Monday 14 September 2009


Tomorrow sees (for me anyway) the official start of term with the first day of auditions for the Edinburgh University Music Society. I am looking forward to them as it is the first time I'll have sat on a panel for instrumental auditions (although i Know All about singing ones...) and the first time I'll have done anything official as an employee of MusSoc.

Though these are my first set of auditions as a panel member I've played for all the auditions for the last two years. Thus I have a good idea of what to expect and whilst I'm no Jay Friedman ( I'd thought I'd share a few thoughts.

The problem is people often think they have to wow the auditioners to get noticed. In fact what you need to do is simply show us what you can do. If that means some amazing Violin piece with stratospheric high range, left hand pizz and lots of double stopping, then by all means go ahead. But if you can't do this simply don't try to do it. Obviously try for something that is going to show off how well you can play, but for me personally I would prefer hearing something to your level with few wrong notes than some amazing piece played awfully.

Don't panic! Is often great advice. You might be nervous, but try to relax, it really won't do you any good! Last year we had one unfortunate girl who's reed broke and she started crying, yet she still got in! Always think positively, only get upset about not getting in, until you know you haven't got in!

And for me commitment is paramount. My orchestra rehearses on 10:30 on a saturday morning. I need people who want to be their, rather than the fact they might as well play because they didn't get into symphony, and turn up half the time. In that case I'd rather have someone who was not as good, but turned up and really wanted to be there. Sadly this happens alot with my orchestra and its very annoying.

Short and sweet! So be warned! Play to your level, and know what your getting into!

Sunday 6 September 2009


Ever wondered how conductors program concerts? Well...

I recently became the conductor of the (Edinburgh) University Sinfonia after Iain McLarty (blogger,, ex flat mate and fellow baton enthusiast) retired after 3 years with the stick. Living with Iain I obviously knew this was coming up, and, more in a state of fantasy than any confidence in my conducting ability (not to mention to field those scurrilous interview questions)started coming up with programmes. The word "hypothetically" was used an awful lot...

I had a sort of idea that I would go back to basics, overture concerto symphony. And where better to start than Dvorak 8, an enthusiastically jolly piece, which is perfect to do with this kind of orchestra, enough of a challenge to keep people on their toes, fun to play ect ect. As soon as I heard that horn trill in the 4th Movement I was hooked.

So I had my symphony, "hypothetically" of course. Great. What about the rest? One focus that Iain had really bigged up was that of student soloists, and particularly unusual instruments (tuba, double bass). Obviously I was very keen for this to continue and thought a bass trombone concerto was just the ticket. I had a guy who was at least interested in thinking about it. The obvious choice after shopping around was the Brubeck, a great jazzy piece which isn't hard for the orchestra but is just different, refreshingly so in fact.

So I took this to my interview. And they liked me and so conjecture became fact and I never used the word hypothetically again...

Now I could really think about it. I had about 15-20 mins to add to the Brubeck and Dvorak. I dabbled with some Adams and Copland to create an all American first half but decided against it. Then, whilst looking at a random brochure for youth orchestras my eyes rested on Chanson Minimale by Ed Harper, a university Lecturer who had died recently. I read the programme note which talks about wondering what sort of music Elgar would have written had he been alive in 60's America. This sounded brilliant, and a nice tribute to a man who did so much for university ensembles. I got a score and it was fine. Great.

However it was only 6 mins long meaning I still had 10 mins to fill. I had absolutely no idea where to turn. I asked friends, listened through my iTunes, looked through youth orchestra websites for rep. Nothing. And then, when I was about to turn to Vaughan Williams English Folk Song Suite suddenly it came upon my iTunes shuffle, a Shropshire lad. What a nice piece I thought, the more I listened the more I liked. I checked the score, playable. However does it fit in with Harper, Brubeck and Dvorak? Eventually after much umming and aahing I decided to just go with it as time was pressing. So I had my program, excellent.

Except...The publishers for the Brubeck were appauling communicators, nigh on silence. Add this to the fact that my soloist was expressing doubt in himself. Eventually it got to the point where we just had to drop it and go with something else (though, as sods law dictates the day after I'd given the order to drop it, they got in contact...). Without much thought I told my librarian to order Mont Juic by Britten/Berkeley, something I was going to do ages ago on an orchestra tour that never happened and which I knew was feasible and fun, though less exciting than the Brubeck.

It was only a few days later when writing a summery for our website that it clicked that these three pieces were four English composers view of three different places and periods, Harpers take on late century America and minimalism, Butterworth's view of an idyllic turn of the century Shropshire and Britten and Berkeley's take on 30's Barcelona and Catalan culture. Great, I thought. It looks like I've really thought about the first half, "English views of cultures through music" or something more snappy. I felt rather chuffed with my subliminal planning.

