Like most of this year’s festivals the 2020 Proms was cancelled due to the pandemic, with the BBC offering a selection of ‘greatest hits’ from their Proms archive. That itself was pretty interesting, inasmuch as (just like with their broadcasts of Choral Evensong) it revealed how one year’s festival is essentially the same as any other. Perhaps that can be regarded as ‘consistency’; perhaps not. Anyway, for the final two weeks the Proms actually dared to enter the Royal Albert Hall for a series of what perhaps should be called “non-certs”, with orchestras and performers playing to an otherwise empty house. Among these non-certs were a small cluster of contemporary works. In another demonstration of that aforementioned ‘consistency’, the BBC opted almost entirely to only commission composers who had already received premières at the Proms in recent years. Iain Farrington was featured in 2018, Hannah Kendall in 2017 and 2018, Thomas Adès in 2013 and 2016 (among others), Gavin Higgins in 2012 and 2014, Andrea Tarrodi in 2017, and Errollyn Wallen in 2019. Such breathtaking consistency! Only two composers were fresh faces at the Proms, Jay Capperauld and Richard Ayres, and it’s interesting to note that their works were by far the best of this year’s meagre offering.
Yet again, the BBC insisted that these composers don’t simply compose but ‘respond’ to a prescribed stimulus, which on this occasion was either Beethoven (2020 being the 250th anniversary of the great man’s birth) or – surprise, surprise – the pandemic (presumably the 2270 Proms will have composers responding to the 250th anniversary of the birth of Covid-19).
The Covid job was given to Adès, Capperauld, Higgins and Tarrodi. Andrea Tarrodi goes to one extreme, her piece Solus (premièred on the last night by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dalia Stasevska) seeking to tap into the loneliness resulting from enforced isolation. Dark and morose, the piece bears similarities to the texture-based works of her compatriot Anders Hillborg, filled with small tremulous details that add up to a disquieted collective turbulence, though a fittingly monotonous one.
By contrast, Thomas Adès‘ Dawn (performed on 30 August by Mitsuko Uchida with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle) sounds like the composer has dusted off a sketch created when he was in primary school. No doubt there will be those who champion its ‘bold simplicity’, but this brand of dumb, simpletonian, primary coloured, recycled vacuity doesn’t so much point to the optimism of a future, post-pandemic dawn as the drooling aftermath of a lobotomy. It’s as horrible as it is shockingly insincere.
In a work drawing inspiration and its title from a poem by Tony Walsh, Gavin Higgins‘ Rough Voices (premièred on 8 September by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Ryan Bancroft) tries to tap into some working-class rage, railing at the fact that disadvantaged parts of society have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. While its sincerity is unassailable, the work’s polarisation of harsh, punching dissonance in the midst of weak fragility sounds, if not exactly cheap, then at least a bit too obvious. To be fair, Higgins’ increasing focus on the latter of these poles is definitely the more telling, particularly when its initially wan bleakness – like the smallest of candle flames, threatening at any moment to sputter out – finds some gentle additional weight towards the end. Higgins seems to have co-opted a fair amount of Turnage’s musical language into his own, but what Rough Voices lacks in originality, it just about makes up for in poignancy. i only wish that works like this actually achieved something, more than simply giving the BBC an opportunity to tick a social awareness box and giving expression to some necessary heartfelt outrage at a situation that never seems to come close to being resolved (or, perhaps, even genuinely cared about by those in power).
It fell to Scottish composer Jay Capperauld to bring some real ambition and imagination to the topic of Covid-19, in his new work Circadian Refrains (172 Days Until Dawn). Appropriately given its first performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alpesh Chauhan on 5 September (from the City Halls in Glasgow), the ‘dawn’ promised in its title is in many ways just as unconvincing as Adès’, yet here that seems to be precisely the point. Like in Tarrodi’s Solus, Capperauld’s soundworld feels constricted and circular, caught between a desire to push on and what may also have been just as strong a desire not to move too far from its current range of activity. The result is a fascinating elasticity, given a lot of extra weight through chugging repetitions that convey both comfort and the sense of being stuck in a rut, as well as a musical language filled with equal quantities of warmth and coldness. Though it seems at first peripheral, even decorative, especially effective is the role of the tambourine, which from around halfway through comes to resemble a kind of nervous tic or muscular spasm that only makes the work’s uncertainty about forward movement all the more convincing. Far from arriving at an obvious ‘dawn’, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether you’d missed it entirely. Perhaps where Circadian Refrains ends up depends on your perspective, either in the post-climactic glow of a new beginning, or just possibly right back where it started. It could hardly be a more accurate and authentic articulation of what pandemic life has been and continues to be like.
