –

– a far cry from the random microtonal splatter gun effect I had to negotiate in my hard core “new complexity” contempo music ensemble years, which left me with rip roaring tendonitis, a love of popping A3 bubble wrap envelopes and an overwhelming longing for tunes.

Betty Freeman‘s (producer) documentary ‘The Dream that Remains” about this radical composer, philosopher, inventor and sometime hobo is well worth a look, although Partch is clearly off his face throughout, (apparently he would only drink hard liquor) and shamelessly queens about:

“This is the blow boy,” he says straight to camera, describing a huge set of bellows that sound a little like an old railroad train horn when activated. “And with this fella,” (indicating a pointy wooden flap thing suspended over a large wooden resonating chamber), “the tongue must always vibrate at the same frequency as the cavity”.

During the Depression, Partch fell on hard times and spent 10 years wandering the country as a hobo, chronicling his experiences in his journal “Bitter Music” and notating vernacular speech he heard along the wayside. His pieces Barstow – Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions and The Letter are moving examples of this: strange, humorous and powerful musical evocations of Depression America.

Partch’s band on set for “The Dreamer that Remains” documentary.

They bring a new dimension to Gay.

One can only speculate how these guys would have gone down had they brought their art to the LSD-zapped Zappa and Sun Ra fans. My guess is that we’d all have heard a LOT more of his music…

Fellow gay American maverick composer John Cage – also influenced by non-western music, non-standard use of instruments and a student of Cowell – was the inspiration behind a bonkers project curated by James Weeks, director of vocal group EXAUDI, for the last day of the Aldeburgh Festival a couple of weeks back.

Members of Exaudi in the Britten Studio as part of Musicircus performing Cage Songbook pieces, assisted by banks of glamorous electronics. 

Cage’s instructions for “Musicircus” (1967) state that the piece is “For any number of musicians being prepared to perform in the same place, playing anything in any way they desire”.

Here I am doing something suitably Fluxun* amidst the fray. How gorgeous of the Exaudi blog to call me a “one-woman Musicircus”. 

Snape Maltings’ impressive Hoffman building was the location for this realisation of Cage’s concept, and not for the first time in this year of Cage’s centenary celebrations, I found myself contributing to chance-led shenanigans, doing a spot of cabaret alongside a Peruvian folk band, live electronics, singer Olivia Cheney, a country and western duo, koto player, sound artist, assorted singers from EXAUDI, jazz groups, and a rainbow assortment of classical instrumentalists including a few international super stars.

*NB Fluxus was an international intermedia artist network in the 60s

img_1039-nggid03273-ngg0dyn-320x240x100-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010The audience was invited to walk through the building’s bunting-decked interconnected spaces: foyer, stairwells, concert studios, dressing rooms, back stage corridors, and tune in to different aspects of the cacophony on the way.

A surprised punter stumbles across the legendary Tamara Stefanovitch playing Scarlatti in a backstage corridor

The atmosphere was festive, jolly and strangely British. A church bazaar tea tent, cake raffle and tombola would not have been out of place.

Inspired by accounts of a Fluxus performance in which video artist Nam June Paik washed John Cage’s hair on stage, then proceeded to cut his tie in half, I was inspired to remove items of Pierre- Laurent Aimard’s clothes from a prepared piano and put them on whilst he played scales up and down the keyboard, and brush his hair at suitable moments in the sound texture, as captured on this 1 minute YouTube clip.

Alas I didn’t even clock the legendary Jordi Savall playing exquisitely (at beginning of above YouTube) on some beautiful lutey thing in a corner of the same room. If you haven’t seen gorgeous movie Tout les Matins du Monde (1991) about 17th century musician Marin Maris starring Gerard Depardiu, you MUST.

Gerard Depardieu’s son Guillaume enjoying a steamy moment over a hot viola da gamba with actress Anne Brochet.

Jordi plays on and off screen viols throughout the wonderful sound track which on first hearing instantly converted me to “brown rice music”, as a friend of mine scathingly calls anything written before about 1750, and became a huge Jordi Savall fan. And also, as byproduct, the fabulous viol consort Fretwork.

Here’s a clip  of the most heartbreakingly beautiful moment in the film where viola de gamba player and composer Santa Columbe, played by Jordi (left), dreams of his beloved dead wife. I defy you not to be moved.

“Cage is not for the bourgeoisie,” said Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a little bit fascinatingly, to me in between Fluxus antics. It’s the most I’ve ever got him to say one to one. I suspect he’s really, really shy in spite of the international starry career.

Aldeburgh Festival Artistic Director, pianist and conductor Pierre-Laurent Aimard elbowing the piano (below). Note random singer under the Steinway. I’m in the far right corner being weird. 

Actually, I’m not sure I agree with him. Cage was clearly a showman as well as radical thinker, and I can’t help thinking his musical presentations were precisely aimed at a shockable bourgeoisie. However, the moment for discussion passed as Aimard donned running gear to make his entrance jogging round the Steinway.

Due to the richness of life and consequently impossible demands of structurally coherent retro blogging, the remainder of this post will employ a Cage-ian blogcircus collage technique.

Starting with star harpist and Parisian Celine Saout ‘s counter claim that the best chocolate in the world is NOT by Pierre Marcolini, as I strongly stated a post or two back, but by (French, natch) Patrick Roger. As her recently recommended Ladureé orange blossom macaroons went down extremely well, I’ll investigate M. Roger’s art tout suite.