Then in a moment of insomnia last night I reached for my indispensable "BBC Proms pocket guide to great symphonies" to see what it said about the Dvorak. It turns out that due to a publishing dispute the Symphony was published first in London, leading it to have until recently the nickname, "English".

Of course if anyone asks I'll say that I planned the whole program around this...

Saturday 29 August 2009

Pageturning and the Festival

So I got a phone call from a friend during a hectic week a couple of weeks ago asking if I could do some page turning at the (International) Festival. Great I thought. And there's money in it. Even better.

Which is why I found myself in the Queens Hall to page turn for the Hebrides ensemble. This in itself was quite nice, they are a group that I love listening to and I've been conducted by Will Conway their artistic director a lot.

However the best thing about this was the fact I was page turning for Philip Moore, not the former organist of York Minster (and a former next door neighbour of mine) but Philip Moore the upandcoming pianist. His duo with Simon Crawford-Phillips has created in my opinion the best recording of the two piano version of the Rite of Spring you can find (you may have also seen them on the proms recently). In short, I'm a fan. So consider my delight when he turned out to be a lovely guy, quite chatty, a fabulous pianist and very accommodating of my occasional errors (hazy as I was at the 9 O'Clock morning rehearsal after a less than sober night the night before. Mind you at least I didn't sleep in completely like two of the Hebrides' own members...!)

All was fine until we got to the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony. I'm a relaxed kind of guy, I don't get nervous before all but the biggest concerts, and I'm very laid back even in those. However the Schoenberg turned out to be just about the most stressful 22 minutes of my musical life. There seemed to be a page turn every 10 seconds, and everything seemed to be a blur of black on white. This was the sort of peice that if I fucked up he would have been in serious trouble. Thankfully I didn't, though there was one moment where they all got out and I didn't know whether to turn or not which nearly ended in disaster. Thankfully it got sorted out before something awful happened. It was certainly the most I have concentated in a musical performance, and as I wasn't playing anything this says alot!

The rest of the concert was more mundane thankfully, a lovely version of L'Apres Midi which I want to get my hands on, and some Mahler songs excellently sung by Christopher Maltman were the real highlights.

The other concert was today. I was turning for Helmut Deutsch who was accompanying Michael Volle and Franz Hawlata. I wasn't really very excited about this one, song recitals don't really turn me on, plus it came on the the back of the after show party for the show I was doing in the Fringe. However this morning turned out to be one of the most pleasurable mornings I have spent in a very long time.

All three of them were lovely, and completely mad, they kept suggesting mad things they could do to liven the recital up (in a drinking song they were seriously thinking about bringing the bottles of Whisky Festival Performers are given on with them...). I thought it would be odd being a 'fourth wheel' in a rehearsal conducted in German, however they kept telling me anecdotes in English which was nice. And at one point, whilst they were rehearsing three songs by Britten, Helmut said "Do you have any remarks about the english?" I suddenly realised he was talking to me and the other two were looking at me intently. I mumbled something about it being "Really good" (which it was!), hardly world beating advice, but what is one meant to say to two world renowned singers in this situation? Answers on a postcard please...

Page turning for Helmut Deutsch was honestly one of the most privileged things I have ever done. I mean Philip Moore is an astonishing pianist, don't get me wrong. However The Helmut plays the piano is just astonishing, the amount of colour and depth he gets out of the piano was incredible. For someone who has and will be doing a lot of this sort of thing in the upcoming months it was a complete eye opener.

So all in all I've had a great time doing it. The festival might still be going on but I'm back in Beverley having a bit of R and R. Bring on next year...

Thursday 9 July 2009

Fuzzy AM...

After the other months negative Radio diatribe I thought I would balance it out with a rather more positive one tonight. The obvious station to focus on would be Radio 3, but as good as it is I have to confess I hardly listen to it (although I am getting better. my driving station is, very unpredictably, Radio 1...). No I want to talk about what, in my humble opinion is one of the best, well balanced and informative Radio programmes out there, and yet, due to it's anti-social hours is known by few people, 5Live's Up All Night.

This may sound like an oddity. People too often have a very negative perception of night time radio. It's taken Radio 1 until the last few years to make anything of its 10 O'Clock shows with Colin Murray and now Nick Grimshaw turning what used to be a precursor of "the graveyard shift" into a success. The graveyard shift is usually the domain of either up and coming talent, sent to cut their teeth for a year or two, or washed up former breakfast show hosts who have in some way or another pissed off the management.

However, in an inspired decision, when creating 5Live back in the 90's the BBC gave the 'graveyard shift' to neither of these types of people. Rather they gave it to Rhod Sharpe, who at the time of the stations creation was a experienced Foreign Duty Editor. Around Sharpe they built up an impressive show which makes the most of the BBC's correspondents around the world to develop stories in ways daytime just won't allow. It sits in the middle of the two normal types of 5Live show, the sedate paced phone in and the frantic news show.