The odd composers out were Kendall and Wallen, who didn’t need to respond either to Beethoven or Covid-19. Errollyn Wallen gave an extensive overhaul to Parry’s Jerusalem, performed at the last night by soprano Golda Schultz with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Dalia Stasevska. The decision to stick with Parry’s tune but place it within a thoroughly contemporary setting is an interesting idea in theory, yet the collision of old and new creates so much friction that there’s never a credible sense that the melody truly belongs within its new context. It feels shoe-horned in, even a bit bastardised, to the extent that i wish Wallen had simply composed an entirely new melody for Blake’s words along with everything else. It’s all the more frustrating as Wallen’s all-new orchestral environment is often riveting, its details needing multiple listens even to begin to make them all out, yet the continual sense of its two main elements incongruously clashing against each other makes the whole thing sound just wrong.
Hannah Kendall turned for inspiration to an early ’80s work by Jean-Michel Basquiat titled ‘Tuxedo‘ for her piece Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama, premièred on 28 August by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. It’s difficult to discern any meaningful correlation between the Basquiat and Kendall’s music, not that it matters. The material keeps tilting either way between clangorous, highly exercised energy and barely-moving brooding; considering the short duration of the piece (5½ minutes), it’s impressive how much time Kendall gives to the latter, avoiding the temptation to push the music on, savouring its introspection. This is confirmed in, towards the end, what feels like an inverted climax, where a music box quietly sings out the spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’, leading to a beautifully inward, slightly pained conclusion.
Farrington and Ayres were given the Beethoven job. Anyone familiar with what Iain Farrington did with Gershwin’s music a couple of years ago won’t have been surprised by his new work Beethoveniana. In some respects i enjoyed it more than i might have done due to the fact that i recently endured another work riffing on Beethoven’s music, Pierre Henry’s La Dixième Symphonie, which ranks among the most inept works of pseudo-homage plunderphonics that i’ve ever heard. By contrast, Farrington’s is fresh and, in the best sense, irreverent, but most importantly (entirely unlike Henry) has a clear and cogent sense of musical argument running through it. Who would have thought Beethoven rendered as a country hoedown could work so well? It’s worth mentioning that this work, which began the whole 2020 Proms non-season back in July, was stitched together from a myriad performers recorded in isolation, a fairly staggering technical achievement in itself.
Despite the subtitle of Richard Ayres’ No. 52 (Three pieces about Ludwig van Beethoven: dreaming, hearing loss and saying goodbye), the piece is as much about Ayres himself, articulating something of his own painful experiences of the debilitating reality of encroaching deafness. It’s a work that draws on two related compositional ideas that have become quite widespread in the last decade: gradual states of decay and hauntology. The former, extending the device used in the last movement of Smetana’s First String Quartet, concerns the presence of tinnitus, the tones and clusters of which afflict and disrupt the perceived clarity of the primary musical material. Over the course of the first movement, its gentle ruminating becomes increasingly skewed due to the prevalence of these shrill, buzzing sounds, causing not only a literal jarring but also an aesthetic one, making its placidity feel all the more disastrously ruined by its intrusion. In the second movement it appears more in the form of distortion, a piano solo becoming more and more lost from its timbral origins to the point that it becomes purely percussive. Hauntology manifests most prominently in the final movement where (echoing the work of The Caretaker) short orchestral fragments are answered by recordings of them that are muffled, corrupted and generally fucked up almost beyond all recognition. Though the methods Ayres uses are all quite simple and familiar, they’re powerfully, even devastatingly, effective. It’s hard to put into words just how odd, uncanny and above all troubling it is to hear something clear and carefree become menaced and dilapidated, either by forcing itself on top of sound or by causing it to vanish entirely.
