RINGING THE CHANGES

Ringing The Changes, in collaboration with the artist David Ward, will be centred on a performance at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Charminster, Dorset.

 

The performance will have several strands: a new set of peals; a set of choral pieces to texts by David Ward about the relationship between bells and war; and the projection on to the interior and exterior of the church of images of bell-casting and bell-ringing, making visible activities which are normally invisible.

 

*

 

In the West, is bell ringing considered music? I have a feeling that, generally, it isn't. I suspect that most people think of it simply as an overall undifferentiated sound (in rather the same way as most people see the countryside as a green blur, in Richard Mabey's words). Of course that sound conjures up complex feelings of loss and nostalgia, like the sound of a foghorn. Nostalgia for a lost world, in this case a world in which religion, in particular Christianity, was pre-eminent, in fact the organising system of society.

 

The idea of bell ringing as a sound is, in the context of most Western music, not far from the truth. I would describe it as a sounding music: the musical exploration of a sound, the realization of the potential of that sound. This is similar to many Eastern musics, and significantly different from most Western music, in which development and change are paramount, particularly harmonic change. Western music is, usually, about starting in one place and making a journey to another – an odyssey. Eastern music, and bell ringing, are about starting in a place and examining that place with great attention – a meditation.

 

Are bell peals the nearest thing that Western culture has to trance or meditative music? It’s true that since the 1960s Western composers (La Monte Young, Philip Glass) and bands (Sunn O) have been inspired by and have appropriated Eastern trance musics; but bell peals are different – they are indigenously Western. And certainly, the act of ringing the bells is a meditative act, an act of extreme concentration.

 

At the same time it is pure mathematics.

 

COVID CHORAL

Covid choral music has two manifestations: the Zoom choir rehearsal and the virtual choir.  Ingenious, frisky, worthwhile. But. For the members of amateur choirs, a million miles from their normal choral experience, and a zillion miles from what made them join a choir in the first place. What a choir offers in the normal world is the chance to sing in amongst people who are singing what you’re singing, feeling the confidence that comes from their support, knowing that your contribution is important but that if your singing is not perfect it’s not the end of the world – your voice is subsumed in a bigger sound. You are a cog in a machine. That might not normally be a pleasure but here it is – the choir makes a sound that you can’t make yourself.

 

In the Zoom choir rehearsal the choir director demonstrates a line, and the singers sing it back to her. But the director will have muted all their feeds, otherwise the sound would be demented. So she can’t actually hear what comes back. She has no idea if they’re singing the right notes, or if they’re in tune. It’s probably an ideal situation for some choir directors – no need to listen to that racket! - but this is a class of directors who’d rather not be with an amateur choir – they dream of being in charge of a fabulous professional choir. But since 99% of choirs are amateur, the dream is hard to realise.

 

And what is the Zoom experience like for the singers? There is an agreeable feeling of taking part in a cooperative and sociable event, a feeling that’s hard to come by in lockdown, but this is undermined by the sense of being on your own, singing solo in your kitchen or bedroom (might be better in the bathroom for acoustic reasons). No support from your mates. A choir of one.

 

For the virtual choir, the director plays you a backing track which you listen to on headphones, you sing along, record yourself, send the recording to her, and she assembles the contributions into a choral piece. There is a result – you get to hear yourself as a contributor to a bigger sound, you sense yourself as a cog in a machine. But the task of recording yourself is, again, a solitary one. 

 

So, you are grateful for the online possibilities. They’re better than nothing. But you’re longing to get back to how things were. Hmm. That’s not going to happen for some time. Choral music could not be more incompatible with social distancing. In a choir you want to be – you need to be – as close together as possible. How to solve this problem? I wish I knew.  Singing in face masks? Heck. Singing while spread out is possible, but requires immense skill and concentration. Singing outdoors is the beginning of a solution. Singing outdoors while spread out is fearsomely difficult. There is a possibility of using technology – each singer has a microphone and headphones as if in a recording studio; the sound goes to a mixer and back as foldback to the headphones so that everyone can hear each other. Expensive. And still, actually, very different from singing acoustically.

 

The nearest I’ve been to a solution so far has been the Stoop Choir. In our street we’ve been singing pop songs after the NHS clap on Thursdays. Outdoors, spread out. Gloriously sociable, enjoyable and hilarious. The singing quality? Ho hum.