Sharpe himself is one of the greatest assets to the show. Some of the best moments are Sharpe's regular little asides, his short vivid description of four scenes of American life in the four time periods, just before the ABC news at 2:05, or his personal anecdote after the news at 3 that perfectly frame periods of hard hitting, proper journalism, or reports from far off places.

Of course one can't forget Dotun Adebayo, recently honoured with an MBE, who is in some ways Sharpe's opposite, his African inflected twang more lively and upbeat than Sharpe's soothing tones. It is he who marshals the weekly World Football Phone in, which seriously rivals 6-0-6 in my opinion. He's good at jolly, but also very good at serious and interviews like a dream.

All of this combines to create a vividly exciting show, one, because of its late time slot and long duration, can handle both the very serious, the very funny and the very mundane (in a good way). Its not like the night shift on News 24 for example, which is effectively the same stuff recycled every half an hour. Here we have news, phone ins (everything from science to sleep), interviews and so on.

I put it on to get to sleep, but I have to confess I usually don't (at least for a while anyway). Part of me really wants more people to know about it, but part of me likes the fact that most people switch off after Richard Bacon. It keeps it special for the rest of us.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Fuzzy FM...

A recent read of Robert Fink's book "Repeating ourselves" shows a clever link with the rise of minimalism being prepared for by the repetitious listening habits of the 50's/60's middle class (which were then developed by classical listening radio stations), especially to the second rate concerto grosso of second rate 18th century composers. This got me thinking by extension about our own much maligned fuzzy-wuzzy Classic FM.

I have to point out before I really get started that most of the usual arguments levelled at Classic FM I don't really have a problem with. I unlike many do not mind the fact that individual movements are played on their own, sometimes all I want to do is listen to the last movement of Mahler Two, or the opening of Shos 5. I would never (of course) programme a single movement if I was conducting. In fact, as much as I hate naming names I recently played a concert with Edinburgh's Open Orchestra, where we did only the last two movements of Schumann 3, something that felt really odd and slightly lacking(lets not even get into the fact that that there conductor has no idea how to treat trombonists...).

I do not also mind the arguments that say you 'should never switch off when listening, it should always be a serious process'. This is the 21st century. I don't every time I hear the first movement of a symphony think "ooh there's the development". Sometimes I switch on, sometimes I switch off (I'm writing this listening to Rzewski's Windsboro' Cotton Mill Blues and ignoring it...) Background music is a welcome addition to mundane tasks, and long may it continue to be.

No my problem with Classic FM seems to be... well Classic FM. I think the first thing that gets me is that it seems to be ALL about relaxing (Relaxing Classic FM...) As said above I don't mind the idea of using music to relax, but at Classic FM this is all they seem to use they're for, smooth classics, relaxing classics, surely their listeners want to be a bit more energetic (thats when they order '1812' on the requests show...) Relaxing is fine, but to build a whole station around it is mind numbingly irritating. The rest bite always used to be the 'Concert' at the end of the day which had some great works played, some of which were even not relaxing in any way! However even that got taken over to some extent by the fuzzy wuzzy police, and is a shadow of its former self (if it exists at all)

And what do we get to relax? Either Baroque instrumental movements, romantic symphonic middle movements or soppy 'contemporary' diatribes in C Major (more on this in a minute) endlessly repeated on a monthly cycle. Now my personal limited scope of repetoire (i.e not liking pretty much of the above rep) might be making this sections polemic a little impartial. But its not even necisarrily the music. I do begrudgingly admit that some of the stuff Classic FM play is brilliantly written, but its the fact that this is all they seem to play!Even if there is a need for relaxation (which I can get) why not play some new pieces for a change? I've always thought minimalism would work well, it has everything a perspective Classic FM listener would need, tonality, solid rhythm and so on. Or some Tipett, 'child of our time' isn't particularly offensive, and a cracking piece of music with the same check-list as minimalism. But no, we never get imagination, just Mozart.

It's got to the point where when I hear a piece I do like, say for example Dubussy's Prelude I instantly don't like it and switch off just because of the context its placed in (a fuzzy silence either side, and a gentle voiced male commentator sliding us straight into a Vivaldi Concerto Grosso...) whereas I listen to Radio 3 and I get Petroc booming out afterwards. I bloody love it.

Yes, my other hatred, this contemporary classical stuff. Now to clarify I'm a fan of tonality, I believe it still has a big role to play in music of our time. Karl Jenkins I can just about deal with, but people like Joby Talbot et al churning out long repetitive works which just about dodge traditional teleology whilst sticking to C Major and Cello solos (plus framed by the context all ready set out above) is about as suicidal as it gets. As much as I would like a bit of a experimental interlude (but then who would you put in it, Ades?) in the Classic FM Composer-in-residence scheme. However I don't think it's going to happen any time soon.

Now this has been (I admit) a unusually negative jeremiad. I must point out that Classic FM has done precisely 4 things for me.

