Each commissioned piece will last twelve minutes, and be broadcast on Radio 3 and toured around the UK.
The initiative has been created independently, and is delivered by the PRS for Music Foundation and partners. Composers involved include Julian Joseph, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Jason Yarde, Anna Meredith and Howard Skempton.
Whether you think the Olympics is a good or a bad thing for the UK, here at least is a sign that it will have a beneficial effect on the cultural life of the country.
Like an aberrant relative of whom one is slightly wary and mistrustful, jazz has always occupied a slightly equivocal place in relation to the classical music tradition. Briefly adored by Les Six and the aspiring avant-garde in early twentieth-century France, it has never quite managed to find itself a comfortable place in the canon of Western classical music.
At the start of the twentieth-century, composers working in France were seized with enthusiasm for the latest craze, jazz, with printed sheet music of works by Scott Joplin and performances by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra fuelling the interests of composers such as Satie and the group, Les Six. Joplin’s opera Treemonisha ,written back in 1910 (although not performed in full realisation until over sixty years later), and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess from 1935, both show established classical forms embracing jazz: indeed, although famed for pieces such as the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ and other ragtime piano works, Joplin always referred to his piece as an ‘opera.’
Evidence of the enthusiasm for jazz can be found in the adoption of ragtime music, as in Stravinsky’s Ragtime; or from Satie’s Parade; although, as always with Stravinsky, you get the sense that Stravinsky is playing with jazz as an objective phenomenon, rather than as a visceral, gut-instinct style; he dissects it and plays with it from a distance, somehow, rather than it being the lifeblood of his writing. Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony saw jazz invading orchestral music in 1925.
Jazz harmonies abound in the music of Francis Poulenc. The second movement of Ravel’s Violin Sonata is entitled ‘Blues’ and is evidence of Ravel’s fascination with jazz. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue opens with the glissando clarinet that immediately speaks of jazz playing; the harmonic palette of the piece is littered with extended jazz chords and copious use of the ‘blue’ note (flattened seventh).
Artists themselves can be seen to cross the apparently insurmountable classical-jazz divide: André Previn conducts Debussy or improvises with Oscar Peterson; violinist Yehudi Meuhin improvises with Stephan Grapelli;
More recently, former Radio 3 Young Generation Artist Gwilym Simcock is working hard to blur the division between classical and jazz genres. Jazz pianist Julian Joseph collaborated with Harry Christophers’ ‘The Sixteen’ in a programme of Monteverdi for the Spitalfields Festival, up-dating the improvisation expected of keyboard players in the Baroque period for the modern, jazz-infused age. And trumpeter Wynton Marsalis stands astride the classical and jazz genres, moving between both with ease and demonstrating phenomenal technical ability in both fields.
Improvisation has always been at the heart of classical music: from extemporised continuo parts in the Baroque to Mozart’s own improvised cadenzas in the piano concerti, and some elements of spontaneous realisation in the aleatoric music of the 1960s: improvisation belongs with classical music, and isn’t necessarily a separate discipline. Improvisation itself is the very life-blood of jazz, the spontaneous creation of music as a response to the moment of performance, keeping jazz very much alive.
As the twentieth-century turned into the twenty-first, jazz began to establish more of a foothold in classical music, and now it’s sometimes difficult to extricate one from the other in the work of composers such as Louis Andriessen, Turnage, Simcock and others.
Jazz, classical music and improvisation: made for each other.
I’ve written previously about expected audience behaviour, as it’s important to make music accessible to everyone without burying it beneath all manner of stultifying conventions that will almost certainly put people off, especially younger audiences who are potentially the Ticket-buyers of Tomorrow. The almost religious state of obeisance required to sit still and attentively through classical repertoire is alien to those who attend jazz gigs and rock concerts. Clap in the wrong place during a symphony, and you’re greeted with icy stares or patronising glances: clap after a particularly fine instrumental improvisation at a jazz gig, the musicians will nod their thanks.
Harvey advocates amplifying music in performance, standard practice in rock and jazz gigs but greeted with a sharp intake of breath at classical concerts.
“There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music. The future must bring things that are considered blasphemous, like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go … and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it.”
Leave in the middle if they feel like it ? Blasphemous indeed, perhaps – to some. But precisely this premise was part of Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson – written in 1976, the opera lasts for around five hours, and consists of nine scenes linked by short interludes known as ‘Knee Plays;’ there is no plot, and the audience members are free to enter and leave when they wish.
Harvey has composed in the electro-acoustic field as well as traditional choral and instrumental works: Le Tombeau de Messiaen is composed for piano and tape; Mortuos Plango, Vivos Vocos whizzes the tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral and voice of a boy soprano (Harvey’s son) around in space, whilst Speakingsportrays the birth, development and establishment of language and is written for orchestra and live electronics. His choral compositions range from the dancing Virgo Virginum to the beguiling mesmerism of The Angels.