 

COVID CHORAL 2

As the first lockdown came all those of us who normally swear by live performance went scurrying off to the online world - and discovered that we and the people we were working with needed to learn some new skills.

 

So the little opera I Look For The Think that I was making with Rosetta Life (part of their epic Stroke Odysseys project) and Garsington Opera, due to be performed at Garsington last summer, became a film – the most labour-intensive project I’ve ever worked on.  And I wasn’t even in the front line.

 

Lucinda Jarrett and Chris Rawlence had constructed a beautiful libretto, based on the experiences of Kim and Sarah Fraser. Kim and Sarah had met in their thirties, fallen in love, left their partners. A few weeks later, Kim had a severe stroke. He was completely dislocated from reality and found it almost impossible to communicate. But he could still dance, and he could still sing, he had kept his sense of humour, and he knew how to flirt. He was very good company. During a workshop, I was partnered with him, trying to extract the story of his traumatic introduction to boarding school. (I was very sympathetic as I’d been through the same experience.) The story came in fragments: ‘under the desk’, ‘rugger rugger rugger’, ‘tears down my face’, and then suddenly ‘wanking! wanking!’ and he burst into fits of laughter.

 

In I Look For The Think we encounter Kim and Sarah (played by Rob Goulden and Melanie Pappenheim) in hospital, a few days after his stroke. He thinks he’s in New Zealand, and, as Sarah says, he’s essentially right – he is indeed in another world. The hospital staff (played by the Garsington Chorus) anxiously look after him, trying vainly to connect him to his past. Then the crucial moment – time for release. Rising anxiety. Is he ready to go? Will they be able to cope in the outside world? And Kim and Sarah themselves excited but alarmed, his thoughts amplified by a chorus of stroke survivors (played by the Stroke Odysseys Ambassadors).

 

Sarah realises that she is living with a new person, and she needs to learn how to love him again. They create a new relationship, profoundly different from what they had before Kim’s stroke. She cares for him, and he responds. Her thoughts are amplified by a Carer’s Chorus (played by some of the Stroke Ambassadors’ actual carers). They go into the Scottish Highlands, and they walk and they walk and they talk. Kim’s brain is still chaotic, his speech is still hesitant, but he can taste the possibility of recovery. The power of love.

 

To make this into an online film, we must first record the music. Not so easy. I make a backing track, and then every single performer – there are about 70 – must learn his or her part in a Zoom rehearsal, record it individually, and send it in to be assembled. We have a thousand Zoom meetings trying to work out the most sympathetic efficient way to make that happen. Lea Cornthwaite, Jeremy Avis, Victoria Cooper, Melanie, who will lead the sessions, Karen Gillingham the director, Lucinda, Chris, me. Our brains ache. Zoom is a brilliant platform, but with drawbacks, particularly for singing. The sound is severely compromised by compression, and there is a small sound delay, slightly different for each person.

 

So a Zoom choral rehearsal is a very weird event. The leader sings the music, everyone sings it back – but the leader has had to mute all the singers, because the platform can’t cope. So it’s impossible to know whether people have really learnt the music, whether they are singing in time and in tune. I log into one of these rehearsals, singing along to music which I myself have written, and find it very difficult – rather lonely, and very exposing of my lousy singing voice. It’s more or less the direct opposite experience of singing live inside a choir.

 

Then it’s recording time. We are asking amateur singers, some of whom have had strokes, to listen to a backing track on headphones while recording themselves singing. Insane! Some have carers to help, some have children, but many are doing it for themselves. A new multi-dimensionally baffling challenge, new skills, new levels of patience. The results are chaotic but glorious. Understandably everyone feels very proud.

 

Lea and Jeremy and I assemble what we’ve been sent. It’s a massive task, by turns massively satisfying and massively frustrating. The more approximate contributions can be helped by electronic transformation – it’s possible to put notes in tune (sort of) and in time, but if you do too much of that the result has no life – it’s weird and inhuman. I add in Sarah Homer on bass clarinet and Nicola Bates on violin, and we have a sound mix. Wow! But it’s only sound.....

 

Now for filming. Karen and Chris (who is making the film) get into action. The performers must learn their moves, remind themselves of the music, and then film themselves, sometimes lip-synching to the audio mix, sometimes doing cutaways without the music. Amazing contributions, some tentative and fragile, some exuberant and robust, some heart-stopping, some pretty bizarre. And Chris must do alone what Lea and Jeremy and I have done together, and assemble these fragments into something that flows, tells the story, respects and reacts to the music.