1) It helped me to get to sleep on long cold nights at my Grandad's in the Dales, where it was the only radio station I could get

2) Classic FM was the place where I heard for the first time Moeran's Symphony and fell in love with it (its still my favorite symphony)

3)It once helped me with a pub quiz question about Peter Grimes

4) I accidently switched on one night after an awful day and they had just started playing Howells' Hymnus Paridisi, a absolutely cracking piece and one I shamefully omitted from my blog post about English music earlier in the year which cheered me right up.

Apart from this I get tired instantly of it all. I haven't even gone to talking about the requests show, or the magazine (which is where I DO get annoyed that they only have single movements...). So I will stop typing, and see whats next on the iTunes shuffle I have on at the moment. Its like Classic FM, except with much better music and less Fuzzyness and C Major.

It's John Adams, good.

Friday 26 June 2009

Other Stuff

Also meant to say that I have recently come across the music of Gavin Bryars. Well worth checking out, espeically Jesus' Blood Never failed me yet, a very moving peice, even if it does go a bit over board with the minimalism. Still worth checking out though, it is on Spotify.

Talking of Spotify I have been very impressed with the amount of 'classical' music available. For a couple of years now I have been using the Naxos Music Library which, despite having a vast library of music takes a while to find what you want. Plus when you find it its usually been recorded by the National Ochestra of Outer Mongolia (not that I actually have a problem with Naxos recordings, just the older ones tend to be a bit dodgy) On spotify though often stuff is there, and in the case of well known repertoire, in many versions, most often the best ones as well. For example I was trying to find a recording of Messiaen's Piano Preludes. On NML there is one version, on Spotify there are about 5, one by Loriot, 1 by Aimar and so on, making it a great service for comparing recordings. Maybe eventually Radio 3's CD review will have to become "Spotify Review"...

Lastly I must draw your attention to Edinburgh Studio Opera's production of Carmina Burana for which I am assistant MD for (which, if I could be arsed to do them would earn this post a Where's Runnicles esque "Shameless Plug" tag...). Rehearsals start in 4 weeks and I'm getting rather excited (I'm playing piano). To be honest I'm very keen to see how it turns out, we are doing it fully staged set in Las Vegas, sure it will be great fun!


Apologies for lack of posting recently. Oh well hopefully back with a bang...

I am engaged in the beginning of (an albeit self imposed) period of study of musical analysis in preparation for my dissertation and I thought I'd share some early thoughts on what can be a tricky subject.

Firstly I hate the idea of analysis trying to find things that aren't there. My limit is just about Schenker's fundamental line, which has enough of a theoretical basis to justify it (but then again only in certain situations). You can see it prevalently in analysis' by say Reti and other 'motivic' and above all 'psychological' analysts work where all too often insane leaps of judgement are used to justify the most tenuous of relationships. This is not to say that there is never a relationship between these sort of things. Rather I feel that a good analysis should tell you what goes on in a piece of music, what makes it tick so to speak, not tell you how there is a vague relationship (via a variation of a transformed reflection) between the first bar oboe part and 2 notes of the bass trombone part in the 56th bar (unless it was a really important note...).

However the problem with trying to avoid this is that you can end up with an analysis which tells you basically nothing. Until embarking on this voyage of discovery I hadn't really realised how inadequate the system taught in schools (or at least that I learnt) is. A 'analysis' based on Roman numerals is fine up to a point. But apart from being good shorthand for chord progressions it really tells you little about the music itself. How does the music progress over a long period of time? What about rhythm and motives? And so on and so forth. This is not to say that 'roman numerals' are still not usuful from time to time, or Schenkerian (or Neo-Schenkerian), or Schoernbergian.

The problem with analysis it seems to me (and I haven't even thought about how to try and tackle this yet) is to try and provide a thoughtful insight into a piece of music, without it either trying to justify too much or becoming a very mundane chart of chord progressions.

In fact from what I have seen so far I think the problem with analysis has been with 'systems' being invented and analysts then trying to shoehorn pieces into these systems to try and make them work. You can say this about Schenker to a point, but also Reti (again), Schoenberg, Meyer, even Tovey. Of course one has to have fundamental ideas about how to analyse music, but if music doesn't support your thinking don't work around it so it does, this isn't politics!

I still have a lot to read and find out, plus (by no real decision) everything I've read is from the 80's and before. I hope that recent trends have emphasised the music, rather then every more complicated systems to shoehorn yet another piece into. Time will tell...

Monday 27 April 2009


Bit of an odd one here. Have little time to write a proper post. Will quickly just round up all the interesting things that have happened to me. Well I met Emma Thompson when I was working up the top of York Minster's Tower. Apart from that my life has been rather boring so I thought I'd post an Essay I recently wrote about the influence on the Darmstadt school (Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio) and whether the term Darmstadt school was relevant in their case and what it's musical aesthetic was. Hardly the most influential piece of writing ever but certainly not the worst.

