Untune the sky

These titles are getting more pretentious by the day (hardly seems possible does it) – but I take the Reithian principles of blogging very seriously (well, all except for the requirement to entertain).  This title, as I’m sure you will all know, represents the final words of John Dryden’s Song for St Cecilia’s Day and is a reference to the power of music (or such is my reading – and it does follow the exchanging of the quick and dead).

Today, for those who are still struggling following the recent clock change, is a Tuesday: which means the joy of the Cambridge University Lunchtime Concerts – or it does for those of us who live near Cambridge and have an hour to spare at lunchtime, I’m afraid the rest of you will have to make your own fun.  Today we, the lucky few, were offered a John Adams double-bill: Gnarly Buttons (1996) followed by Son of Chamber Symphony (2007).  I think Chamber Symphonies must be quite sexually precocious as Chamber Symphony was only born in 1992 – though, this is one area of teen pregnancy that does not seem to generate hand-wringing in the more prurient press.  Putting these minor parenting misgivings to one side, the concert was an absolute joy – my favourite young conductor, excellent and varied musical forces, Somerset’s finest young clarinet player (OK, I’ll admit he is the only one of whom I know – but he seems very good to me) and great, modern “classical” music.

This started me thinking about what makes music – as opposed to mere noise (or dicking about with instruments as I like to call it in the concert hall context).  Unlike the songs by Handel and Schubert which I had earlier been slaughtering at this week’s singing lesson, the works by Adams had no clear key, fixed time signature or much in the way of traditional structure – so, in that regard, very like my earlier performance.  If I had thought my renditions in English were dodgy – the diphthong is a tricksy cove – they are as the music of the spheres compared to my attempts at German.  In my defence, I was sight reading – well, I say reading, though I fear the impartial witness would have had serious doubts about either my eyesight, my familiarity with the Roman alphabet or both.  But, enough self-deprecation – or, possibly over-selling – and on with the plot (such as it is).

I find some modern classical music very enjoyable – and in this camp fall Mr Adams, Philip Glass and even Steve Reich – whereas other pieces just strike me as random (rather unpleasant) noise, yes I am looking at you György Sándor Ligeti so there’s no point hiding behind that forest of metronomes (the garden ornament for the metropolitan dwelling).  I do find it hard to explain why this should be so – it can’t be fear of discord, dissonance or arrhythmia as much that gives me pleasure contains these in abundance.  I think it may be down to my mathematician’s soul, the music I can connect with has just enough structure (at some level) for me to hold on to (like the rubber ring to a drowning man) as the (sound) waves pass over me.

On a similar theme, I enjoy listening to the birds singing – which they seem to have re-started of late – and while I don’t know if this is music, it is certainly musical.  Can’t really stand Olivier Messiaen’s attempts to replicate birdsong as music though – and that, formally at least, really is music.

I was also left to wonder how modern “classical” and “popular” music is separated (segmented as I believe the marketers would say) – well other than the obvious differentiators of venue, audience and profitability.  I suppose “pop” pieces tend to be shorter and more commonly have words in the local demotic – but otherwise at the more abstract end of the spectrum it is hard to see what else might separate them.  Gnarly Buttons involved synths, banjo and a guitar, along with more common classical instrumentation, though the length of even a single movement might overtax the presumed attention span of the Radio 1 massive.  Nonetheless, I suspect many of the young are brighter than either (a) we give them credit for and (b) the viewing figures for reality television might suggest, so I reckon with a wee bit of re-packaging we could easily offer The Perilous Shore as modern, cutting-edge indie music and sneak it out late in the evening (perhaps an easier sell on 6Music than 1Xtra).  Players from the world of “pop” seem to feel it is their right to knock something out in the forms of classical music once they reach a certain standing – I think its time for some traffic in the reverse direction (even if we do have to disguise the origins, much as a parent might sneak the odd vegetable past a child’s vigilant gaze).

After all, “What passion cannot music raise and quell?” – so go forth and untune that sky (the Murdochs are rich enough without your help).