All in all, the usual very mixed bag of Proms premières – another instance of BBC consistency. As is the 5:4 tradition, you can have your say about each of the new works using the polls below. i’ll keep the polls open for the next two weeks, after which i’ll report back on how you all voted.
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Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama takes its title from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s iconic 1982–3 artwork Tuxedo, a collection of 16 diagrammatic block pieces that come together to form a figure adorned with Basquiat’s trademark three-point crown symbol. It highlights recurring notions of majesty in his output, as does the tuxedo itself, which is a garment associated with luxury and elegance.
A multitude of Basquiat’s thematic preoccupations are displayed in the intricate hand-drawn and -written iconographic detail, encompassing a variety of histories. Indeed, his reference to Vasco da Gama (written as ‘Vasco de Gama’), the first European to voyage to Asia by sea, offers a commentary on exploration and the seeds of globalisation and multiculturalism: two important themes in the context of the year 2020.
The music moves between bright and buoyant moments of high energy and expansive stillness, underpinned by the incorporated harmonicas, which also function as a nod to the blues. Basquiat often drew attention to historical and contemporary matters of the African Diaspora. In a similar fashion, I have included a transcription of ‘Wade in the Water’, a traditional African-American spiritual, for music box.
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Daybreak is imagined in this piece by Thomas Adès written specifically for tonight’s Prom, specifically, that is, for an orchestra whose seating is less packed than usual.
Adès calls his Dawn a ‘chacony’, a composition based on a repeating bass pattern. Other terms for this kind of composition are ‘chaconne’ and ‘passacaglia’, but Adès has chosen the form used by his (distant) English predecessor Henry Purcell, and created a bass line as elemental as one of Purcell’s.
Beginning on middle C, the line steps mellifluously down and returns; it is a wheel revolving almost to the end, passed from harp to piano to gongs, where it settles. With only tiny exceptions, everything could be played on the white notes of the piano, but these white notes are coloured by melodies and conversations moving through the expanded space of the orchestra. The wheel turns slowly, steadily gaining force towards the final sunburst.
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‘Circadian Refrains’ refers to the biological processes that naturally recur in a 24-hour period. These cyclic processes are governed by our internal circadian clock, which reacts and adapts to sensory changes in our environment, such as the transition from night to day (or darkness to light). In this context, the piece has been written in direct response to the recent global lockdown implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic, in an attempt to articulate the day-to-day experiences of lockdown through a musical setting.
The notion of refrains is suggestive of the repetitive, restricted and constrained lifestyles adopted by many during this time, while also referencing the very literal musical refrains and ritualistic utterances in the piece itself. Despite this relentless daily process, the work’s subtitle, ‘172 Days Until Dawn’, attempts to capture a more hopeful perspective as the piece slowly transitions (through its own cyclic processes) from a place of darkness to a place of light by mapping 172 chords, each of which represents one day in the period between the start of my personal lockdown and the work’s first performance tonight. Therefore, Circadian Refrains attempts to portray an individual journey from stillness/darkness towards a reviving, metaphorical ‘dawn’.
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Like most of the composers commissioned to write new works for this Proms season, I was asked if I could respond in some way to the Covid-19 pandemic. I thought long and hard about the impact of the crisis and I kept returning to the thought of how those living in poverty have been disproportionately affected – as has also been the case with issues such as mental health, loneliness, education, housing and redundancy. This made me angry.
As I was writing the piece, I came across the poem ‘Tough’ by Tony Walsh (born 1965, aka Longfella) – a battle cry for the working class – and his words resonated with the music I was composing:
They don’t like it when we make it despite all their ifs and cuts
They don’t like it when we take it as our right to shake things up
They don’t like it when rough voices start demanding better choices
But it’s tough, we’ve had enough and we are coming
Being from a working-class background myself, I know how life-changing music can be. I also know that, as we come out of the pandemic, readdressing questions of diversity and class within the classical-music world will become even harder. We must continue to support and promote working-class talent or we will needlessly lose a generation of brilliant musicians. As such, Rough Voices is a rallying call for the underclasses.