The summer of 1945 was a turning point for music. After the musical explosion and revolution of the early 1900’s music had become stagnant throughout the war periods. From the bombed out cities of Europe there was a call for new work, a fresh start. The centre of this desire for the new in music settled on a small town in Germany. The Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik created by Wolfgang Steinecke provided an opportunity for the young composers of the period to meet and exchange new ideas. Indeed it turned out to be the most important catalyst in the rise of the European Avant-Garde, from which emerged Pierre Boulez, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, who along with others became known as ‘The Darmstadt School’. This essay will set out the work of each composer and discuss their similarities and differences, to assess the validity of the label and examine what are ultimately the aesthetic characteristics of this school.

The oldest of the three was Pierre Boulez, who in 1945 as a precociously gifted 20 year old had already studied with Olivier Messiaen (another catalyst in the music of the time). The most important moment in the life of the young Boulez was the February 1945 performance of Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet (1923) conduced by Rene Lebiowitz , his first taste of serialism. Griffiths describes Boulez’s language of this event as nigh on a “religious conversion” . It is easy to see why, given the content of his works after the Sonatine for Flute and Piano (1946) and the 2nd Piano Sonata (1947-48), which use completely as well as extend the serial technique by the division of the series into cells which could be expanded. His initial impetus came from Schoenberg; however his early work is more influenced by Webern, especially the use of the series to create a more intervallic texture. However, as Griffiths points out: “direct imitation was never Boulez’s way, and it makes little sense to define his serial technique as ‘post-Webernian’” .
In fact this is a key part of Boulez’s working. He himself said: “you assimilate what attracts you, whilst rejecting constraints that don’t seem fruitful enough” . This ideal, whilst engaging in polemical rants (especially in the early years) against the ‘constraints’, seemed to be Boulez’s main compositional spur in the 50’s. The Sonatine is, on the whole, a rejection of aspects of Schoenberg and Webern and the Second Piano Sonata is a reaction against classical forms. He even rejected himself; Structures Ib and Ic (1952) are reactions against the automatic workings of Structures Ia.
It is quite odd considering that Boulez’s name is most associated with Darmstadt, that he did not attend until 1952 (it had been running since 1947). As Osmond-Smith says “[Boulez] already had a formidable body of compositions to his credit, and the publication of the second piano sonata in 1950” . However from then on he was a regular attendee and then lecturer at the courses. It was the regular interaction with other composers which brought him into contact with composers like Stockhausen, and arguably helped in his development of musical style.

“What counts in the creative act isn’t only developing oneself or coming up with a variation on the pre-existent baggage of tradition, but rather adhering to the original process of invention” . This adage seems to sum up the compositional process of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen perfectly, the man that through all of his pieces up to the monumental Licht series (1974-2003) kept developing and extending his compositional technique into new territories and ideas. This multiplicity of musical languages was crucial to Stockhausen, just as Boulez’s search for a definitive new musical language was to him.
Stockhausen’s willingness and imagination meant he was often on the pulse of the avant-garde. Kruezspeil (1951) was a key piece in the development of integrated serialism, and he was at the front of the Elektronische Musik movement in Cologne, but never to for away from the Musique Concrete of Paris. His Piano Piece XI (1956) was vital in the development of mobile form, and at the same time started a swing towards the music of Cage in the European Avant-Garde. He was also instrumental in Darmstadt’s two changes of focus, from Schoenberg to Webern in 1953 (along with Boulez), and from Webern to Cage in 1958, convincing Steinecke to invite Cage over to replace the absent Boulez, which started a gradual slide away from serialism and the first nail in the coffin for ‘the Darmstadt School’ (the other being the death of Wolfgang Steinecke in 1961). As the pianist David Tudor (a close friend of Cage) said: “he’s our man in Europe” , and although he never really adopted Cageian principles in full (the 70’s saw a return to melody with his ‘formula technique’) he certainly dabbled with the ‘New York School’ more than any other member of the ‘Darmstadt School’

Just as Berg was known as the human face of the Second Viennese school it is arguable that Berio held the same position in the 'Darmstadt School'. Griffiths, talking about his Requies says it is “beautiful (but then that is a word claimed by almost everything Berio has produced)” . It is true that Berio’s music is much more accessible then Stockhausen or Boulez, especially the pieces such as the Sinfonia (1968-69), which suspend our relationship with the past by juxtaposing the old with the new.
Berio, like Stockhausen had been introduced to Serialism at Darmstadt though through Bruno Maderna, later to become a collaborator at the RAI studio in Milan. However even in the early days of total serialism he managed to avoid the polemical rants of Boulez whilst never really diving fully into total serialism. Of this he said: “As far as I was concerned the serial experience never represented the utopia of a language and so it could never be reduced to a norm or to a restricted combination of materials” . This, interestingly, is what Boulez was trying to achieve, and Berio's serial thought, whilst related to that of Stockhausen and Boulez is obviously a completely different strand, in which plurality is key.