Chocolate “collier” by Patrick Roger. 49 euros innit

So far I’ve managed to miss all Olympian shenanigans but gather that Glastonbury Tor (below) featured briefly in Danny Boyle’s 27 million quid Olympic opening jollies.

Glastonbury the place, as opposed to the rock festival, has summoned me to it’s ley-lined vortex for many years now, and a few days ago I found myself blissfully basking under the healing emanations of a Glasto-based overtone-chanting shaman called Kestrel, producing (for me anyway) inner-world shifting colour fields, visions of ancient Mexico, magic waterfalls and rattle-waving medicine bird men.


If you like this kind of thing, I highly recommend what he does. Sound healing of any kind has always had a lovely effect on me and this guy really knows his stuff.  Using ancient native American shamanic techniques (which he also teaches) he gives spookily accurate clairvoyant readings which lead into healing sessions that help shift any unhelpful behavioural patterns.

I left 2 hours later feeling cleansed to the core, filled with life force, peaceful and seeing the world with extra colour, music and love.

Contemporary Mayan shaman. (Not my man in Glasto.)

Alas, not exempt from the ways of the world, local healers can form vicious rivalries, and tensions often run high. Friends of mine who live amidst this one-village HealerCircus (to borrow again  from Cage), wryly have given acronyms to the many healing modalities on offer, including –

Central American Shamanic Healing –  C.A.S.H.

Walk down Glastonbury high street and expect to see fully kitted out witches, warlocks, pixies and earth goddesses. A fair number of them are off their tits on controlled substances of one kind or another. But if you ignore the floaty commercial crystal madness (“knitted” as one friend of mine puts it), you can’t ignore the powerful transformative natural energies of the place itself.

According to ancient lore, Glasto is the heart chakra of the world and once home to the Knights of the Grail. Go wander around Glastonbury Abbey, traditionally Britain’s earliest Christian sanctuary and King Arthur’s burial place, set within a fabulous 36 acre park full of ancient trees; sit in exquisite Chalice Well gardens with its natural springs (below left), mosey up the Tor and back and you’ll feel what I mean.

If still in the mood you could then pop up the road to Stonehenge, Avebury stone circle and extremely mysterious Silbury Hill (built c.2400BC according to latest guesstimates). When I was there a year ago I stumbled into this crop circle (below). It’s impossible to figure out how anyone could have made this highly complex geometric structure, the size of a decent football pitch, in the 2 hours of darkness the midsummer sky would afford and not manage a) to be seen b) heard and c) break a single head of wheat. Shapes are immaculately compressed in the corn with no evidence of footprints in between each depression.

It’s a more than a bit weird.

Thus refreshed I popped back to London to catch all-male Propeller Theatre’s riotous reading of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale directed by Edward Hall at Hampstead Theatre. Whilst loving the first act’s brilliant depiction of irrational jealousy, Leontes superbly played by Robert Hands, I have always had big problems (and am not the only one) with the dead Queen resuscitation scene in the last act where the Bard has a statue miraculously come to life so that all the main characters are happily reunited.

It’s RIDICULOUS, even if you do take it simply on the level of a winter’s shaggy dog tale.

These misgivings aside, the Propeller boys did a rollicking job of Act 2 set in a rock festival with a singing herd of sheep, “The Bleatles” (left), and a fantastic realisation of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (WELL known to me now since coaching NYO cellos on Mark Turnage’s orchestrated version, “Hammered Out”).

I love the way Propeller play the female characters with straight down the line delivery, implying feminine characteristics through gesture without having to resort to falsetto or full tranny get up.

Speaking of jealousy themes, I inadvertently overheard the chirpy conversation of the THIN and YOUNG brunette sitting next to me in the audience, and it quickly became apparent that we have both been shagging the same actor.

I didn’t accidentally pour red wine in her handbag.

I didn’t.

Having ranted about the glaring holes in subsidised classical music training in this country in the last post (for which deluge of supportive comments, thank you), it was a joy to find myself on the panel for a couple of  national awards for up and coming musical talent in the UK, one of which awards commissions to young composers.

Absolutely nothing to do with the previous paragraph, here’s a piccy of my new PVC thigh boots as promised a post or two back, given their precipitous first outing in a recent late night Aldeburgh cabaret spot.

Out of a total of some 200 applicants, I waded through a shortlist of some 40 scores and CDs and was amazed at the sophistication of craftsmanship and highly coloured orchestral writing. Today’s kids ARE composing, to a very high level, and one just hopes that there will be enough skilled people able to play, not to mention listen, to it all in future.

And I was blown away by the originality and skill of those shortlisted for the Musicians Benevolent Fund’s gorgeous new Emerging Excellence Award, a fantastic little pot of gold for those starting off their musical career, across all genres.

Neil Luck. Composer, performer, curator, inspired nutter

Watch out for some of this year’s outstanding award winners:- innovative lunatic Neil Luck whose performance piece “Healthy Mind, Healthy Body” is now firmly ingrained in my head (here‘s the video), and AMAZING hot talent Beats and Pieces, a 15 piece jazz big band whose sexy composer and director Ben Cottrell (centre stage laptop below) should be given limitless cash to continue.

They play together as tightly as a trio and have already amassed an impressive bunch of international awards and rave reviews, but need support to get busy band members together to put together new material. And, as you may have heard, jazz seriously sucks at paying bills.

Beats and Pieces big band in action

Please, please, if you can support this super talented group, just shower them with money and love. They will be HUGE. Click here for preview.

ON which positive notes, I take my leave for this episode of Z Blog to go to Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusets.

Stay tuned for upcoming American capers…


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