 

Six months after we started we have a completed film, ten minutes long. It’s taken about the same amount of work as making a full-length live opera.......

 

Soon after it’s finished, Melanie and I start working with Kate McGrath of Fuel Theatre on the idea of a live choral performance in the courtyard of Somerset House. Exciting! A return to live performance! Almost immediately....aaaaargh...lockdown.

 

LISTEN HEAR

On the wonderful twitter feed Composers Doing Normal Shit there are photographs of Philip Glass and his children feeding pigeons, Carl Neilsen knitting, Pierre Boulez having a good time, and lots of composers looking miserable. I am particularly taken with the Boulez photographs, because I’ve met so many composers who are sociable and frisky while writing music that is almost impossible to listen to. A demonstration that we (some of us? all of us?) consist of many different selves.

 

Beethoven Doing Normal Shit? It’s hard to imagine, but there’s a 1927 essay by the French writer Romain Rolland – good name, and an interesting-looking person, apart from anything else a life-long pacifist and a supporter of Stalin - which discusses Beethoven as a person, talks about his mental and physical strength – ‘There is something in him of Nietzsche’s superman.’

 

‘He sustains this strength of his,’ writes Rolland, ‘by means of vigorous ablutions with cold water, a scrupulous regard for personal cleanliness, and daily walks immediately after the midday meal, walks that lasted the entire afternoon and often extended into the night; then a sleep so sound and long that he thanklessly complained against it! His way of living is substantial but simple. Nothing to excess; he is no glutton, no drinker. He is fonder of fish than of meat; fish was his great treat. But his fare was rough and countrified: delicate stomachs could not endure it.’

 

So, this is Beethoven doing normal shit: tucking into a hearty fish stew and then walking through the night.

 

But this view of Beethoven is in weird contrast to a letter he himself writes to his brothers Carl and Jonathan in 1802: ‘Oh! ye who think or declare me to be hostile, morose, and misanthropical, how unjust you are, and how little you know the secret cause of what appears thus to you! My heart and mind were ever from childhood prone to the most tender feelings of affection, and I was always disposed to accomplish something great. But you must remember that six years ago I was attacked by an incurable malady, aggravated by unskilful physicians, deluded from year to year, too, by the hope of relief, and at length forced to the conviction of a lasting affliction (the cure of which may go on for years, and perhaps after all prove impracticable). Born with a passionate and excitable temperament, keenly susceptible to the pleasures of society, I was yet obliged early in life to isolate myself, and to pass my existence in solitude. If I at any time resolved to surmount all this, oh! how cruelly was I again repelled by the experience, sadder than ever, of my defective hearing! — and yet I found it impossible to say to others: Speak louder; shout! for I am deaf! Alas! how could I proclaim the deficiency of a sense which ought to have been more perfect with me than with other men,–a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, to an extent, indeed, that few of my profession ever enjoyed!.....Forgive me therefore when you see me withdraw from you with whom I would so gladly mingle. My misfortune is doubly severe from causing me to be misunderstood. No longer can I enjoy recreation in social intercourse, refined conversation, or mutual outpourings of thought. Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so. I must live like an exile. In company I am assailed by the most painful apprehensions, from the dread of being exposed to the risk of my condition being observed… What humiliation when any one beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well nigh caused me to put an end to my life.’

 

Beethoven starts to go deaf in his mid-twenties. It used to be thought that he was completely deaf 15 years later, for the last 15 years of his life, but there seems to be some evidence from his own writings that even up to the end he could still hear something.

 

As a composer I am awestruck by Beethoven – difficult not to be - and awestruck that he managed to compose stupendously brilliant music while being deaf.

 

How much of a handicap was it?

 

Ideally as a composer the music comes into your head  - what does that mean? You can ‘hear’ it – what does that mean? Odd use of the word ‘hear’ - you’re not using your ears. (Non-composers have this experience, but the music is usually something that exists already.) And you transcribe it on to paper – well, you used to, now you transcribe it on to computer software. Unless you’re very lucky the music doesn’t come into your head fluently, it comes in chunks, some of them fully formed, some partial, some sketchy – and in your head you’re trying to connect them, move them around, build on them. The sounds you are deploying are based on sounds in your memory - the sound of a particular note, of a particular chord, of a particular chord progression, of a particular instrument – your vocabulary. The medium you are transcribing onto is helping out. It gives you some distance from what you’re writing. You can look through what you’ve written, get a sense of what works and what doesn’t, get a bird’s eye view of the structure, see patterns emerge.