After putting the composers in context this essay will now compare the composers over a number of different areas to analyse better the similarities and differences between them.

Serial thought is the obvious common ground in any assessment of the ‘Darmstadt School’ and indeed the most important as it is the fundamental bedrock of the European Avant-Garde in the 1950’s onwards. Serial thought was a philosophy which embraced not just music but also poetry and writing in general. Umberto Eco is perhaps the greatest writer on serial thought and indeed on open form, another important cross art-form philosophy. On the fundamental concepts of serial thought he says:

“Every work of art is the linguistic foundation of itself, the discussion of its own poetic system…the whole notion of plurality of meaning overturns the Cartesian axes of the horizontal and the vertical…the effect of serial thinking is the evolution of new codes, not a progressive recoil to the original foundational code”

This quote boils down serial thought very well, and also seems to sum up the three composers’ attitudes to composition in the post war period: the establishment of a new compositional practices and moving away from what had gone before. However a general summing up of the practice of Serial thought cannot completely define the music of the Darmstadt school.
If we examine Eco’s quote we find slight differences in interpretation of serial thought from the three composers. A glaring example of this is in the last sentence of the quote above ‘the effect of serial thinking is the evolution of new codes’. This definitely sums up Stockhausen’s musical thinking, that there are a vast number of new musical codes to be discovered and utilised. Boulez on the other hand was aiming for a single unified musical language. Thus in some ways, whilst uniting the composers together, serial thought also highlighted the ways in which they were different. Thus serial thought by itself cannot really be used to justify the labelling of the Darmstadt school.

The fact that these composers were grouped together, at least in philosophical terms meant that, inspired by each other we see them all moving through the same new compositional devices at around the same time. As has already been well documented the starting block for all three was total serialism. The attention then turned to electronic music, with Boulez’s Etude’s (1951) and Stockhausen’s Studien (1955). The attention then turned to mobile form in the 1960’s with Stockhausen’s Piano Piece XI (1955), Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (1955-57), and Berio’s Passagio (1961-62).
There were many detours from this, especially in the case of Stockhausen for whom these were just one of many new compositional techniques he used in every piece. However the above serves as a very rough timeline for the development of the schools compositional thought. Berio summed up the situation by saying “We were interested in the same things and rejected broadly the same things” . If anything this is the wrong way round, this has shown that they were all ‘broadly interested’ in the same things whilst through serial though they rejected the same principles together.

One of the most interesting and important innovations of post war music and one that shows up very well the differences between the members of the Darmstadt School was that of electronic music. Electronic music is closely wrapped up with the Darmstadt school and all three were closely involved, indeed earned a living through it.
Stockhausen’s Electronic music is as varied as his instrumental music. His starting point was the splicing of sine waves in different ratios in Studie I and II, a completely different approach to the transformations of sounds in the Parisian Musique Conréte. However it was the Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-6) which set the way for the rest of his electronic music. Griffiths says of Gesang “In using natural alongside synthetic sound Stockhausen mediated…between the Musique Conréte of Paris and the Elektronische Musik of Cologne, opening the middle ground for exploration” . It is obvious that what Griffiths calls the ‘middle ground’ between the two is vitally important in the development of Stockhausen’s electronic music, especially in his later approaches starting with Mikrophonie I in 1964, which combined live sounds generated from a Tam-Tam altered in Real time by electronics, indeed through this mediation between natural and synthetic, it is easy to see it as looking ahead to a time when live electronic manipulation would be possible.
Stockhausen used electronic music as a key focus of his compositional development and aesthetic. Boulez and Berio’s both had official connections with electronic music, Boulez with IRCAM and Berio with RAI and later at IRCAM. However both composed only a limited repertoire for the medium. Berio’s most well known Electronic piece Omaggio a Joyce (1958) is obviously inspired by Gesang, even if it is just in the idea of matching human voice with electronics (in this case his wife Cathy Berberian), as again with Visage (1961). However after this his electronic work is limited, despite work as the Head of Electro acoustic music at IRCAM from 1974-80 and other similar positions. Likewise Boulez had a few early pieces, Etude sur un son and Etude sur sept sons (1951), there was a long gap with the exception of the 1958 Poesie pour pouvoir, until the IRCAM years before he focused on electronic music again. Griffiths says of this that after his first foray with the Etudes his attitude towards electronic music thereafter was “tempered with misgivings” whilst Boulez himself said there was a “confrontation with an uncharted material which was impossible to supervise… that suggested no standard unit in time, space or pitch” , which seems to affirm Griffiths’ point. Maybe this is the reason for both Boulez’s and Berio's lack of compositions for the medium, they were both involved heavily with, both feeling that electronics were still very new and undefined. However Stockhausen’s ‘Originator’ method of working allied itself very well with discovering the undiscovered and indeed was more a help rather than a hinderance in discovering the new sound world. Thus, overall, despite differences between the three. Electronic music was a key part of the Darmstadt aesthetic.

