This article appeared in the Spectator dated November 14th
Stravinsky once said that music was powerless to express anything at all. Leaving aside the niceties of whether a rising scale can at least represent something hopeful or aspiring, his music, like so much music, does nonetheless have the capacity to express the spirit of an age. Since this is a much vaguer procedure than trying to depict a concrete verbal image in sound – like bird song, or a drunken man, or climbing a ladder – it is surprising how successful composers have been at it. Unwittingly successful, I guess, since how would you deliberately set about writing a piece to capture 2009?
I became aware of this whilst watching some of my favourite television soaps – like The Tudors or Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. Such programmes seem to need music to reinforce the world they depict. It is not enough to have costumes and user-friendly history; or Bruno emoting in front of Boltzmann’s statue. Words are not enough, there has to be music. And if this music is well chosen, it can be immensely powerful, arguably more powerful than the whole of the rest of the set put together.
Sibelius would not have known that when his Seventh Symphony is played alongside images of heavy hydrogen colliding and fusing to make a nucleus of helium – images which first became available at about the time he was writing it – the match is a perfect one. Nor would Prokofiev have guessed that his The Love for Three Oranges goes brilliantly with talk about unlikely molecules being found in interstellar spaces. Better still are the opening bars of Walton’s First Symphony underpinning a sequence showing the skyline of 1960s New York in the final programme of Clark’s Civilisation. To have spotted this match was sheer genius: the ticker-tape kinetic energy of Walton’s music tells you in a split second all you need to know about modern life in that modern city – telexes, type-writers and stock exchange computer read-outs coded in. Again, I’m not sure Walton quite intended this passage to be so graphic, though with him it is more likely that there was a concrete thought behind his writing than with less worldly composers. I’ve noticed elsewhere how electric rhythms were the vogue in music of all sorts during the 60s and 70s –Kenneth Leighton’s church music exemplifies it, as does Walton’s own. This is obviously not a complete coincidence, and yet I doubt it was fully conscious. Anyway so far as posterity is concerned the marriage of Zeitgeist and great composer can be far more powerful than any number of wannabe costumes and electrically-lit candle scenes.
Everyone can play the game of which piece of music best conjures up their favourite moods and epochs. My mind inevitably turns to how sacred polyphony represents several hundred years of Western civilization. Play an unaccompanied piece of polyphony from any decade of the 15th or 16th century and you have instant placement. Play Gregorian chant and you have an even wider recognition: a wash of dearly loved images come straight to the minds of just about everybody: monks, Gothic buildings, pilgrimages, thatched cottages and mud. Something in the very vagueness of the music tells us something uniquely accurate about those times – not in words but in atmosphere, and above all in how our understanding of time has evolved.
I’m interested to know what contemporary composition will tell future generations about ourselves. For example, what do we make of composers who cannot possibly hear in their heads what they have written? Some recent music is so multi-layered and so dissonant that it has to be played before anyone can say exactly what it sounds like, and even then it may be frankly admitted that it is unplayable. Not long ago, in the music of composers like Cornelius Cardew or Brian Ferneyhough, this music would have to be notated in some way or other by hand. Now, of course, computers can do the job for you, making complexity even less circumscribed by human limitations. Have our posher artists given up trying to communicate with people, rejoicing in locking themelves away whilst demanding respect?
We cannot know exactly which contemporary sounds encapsulate how we are today. We’ll have to wait for that. Will it be jazz or popular music or dissonant complexity or holy minimalism, or all of these? Where is the composer who can put his or her finger on what is happening now, as Sibelius and Walton could do 70 years ago? Is the world so diverse that it is simply not possible for one piece of music to represent anything valuable at all? The fear, of course, is that there is nothing worth putting one’s finger on, and that indeed no-one is doing it.