 

When you’ve finished composing in this way the piece exists, in an idealised way, in your head. But it doesn’t exist. It’s not in the air. And it exists, in an idealised way, on paper. But it doesn’t exist.

 

You could argue that the process would not be much different if you were deaf.

 

But there are the support mechanisms.

 

Most composers often use a piano to help them – to try things out, in an improvisational way, or simply to hear live something you’ve already written. (There are dangers to this: you are restricted by piano technique in general – by what a piano is suited to, and by your piano technique in particular. If you’re writing for violin there are many things that a violin can do that a piano can’t, and vice versa.) In this way of working composition is a dialogue between what is in your head and what is in the air when you’re playing the piano.

 

And nowadays, once you’ve transcribed the music onto software, you can press a button and the software plays it back, admittedly in a nasty synthetic way, but very helpfully for checking what you’ve written. At the very least it’s a brilliant way to proofread your score, a process that used to be interminable and flawed – you simply listen through to what you’ve written. If it sounds right, hooray (even if it’s not what you intended....), if it doesn’t, you correct it.

 

Then, probably, you get to hear the piece played. You go to a rehearsal (maybe you’re conducting). There is an excitement – the piece is in the air. There is frustration – no that’s not how I wanted it. There is a tension between the version in your head and the version in the air. And often the version in the air is better. The performers have brought something to it that you haven’t imagined. You attend a performance. Excitement, pride, massive anxiety. You begin to hear the piece through the ears of the people sitting round you. You immediately become aware of the drawbacks – particularly the pacing of the piece. Ah, come on, come on, let’s get on with it.......

 

And then, of course, you can listen to other people’s music. Perhaps you’re finding inspiration. (Perhaps you’re stealing from it....) You’re certainly refreshing your vocabulary.

 

Beethoven has little access to any of these support mechanisms. He is relying on memory. Does he ever worry that his memory is disintegrating, that he is basing his pieces on a vocabulary that is imperfect? He can’t check stuff. He can’t refresh.

 

Ten years after his letter to his brothers, he is writing his Seventh Symphony, one of my favourite pieces – one of his favourite pieces. It is, unequivocally, a masterpiece.

 

He conducts the first performance. Louis Spohr, a composer who is playing in the orchestra, describes the conducting. It’s not a flattering description. An incident in one of the rehearsals: ‘He jumped into the air at the point where according to his calculation the forte ought to begin. When this did not follow his movement he looked about in a startled way, stared at the orchestra to see it still playing pianissimo and found his bearings only when the long expected forte came and was visible to him.’ Ouch. The orchestra is not following him. (This is a surprisingly common occurrence – the orchestra decides it doesn’t like what the conductor is doing – it’s unclear, it’s unhelpful, or it’s grandstanding – and chooses, without any internal consultation, to ignore him/her, follow the leader instead. The wisdom of a crowd.) What he is hearing in his head, and trying to convey to the orchestra, is not happening. There are two simultaneous realities – what he hears in his head, and what he hears in the air. They’re not even in synch, they’re phasing with one another. And what he hears in the air is of course severely compromised – very quiet, and filtered, lacking in high frequencies. Ouch ouch ouch.

 

You can’t help wondering why he is conducting. Surely someone else should be doing it. His conducting is chaotic.

 

His composition is not.

 

In 1826, near to the end of his life, he writes his Fourteenth String Quartet, in C sharp minor. Whereas the Seventh Symphony didn’t break much new ground, this string quartet does. It’s harmonically and structurally complicated, and it’s forward-looking. It sounds as if it were composed yesterday (as Stravinsky said about the Grosse Fugue, also from this period.) At the time a lot of people thought, oh, it’s nonsense, but then he’s deaf, poor thing, so it’s hardly surprising. But it’s obvious now that he must have heard the piece in his head perfectly. Schubert said of it: ‘After this, what is left for us to write?’

 

What an extraordinary achievement. What incredible confidence, to have built something so radical based on a vocabulary remembered from long ago. Perhaps his deafness gave him the confidence. (The blind painter Sargy Mann said once: ‘Now that I can’t see, I might dare to do things I wouldn’t have done when I could see.’)

 

The piece was Beethoven’s favourite of his late string quartets. Interestingly, he never got to hear it played. Perhaps that didn’t matter. What was in his head was enough.