The relationship between words and music was another area which developed after the war and was taken upon by the members of the Darmstadt school. Boulez developed his technique in the early Char Cantatas. However it is Le Marteau sans Maître (1953-55) which really captures the essence of Boulez’s relationship between the two. Here the poem is the basis which the music is based around, however at the same time it is absent from it. This disembodied approach is very similar to the one tried by Berio, most famously in his Sequenza I (1958), whilst in Le Marteau Boulez uses Chars disjointed poetry to great effect, here the words themselves are broken up, an effect best seen in Circles. Here there are settings of Joyce in a palindromic form, where the syntax breaks up towards the middle.
Stockhausen on the other hand was unhappy with this. He saw comprehensibility, something Boulez and Berio treated with some but comparatively little order, as another thing to be completely organised. This view was further enhanced after his study with Walter Mayer-Eppler at Bonn University. Thus by Gesang as Kurtz says he was able to order voice and electronics in “a timbre continuum extending from the sine tone to white noise” . This was a completely new perspective on the human voice. It is obvious from the way that Boulez and Berio use the human voice that they treat it as something special, something different. However Stockhausen treats the human voice and its unique characteristics as just another collection of sine tones to be altered, although it still does have a resonance that no other instrument can provide.

Throughout all of this period, though there was marked a gradual dealignment within the school, it was clear that there was a burning desire to create new music of a certain type, a new tradition. However the split came in the process used to compose, not the composition itself. Stockhausen since his very first electronic piece had become increasingly fascinated with the nature of sound, from his initial work on Sine Waves in the Parisian and Cologne Studios, through past the work that lead to Gruppen (1955-57) and his discovery of the relationship between pitch and rhythm to the search for the microstructure of a sound wave in Mikrophonie I (1964-65).
Boulez was however more concerned with creating a new tradition out of the ashes of post-Webernian and Bergian serialism. However in some ways Boulez was the most ‘traditional’ of the three, ruggedly sticking to forms, compositional devices and instrumentation which were, despite their ingenuity only extended from their use in the music of 1900-1945. This clashed with Stockhausen’s belief of the multifarious compositional devices available to the composer. In some ways Berio was a mix between the two, indeed there are times where he has been inspired by one or the other composer, such as his relationship between words and music, as above very influenced by Boulez whilst what little Electronic music there is shows signs of Gesang about it. However Berio is always a little detached from the group, his style of composition, the dramatic edge as seen in the not only the theatre pieces but also the Sequenzas sets him slightly apart from the other two.

So ultimately can the Darmstadt School Label be defended? Labelling of groups tends to be a feature of western music, allowing an order to be established in an otherwise maze of music history. It is true that collecting Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio in the same group is more problematic than collecting say Reich, Glass and Adams under the label ‘minimalist’, (Minimalism is based on a collective musical aesthetic rather than a collective background though, then there are still problems) they are ultimately three composers from three different countries with three very different musical backgrounds, that right very different music. However whilst there music may be outwardly different, as noted above, all three composers do start off from the same point, with ultimately the same intention, to start music afresh and whilst doing so go through some of the same new compositional areas. We are once again back at Berio's quote: “We were interested in the same things and rejected broadly the same things” .
It has to be noted as well that the label, the ‘New York School’ centred around Cage across the Atlantic is widely established and often used. The New York School were again a group of composers ascribing to a set of principles whilst not writing exactly the same kinds of music, thus it gives precedence to this. The label ‘Darmstadt School’ has its problems. However overall it is definitely a valid one and can be defended.
What then is the Schools Musical Aesthetic? Ultimately it is a desire for the new, not the old, in terms of form, tonality, melody and instrumentation, whilst still keeping this to a large extent within the old concert environment. And it is (with the exception of a few Stockhausen pieces from the late 60’s as already noted above) a champion for order over chaos, even the mobile form pieces like Boulez’s Third Sonata are fixed to a certain extent. This strong aesthetic overcomes any differences the three composers may have and creates an adequate defence for the labelling of their ‘school’.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Music Publisher Sites - Part 2

More with this look at different sites of a musical variety.

Peters again is a site which (like universal) from the front page looks very impressive, stylish and well laid out. This continues into the composer sections. My only drawback is that once you get to a composer, tabs to then move onto the next section are all massed together, rather than separating, performance categories from other things like the German Biography or Upcoming performances as Boosey does. However this is a minor squabble, and whilst it's just pipped to the post by Boosey, it's definitely up there for best of the rest.