The piece starts with a scream – of anger, frustration – that seems to interrupt a continuous and immanent chorale played on strings. The interruptions move into an insistent, incessant procession that drives relentlessly onwards. The ‘scream’ returns at the climax of the work, now in a righteously indignant tone, before the chorale reappears, changed somewhat with echoes of the rhythmic pulse that has dominated much of the piece.
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1 ♩ = 66
2 ♩ = 96
3 ♩ = 120
Although the subject of this piece is Beethoven’s progressive deafness and its effect upon him, writing it was also an opportunity for me to confront my own hearing loss. This is something that, until recently, I had been trying to ignore – despite its growing influence on how I live and my ability to socialise. In writing the piece, I expected to come face to face with these unavoidable truths and, if I was lucky and open to it, to reach some catharsis. Ultimately, however, I believe music should somehow transcend the person who wrote it: we shouldn’t be thinking of the composer, or the compositional process, when we are listening. So really No. 52 is not about me, or even Beethoven, but what the listener experiences.
The piece is arranged in three movements, each of which progresses from ‘audible’ to ‘inaudible’ via a method of distortion or obfuscation. In the first, a solo cello melody is gradually clouded by tinnitus-like, foggy strings. In the second, a piano – accompanied by the orchestra – is warped by the sound of a sampler keyboard. The final movement consists of four short pieces, each followed by the same music played through a record player. In those moments where some historical reference is required, I have deliberately written music that ‘looks a bit like Beethoven’. However, I have only quoted him directly once – in one bar of the solo viola part (in reference to a viola joke).
My relationship with Beethoven has changed dramatically as a result of writing this piece. I value him even more as a human being and a musical thinker. He seems to have lived bigger and more unrestrained by trivialities and difficulties than I could ever manage. Now I see what it is to live an intense, full life – even if I fall short myself.
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Solus for orchestra was written for the Last Night of the Proms and is a comment on the times we are living in, under the shadow of Covid-19. Many people have had to face loneliness during this period, and my piece takes its title from the Latin for ‘lonely’.
It begins with a dark tremolo in timpani, cello and double basses. Then a small ‘virus’ starts to develop in the flutes and clarinets while the brass, oboes and bassoons enter with a pulsating chord that billows back and forth. The ‘virus’ then transfers into the strings and the rest of the winds, and keeps growing as it is taken over by the whole orchestra. The music gradually grows through a large crescendo towards an fff (very, very loud) chord. And then at last, after the final burst, the music travels out into wild nature, where we hear the birds sing …
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Hubert Parry’s setting of William Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient time’, written on 10 March 1916, was commissioned by Fight for Right, an organisation dedicated to boosting morale in the Armed Forces. After its first performance, however, pacifist Parry withdrew his support. In response to a request for the piece from influential feminist Millicent Fawcett, to whose causes he and his wife were strongly sympathetic, he replied, ‘I wish indeed it might become the Women Voters’ hymn, as you suggest. People seem to enjoy singing it. And having the vote ought to diffuse a good deal of joy too. So they would combine happily.’
Composer Errolyn Wallen played ‘Jerusalem’ regularly for her school and has loved it and Elgar’s arrangement, a Last Night of the Proms mainstay, ever since. But Covid-19 has meant her new work based on the hymn utilises a much-reduced orchestra. As she told BBC’s Front Row, ‘I don’t have a tuba, a bass trombone or a bass drum … but I do have the organ.’ Not to mention soprano Golda Schultz.
Holding firm to Parry’s celebrated tune, Wallen has added a blues feeling and African rhythm. Subtitled ‘our clouded hills’, her piece is dedicated to the Windrush generation and encourages a communion of Commonwealth nations in a short interlude, to her own words, introduced between the second and third verses. ‘The people coming over from the former British Empire were probably even more patriotic than people living in the United Kingdom, so the hymn would have been known to them.’