Proms 2022: Betsy Jolas – bTunes (World Première)

by 5:4

In an artistic context, there’s an obvious world of difference between observation, taking inspiration from and / or seeking to emulate or analogise aspects of the natural world and human culture, and critique, taking issue with and / or seeking to highlight problems arising from or endemic within those same aspects. Observation represents; critique responds. Having spent time with the latest Proms première, Betsy JolasbTunes, given its first performance at yesterday evening’s concert, it’s difficult to know exactly which of these she’s aiming for.

Jolas’ creative motivation is the factoid that human attention spans are getting ever shorter, resulting in a concomitantly-reduced capacity for listening to music. While the reality is evidently much more complicated, possibly even contrary to that assertion, Jolas’ other inspiration is undeniable: that many people today use playlists as the source for their listening. (The title of the piece is a reference to iTunes, Jolas replacing the i with a ‘B’ for Betsy.)

All of which begs the question: does Jolas regard these statements as problematic? It’s hard to know, because what bTunes amounts to is essentially a 17-minute exploration of the effect of those short attention spans, in which the piece continually switches from one idea to another, after just a few seconds. It brings to mind other, similarly scattershot works, such as Brian Ferneyhough’s Incipits, which presents a catalogue of alternate ways to begin a composition, and David Fennessy’s Dead End, which does the opposite, rushing through a 100-year retrospective of ways to end a piece of music. bTunes is something in between, not unlike the famous Mahler movement in Berio’s Sinfonia, where tiny morsels of music emerge and vanish in a huge, surreal tapestry. However, whereas all three of those pieces weave their musical minutiae into coherent larger wholes, in the case of bTunes it’s hard to hear it as anything other than just a litany of non-sequiturs.

The result is music in which what’s actually being played is always of secondary importance to the context in which it’s heard. Or, more likely, is of no importance whatsoever. Supposedly created as a piano concerto, though hardly functioning as one (the piano’s role is of minimal significance overall), the music doesn’t so much gradually unfold as proceed in a never-ending sequence of spasmodic lurches, from time to time just about getting into an idea before either abruptly stopping or veering sideways into something different. Some of these ideas are interesting – indeed, some of them could be wonderful, suggesting all kinds of possible vistas of which they form a part. However, none of this matters as, soon enough, they’re cast aside in favour of something – anything – else. Thus, the actual content of the ideas is not merely unimportant, but entirely moot.

Betsy Jolas

Is this, then, a critique of the perceived situations Jolas describes? Is she seeking to show us the absurd, incoherent results of switching attention so often? There’s a short theatrical shtick at the start of the work where Jolas has the leader of the orchestra begin the piece due to the conductor and soloist apparently failing to show up. Whereupon, having just got things going, they appear on stage and scramble to their positions, instructed to begin as quickly as possible. (It’s this moment that accounts for the surprisingly uproarious laughter and applause that erupts shortly after the start of the performance.) Whether it’s just a bit of fun or taking a swipe at another aspect of some perceived latter-day tardiness and / or reckless haste is equally hard to say.

Perhaps, it now occurs to me, bTunes is not aimed (in every sense) at me. Personally, i never listen to playlists – my feeling has always been that stream is to music as stream is to piss – and if anything, i have the opposite of a short attention span: long durations have always tended to fire up my enthusiasm for listening more than anything else. Maybe this is something to do with generational differences, but surely it’s more to do with the fact that i’ve spent many, many years listening to a lot of classical music, which inevitably involves becoming accustomed to longer time spans. If that’s true for me, though, isn’t it also true for the majority of people listening to the performance in the Royal Albert Hall, and for future audiences who will be attending performances taking place in similar concert hall situations? So who is bTunes really aimed at, both in terms of the target audience and, possibly, the target of its satire? Potentially, it seems, precisely the kind of listeners who are unlikely to hear it in the first place. Yet, if there’s actually no critical point being made, no irony in Jolas’ use of endless non-sequitur, that’s arguably worse than taking pot shots at people in their absence, creating a literal conveyor belt of possibilities, all of which amount to precisely nothing.

Whatever may or may not be the point of bTunes, it certainly manages to do a convincing impression of those hypothetical 10-second attention spans, demonstrating how the resultant experience is as mystifying as it is completely unfulfilling.

The world première of bTunes was given by pianist Nicolas Hodges and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis.


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Betsy Jolas - bTunes
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Programme note

As years race by and my age increases, I find that I look back on much longer stretches of my seemingly never-ending life, reaching sometimes as far back as my early childhood. But I realise now that having access to this impressive overall view has considerably helped my understanding of the world I live in today, nearly a century later.

To speak mainly of music; I am now, at 96, practically the last of my generation, since most of my great colleagues have now, alas, left this world. I happen to have known personally many of them well and I am today constantly called upon to ‘testify’ on the now historical musical movements many of them represent. And of course, I always accept this task, for I have followed these trends all along with great interest, guided as usual by my natural curiosity.

Although I never became a disciple of any of them, old age has fortunately not diminished my curiosity and it still helps me evaluate the situation today. I have thus noticed in recent years, that most people’s attention to music has shrunk drastically to barely 10 seconds. This observation has been echoed in much of my music, but only as usual, after being put through what I call my ‘personal filter’. Then I like to come up with a suggestive title to help the listener find their way.

I have followed this direction today in deciding on a title for my new piano concerto and I am aware that the projected premiere at the famous London Proms (which I will discover as well) has had quite an influence on this quest.