Breitkopf & Härtel, the last publisher I want to look at has an immediately confusing layout to its homepage, its not very obvious where information is kept and one has to a bit of digging to find composer information. This continues into the composer sites. For example I searched for Bach and it presented me with a list of 300+ pieces, without categorisation (which by now i hope you will have realised I'm a bit of a stickler for). Yes, I hear you cry "but Nick, you can use the search facility" and I answer yes that's true, but I would still rather information be easy to find without the search. For example, I could be looking for a piece but not know its name. Breitkopf & Härtel fails on this unfortunately, which is a pity, as its new editions are lovely (and also very well edited as well)

Basically this post was to air a bit of frustration, and to praise Boosey for a well thought out site. Boosey isn't the be all and end all, I really think they should adopt the Schirmer OnDemand system (well them and all publishing companies), and maybe the composer sites could be a bit more stylised. But many a time these past few weeks have I been trying to find information out, sighed to myself and muttered, "if only they were published by Boosey..."

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Music Publisher Sites - Part 1

Recently I have been on Music publishing sites a lot more than usual. Firstly a interview for Edinburgh Studio Opera (more on that in a minute), and then a upcoming audition/interview for a job for next year have meant I've been on something of a music website binge.

Firstly I think, and indeed have always thought Boosey (and Hawkes) have one of the best websites around. Everything is very clear and well laid out whilst everything is very easy to find out, especially orchestration and information (on a sideline from this can someone please set up a website combining all of this information, putting it all in one place. A bit ambitious yes, but definitely worth it).

Universal Edition is promising at first, the front page looks good, and well laid out. However as soon as one tries to access any more information things get tricky. It quickly reverts back to the German site, meaning most titles are in German (which is annoying) and set out in a list with out categorisation, which means if your trying to find a different version of a piece you have to trawl through until you find it, which is time consuming.

As Iain McLarty ( has recently said Schirmer have recently created a ondemand perusal service, which is a really good idea one in which other companies should use. Their site is also good, though (annoyingly) slightly less well laid out than Boosey one

I plan to continue this later, but for now onto good news. I am going to be appearing in the Fringe as Assistant MD/Piano Player for Edinburgh Studio Opera. We are doing a fully staged performance of Carmina Burana, which sounds really cool! My term as Assistant MD continues into the main production next Feb which is the Dove reduction of Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen. I'm really excited about these two productions, and working with the new MD, and getting to play a lot of Piano in CB and Trombone in CLV.

Friday 17 April 2009


I mentioned in my previous post that I had a slight obsession wit the music of John Adams (or God as I prefur to call him...). Well there are few pieces of his that I had never listened to (now I think only El Nino and the Flowering Tree remain) but listened to one tonight. Lollapalooza, written for Sir Simon "AwkwardTVPresenter" Rattle (talking of whom and his awkward Televisual presenting style I found the book of his seminal series leaving home in a book shop in Camden Market for only £4!). What a great peice! I'm sad I've never really listened to it before. The raw energy and rhtymic vitality that I love in Adams' minimalist style peices is evident here, plus great swathes of orchestral sound. Also the slightly wacky element (it is based on the word 'lollapalooza' after all) which I always think works well in a Adams peice. It's too late to go into my proper views and story about Adams so I won't, but I'll definitely be downloading this one.

P.S It also has a great Trombone part. Whilst I would like to say this had no effect on my judgement I feel this might be lying... But I did really like the peice generally.


I thought I would begin my blogging career with my views on one of my favourite composers. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am one for the obscure. I always want the underdog to win the FA cup tie. I love knowing weird and wonderful facts. This is not to say that I have a 'niche' which I devote myself to no end (although my relationship with the music of John Adams comes close...), rather I just like knowing lots of things on a wide variety of subjects.

My musical tastes are no different. This combined with an odd musical growing up in a cathedral choir has meant I have little time for Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. This is not to say that I think their music is bad, in fact I will happily acknowledge that these are great composers who did brilliant things for music. But on the whole I would rather listen to something else.

This attitude has meant that one of my favourite composers is E.J Moeran. If you have never heard of him background reading can be found here and if you have heard of him no I don't know the correct pronunciation either! Moeran for me is one of the great english composers of the 20th century. His style may have not been that forward thinking, but neither is it unoriginal, as can be said of the vast majority of English composers of that period (except maybe for Bridge, and even he took a while to get radical).

I have recently been thinking a lot about what it means to be English after visiting a friend on exchange in Canada and I believe the music of Moeran and others (Whitlock, Delius, VW etc) epitomises this more than any other composer. I think we should be proud of these composers and play their music more. Certainly at the time I got into the music of Moeran and the like this sort of music was played rarely, now it is a lot better, see the proms programme this year.

I guess his post has been rambling but my quest is two fold. Firstly to encourage people to try and do something different in music, don't just assume that the only good English music is Elgar. And secondly to listen to the music of Moeran and others (Stanford and Alwyn's symphonies are other recommendations). Prom 9 includes his symphony and I'm going to be there (it's live on BBC 4 as well). After all the next time it will be performed is most likely when I persuade an orchestra to do it...