Proms 2017: Julian Anderson – The Imaginary Museum (World Première)

Last autumn, at the Royal Musical Association’s annual conference, composer Julian Anderson presented a paper addressing what he described as “the problem of professionals involved in modern music denigrating and otherwise attempting to devalue the music they are supposed to support”. The paper – which unfortunately i’ve not yet been able to read (anyone have a copy?) – was titled ‘Selling Ourselves Short: Inturned aggression and group self-contempt in the modern music sector since 1973’. As it happens, i was born in 1973, and while i doubt Anderson had myself in his sights, after i’ve written the following review, i suspect he may well do.

His new piano concerto, The Imaginary Museum, was given its world première at Wednesday’s Prom by Steven Osborne with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. Cast in six movements and lasting around 25 minutes, the piece is by far one of the most insubstantial and ineffectual bouts of professional noodling masquerading as music that i have ever encountered.

The titles of the movements are ‘The World is a Window’, ‘Janáček’s Wells’, ‘Sea’, ‘Forest Murmurs’, ‘A Song Before Dawn’ and ‘Mountain’, but they hardly matter. There’s a modicum of quasi-programmatic referencing to them, but the most dominant characteristic of the piece – throughout all its movements – is a preoccupation with essentially three modes of operation. One of them, the first to be heard, is ear-punchingly over-familiar. Anderson may have switched to Schott as his publisher three years ago, but the repetitive, angular staccato idea that persists early on and resurfaces in the second and last movements is him at his most stubbornly Faberian. Like Stravinsky but shorn of all wit or seductive charm, this is not simply re-treading old ground, this is the basest flogging of a rotted carcass that may once have resembled something equine. One has to wonder: beyond laughing all the way to the bank, is it genuinely satisfying creatively to write this stuff? Its second mode of operation manifests itself in a gruff approach to dynamic shifts: when not idling in mezzo-forte (which it does a lot), the music surges and recedes rapidly, waves and blips of aggression in an otherwise thoroughly benign demeanour.

But most pervasive of all is that noodling i spoke of; it’s literally everywhere. Sometimes it takes the form of vague notions of melody that Anderson teases out here and there, some hushed almost immediately, others blankly wandering around as though stupefied by their own irrelevance. But most worryingly – considering this is a concerto – the solo piano part throughout has virtually nothing of any significance to say. It proffers trills and tremolandi, plays with child-like gestural shapes, timorously tickles the keys or hammers out pounding chords judged to perfection in both pace and quantity to be as annoying as possible. For the most part the piano continues for the mere sake of continuing rather than borne out of any inherent musical necessity. That’s when it’s not blatantly ripping off Messiaen: the cadenza-like passage in the final movement bears a stunningly similar resemblance to portions of the solo part in Turangalîla. And then there’s the introduction of a synthesizer tuned down a quartertone, demonstrating once again that even in 2017 the mainstream continues to regard anything other than equal temperament as something quirky or exotic; its inclusion here is nothing more than the most egregious of impotent gimmicks.

As i’ve said in the Credo of this very blog, new music should and must be celebrated, it absolutely needs friendship and support. But Julian Anderson can’t have it both ways. If he’s going to excrete such disgracefully inadequate effluent as this – which to my mind treats the listener with contempt – then an aggressive reciprocal contempt is precisely what he deserves. What more does he really expect? ‘Selling Ourselves Short’? The Imaginary Museum sells everyone short.

Julian Anderson – The Imaginary Museum (World Première)

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Julian Anderson – The Imaginary Museum
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Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Proms
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14 Responses to Proms 2017: Julian Anderson – The Imaginary Museum (World Première)

  1. Dan JC

    All I can say is that if it’s as ‘unforgivable’ and ‘crazily inept’ as that godawful Whitacre phone bollocks with which it shares a tag, then I’m very glad I didn’t tune in. Thanks for suffering through this so that I don’t have to :-)

    • 5:4

      It’s a tag i should use just a little more often, but if definitely applies here. And you’re welcome ;)

  2. Colin Rose

    Your comments are sort of correct, add that the new pastiche is late Boulez added to the old favourites. … and yet it past the time with great fun. I would rather have that than the ‘significance’ that disfigures the less than talented crowd that is middle class English music. If you haven’t anything to say then surely it is better to say nothing and pass the time pleasantly

    • 5:4

      i couldn’t disagree more, Colin: if you haven’t anything to say, shut the hell up and let others who do have something to say speak!! Furthermore, if anything ever qualified as “the less than talented crowd that is middle class English music”, it’s music like this.

  3. Steven

    Have to agree. Cynical, vacuous noodling. Despite the title, completely without imagination.

  4. Chris L

    I wasn’t going to download this after reading your review…but then I noticed how many others, professional reviewers and “mere” listeners alike, seemed to like it! It’s evidently one of these ‘ere “divisive” pieces, so my own reaction could go one or the five ways above. If I can be bothered, I’ll attempt to put it into words after the fact…

    • 5:4

      Well, as you might expect, Chris, i don’t read any of the (ahem) ‘professional’ reviews, but while it saddens me that they like it, it hardly surprises me. Critical faculties: dead.

      • Chris L

        You never know, the game may well be up before too long, as more and more folk realise that people like you can do the job much better for nowt…

        • 5:4

          Alas, doing it for nowt is becoming increasingly hard to sustain, so as to the future, who knows…?

          • Chris L

            Just don’t sell out – promise us that!

          • 5:4

            By which you mean…?

          • Chris L

            Don’t become like all those junk(et)-fed, in-crowd-chasing professionals you despise!

          • 5:4

            Oh i see – as if! ;)

  5. Paul Pellay

    The opening sounded for all the world like the soloist was trying to remember how Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes began and never getting past the first two notes. My first reaction upon hearing that: “I wish I was listening to the Ravel now!” And that didn’t change as the piece progressed! I’m now left wondering if Anderson is in fact the most over-rated composer of his generation to come out of this country……
    Puzzling and depressing in just about equal measure!

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