The title bTunes which I finally chose for this concerto is obviously borrowed, including the spelling, from the now quasi historical ‘iTunes’. In its new version, with ‘b’ now standing for Betsy, this title designates a collection of short pieces written over the years for various pianists including of course Nicolas Hodges. The resulting work might be considered as a kind of modern ‘suite’, evoking the way most people listen to music today: through… playlists.

—Betsy Jolas


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Chris L

I haven’t heard it yet, but the very premise strikes me as musical mutton dressed as lamb – why, surely Schnittke was doing much the same thing (theatrics and all) in his (much longer) 1st Symphony half a century ago!

Kevin

Nothing much in common with the hysterics of Schnittke as you’ll find out . A rather unpretentious and naive piece I thought . While not her best work, glad she got an airing at the Proms.

Chris L

You’re right, of course: there’s nothing like the ostentatiousness of Schnittke’s sudden switches. Nevertheless, while stylistically Jolas doesn’t ape the earlier work (as, frankly, you’d bloody well hope, given that her birth preceded Schnittke’s by several years!), in terms of what her piece is setting out to do, something Alex Ross said about the symphony chimes a little too closely (for me) with what is said above…

Western musical history is re-created as a barrage of garbled transmissions, a radio receiving many stations on one channel. Despite its veneer of goofiness, this triumph of planned anarchy has a simple and serious effect. It produces the sound of music, rather than music itself—what is overheard by a society that no longer knows how to listen.

[My italics.]

Kevin

I like the Ross quote but is there a problem in aping something which comes before you? There are some good precedents for this: Bizet (1838-1875) meticulously based his Symphony in C on the Gounod (1818-1893) Symphony. The former has been a runaway hit ever since it was first discovered whereas the latter has sunk into oblivion. A very thin line between pastiche/academic and something which bursts with vitality.
Oddly enough, I found the Jolas came across more persuasively at home on my iphone than in the hall. The grandeur of the setting at odds with the flavour of the piece.

Chris L

Absolutely no problem with aping whatsoever, as long as the “aper” doesn’t try to give the impression that they’re doing anything other than aping. The tenor of Jolas’s programme note suggests to me that she’s fallen into the all-too-familiar New Music trap of believing one has to “sell” each piece as more groundbreaking than it truly is…

D G

I appreciate that the assessment in the post and in the comments is based on a kind of immanent reading of the piece itself, along with its programme note, but I am somewhat troubled by the casual dismissal of the work of a major composer whose aesthetic has been long-honed and thought through over a period of decades, and who has been written out of most Anglophone histories and popular reception for reasons–conscious or not–of gender. For a far more nuanced and in-depth sense of Jolas’ compositional concerns, the eight-hour interview available here might sever to dispel some of the casual dismissal. https://entretiens.ina.fr/musiques-memoires/Jolas/betsy-jolas/sommaire. Personally, I found that–particularly when witnessed live–the piece was self-aware of the performative nature of the classical concert in witty and entertaining ways, full of textural variety and interest, and playfully subversive of the conventions of the concerto. Perhaps a certain reading of the programme note overdetermined things: I didn’t read it until after seeing the piece live. I’m not sure the Schnittke comparisons really hold water, either: Jolas’ take on musical history–Mozart, Bach, Haydn, etc–is very much her own.

[I also wanted to add how much this blog in general is very much appreciated, both in making available the musical material and in providing the detailed and thought-provoking commentaries that accompany it.]

Last edited 16 days ago by D G
D G

I hasten to say that your writing and presentation is almost always thought-provoking and well-written. I just felt that this piece was perhaps not being given a very fair hearing. I think part of my issue is that, while Jolas is reasonably well known in France, she’s virtually written out of histories of the music, a few recent premieres and newspaper articles excepted: that she has to be almost one hundred years old for her to get this sort of recognition–in this case, a Proms slot–is a bit grim. Perusing the commercially available recordings of her work on a site like discogs compared to many, generally male composers, indicates the disparity. I don’t mean that all the work should be praised straight off the bat, unthinkingly, but I think there are broadly structural questions at play as well. So in that case I’m thinking about those general questions.

In terms of my take on the piece, Jolas has made similar comments about attention spans and structure for other recent pieces like ‘A Little Summer Suite’ or from Bachville’ piece. But I think it also relates to a slightly older idea of ‘wandering’ or ‘strolling’ music–an idea that, in the long interview, she connects to her work of the seventies. The idea of strolling or ambulation–in the case of this piece, perhaps more like sprinting–between musical elements has a rich history behind it, not just in her music; we could even link what she does, particularly in the Bachville piece, to remixing, and in the case of B-Tunes, a remixing of elements from some of her own earlier pieces, if I’m understanding correctly. So I wonder if it’s the B-Tunes/I-Tunes pun and the apparently critical framing about digital technology and attention spans that influences how the piece is heard as conceptually incoherent and then in turn as aesthetically uninteresting. Personally, I don’t read the programme note so much as negatively critical, as reflective/observational of the kinds of listening that surround it–which might include five-minute chunks and excerpts on a concert programme as much as an i-tunes playlist–in a way that’s more ambivalent or circumstantial than hostile. And in terms of the listening experience, its humour or lightness is not grimly parodic, critical, or satirical, but lively and engaged. To me, the programme note would suggest the piece adapts something already in her practice, as a way of thinking about form and structure, to contemporary digital listening practices.

Of course, a lot of this may just be a matter of taste–I enjoyed the piece as a performative experience, and thought its odd, hard-to-place atmosphere fitted well with Mahler One, and I enjoyed it again listening to the recording. But different pieces strike different people in different ways!

D G

Oh yes, very much so. And hence the importance of this site in general in tracking what’s out there and, hopefully, drawing more attention to it!

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