There is of course a divide between audiences for classical concert repertoire and jazz and rock lovers: but as composers such as Mark-Anthony Turnage and Tansy Davies are proving, it’s not an insurmountable one. (Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, anyone ?) And if you go to a concert given by groups like Icebreaker or to hear music by Steve Reich, amplification is almost de rigeur.
Harvey makes the prediction that “if orchestras and conductors hang on to the orthodox method of performance they will end up playing to empty halls.” Whilst one hopes fervently that this will not be the case, there is surely some room to accommodate new ways of listening to music, in a way that will attract younger audiences: isn’t there ?
Some bright spark has superimposed Beyoncé’s hit Single Ladies, released in the UK in February last year, onto the first three minutes of video footage of the Turnage piece on YouTube, and it’s hard not to be convinced. Brass riffs imitate vocal lines, chords on the piano and strings are following patterns in the pop song: even the speed David Robertson takes the piece at is the same. Turnage is a confessed jazz and pop enthusiast as well as being a ‘classical’ composer (if the term can be said to have any meaning these days).
In an interview about the piece, Turnage acknowledged several pop references, but also mentioned secret ones that he would prefer listeners to discover for themselves. This seems to be one of them.
A new piece by a major contemporary composer is always something of an event – I still get ridiculously excited when a Steve Reich premiere is announced – and a new work by Mark-Anthony Turnage will always be exciting, challenging, and slightly alarming: you never quite know what you’re in for.
Last night, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and David Robertson gave the first performance of Turnage’s new Hammered Out, commisioned for the Proms. Turnage’s familiar thumbprints are all there: shrieking orchestral textures, brash walls of brass, chattering woodwind and driving percussion. Funky rhythms and homophonic brass writing (Turnage is an avowed fan of James Brown and Tower of Power), the piece is a wildly exuberant celebration of orchestral writing meeting elements of popular music and a go-to-hell attitude to the composer’s own fiftieth birthday year.
Turnage sounds as fresh as ever, the sound-worlds of his earlier Three Screaming Popesand Drowned Out still vibrantly alive.
You can hear the piece on-line for the next seven days here, and the concert itself will be repeated on Radio 3 next week, at which point it will again be available for another week.
Two weeks to enjoy a new work by Turnage: now that’s a real treat.
(And here’s a short extract from Turnage’s previous piece, Texan Tenebrae, from his forthcoming opera about the life of Anna Nicole Smith, in rehearsal).
I was struck the other day, whilst reading Donald Mitchell’s excellent book Cradles of the New, by a passage in which he describes Debussy’s Fêtes as ‘one of the earliest explorations of acoustic space.’ There is a section in the work, the middle movement of his orchestral Nocturnes, in which a march-theme appears in the orchestra, grows louder and then recedes. Mitchell suggests Debussy is creating the sense of a marching band appearing and receding into the distance, and the work is re-creating the effect of music moving through space.
This practice of moving sound around, it seems to me, becomes an increasingly significant aspect of composition in twentieth- and twenty-first century music: think of the lone trumpeter in Ives’ The Unanswered Questionor the structural arrangement of the score in Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum which reflects the layout in St. Mark’s, Venice; the off-stage ensemble in Mahler’s Resurrection symphony; or Turnage’s About Time, for modern ensemble and the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, where the initial brass chorale is played by instruments arrayed around the tower of Ely Cathedral.
The movement of sound around the performance venue (I’m having to avoid the phrase ‘concert hall,’ given the nature of the Turnage piece!) has become a very real phenomenon with the advent of amplification in performance, in particular with electro-acoustic music: rather than move the performers around the space, the sound itself can be transported around the environment. Think of Stockhausen, or Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Vocos: no longer is the sound static, in the sense that it is being created in one place in relation to the listener: now, the actual sonic space in which the listener is immersed can be altered and moved – the distribution of sound itself becomes as much a part of the compositional process, and the listening experience, as is the choice of instrumentation or harmonic modulation.
Medieval minstrels performed in the city streets, at festivals and mystery plays, playing as they moved, often in order to advertise their playing and draw listeners towards the eventual site of the performance. The sonorous music of Gabrieli in the Renaissance period was working with its acoustic environment, exploring textures and effects dictated by the intended performance space. Modern concert audiences can have a similar experience without leaving the comfort of their seats: the music is moving, receding, diminishing, or growing louder all around them.
Listening to music is no longer about being a fixed point in a static sonic environment: we can be moved by sound, in more ways than one.
Because it does. Doesn't it ? Blogging about extra-curricular musical life at the University of Kent.