There was plenty else turning on that night. My stomach, for instance. I had spent half a concert in a state of increasing disbelief as a handful of players, in slow motion, picked over a few wisps of chord and tune. The piece in question was called The Sinking of the Titanic. It claimed to be an attempt to convey what the ship's band sounded like as it kept on playing while it went under. The performance was backed up by deadpan, scientific-looking notes explaining what would happen to the sound-waves at different depths. Personally, I was stuck at the stage of wondering whether my ears would still have worked. Few intervals had been awaited so eagerly, and I was first in the queue for a sandwich.
Now, back in the hall, I was listening to the maundering ditty of a tramp going round and round, over and over. What's more, I had to watch a scratchy-looking film of him approaching the camera in slow motion during an apparent eternity. The same composer, Gavin Bryars, owned up to this piece too. Jesus' blood never failed whom yet? It was letting me down, for one. A fantasy that came upon me is fixed in my memory: I would walk up to the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, flamboyantly throw a few pennies in the general direction of both tramp and musicians, and storm out. Instead I sat politely in place until the end and then fled in search of alcohol.
It would be neat, but untruthful, to say I felt aware of having been at a historic event. 'Unexpurgated crap' was one of the more repeatable tags that emerged in the pub. Vengeance was taken in due course on other performers who came my way soon afterwards when I was a fledgling reviewer for Music and Musicians. The realisation that, if it produces such extreme reactions, it can't be trivial after all, took another two or three years to arrive.
To be exact, it took a conversion experience of Steve Reich and Musicians playing Drumming and Music for 18 Musicians at a pair of concerts in the Round House. Now that was well timed. Fresh from topping up on undergraduate memories of Kant and the limits of reason with a zip through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I was ready to cope with something that broke out of settled Western convention, even if I hadn't actually been anywhere much. The effect of music that didn't have to be goal-directed, that just blissfully was, seemed like discovering that a theory really worked. Now I knew why minimalists, experimentalists, anti-avant-garde musicians of all persuasions, were breaking the real ground.
With hindsight it couldn't easily have been otherwise for people to whom modern music meant, first, the long struggle to come to grips with what
Schoenberg and his successors had been up to, and second, people like the wild young Peter Maxwell Davies and the tearaways at the London Sinfonietta. Imagine sweating blood for decades to develop the most advanced techniques, only to find you could write perfectly valid, exploratory, creative pieces with the simplest of means. The thought was so outrageous that many composers and critics rubbished it; some still do. My access of understanding had luckily been prepared by talking with Keith Potter, one of the most far-sighted of British writers about this music at the time and himself a practitioner, whose patience with my unbelief I am grateful for. Not everybody would react to hostile reviews by inviting the perpetrator to an unpoisoned and friendly supper.
In the coming years it gave me much innocent pleasure (spiced with a little Schadenfreude) to see the self-appointed guardians of our musical culture stumbling at the same hurdles. I watched them walk out on the Philip Glass Ensemble in high dudgeon to fulminate at length in print - this was long before he became the parody of himself that he often sounds now. The process kept happening again and again, with Michael Nyman and Steve Reich, John Tavener and Howard Skempton, and indeed Gavin Bryars. Unbelievably, the refusal to accept still isn't over - this for a musical movement well into its fourth decade, which has had more impact than any development since Schoenberg's 12- note system, apart from rock 'n' roll.
Indeed it shows that history may be repeating itself, for an insular refusal to admit the possibilities (and the limits) of the Schoenberg succession was a distinctive feature of British musical life until not so long ago. Presumably it all stems from a lack of confidence. The signs are quite easy to recognise once you know them, and they are always cropping up in new embodiments. The most recent is the over-contemptuous dismissal by hard-line modernists of the 'Hecklers' at the revival of Gawain. True, the heckling was pretty feeble. But it seems to have touched off a defensiveness out of all proportion to the attack. And how many of those who wrote off the music of Messrs Burstein and Stocken troubled to listen to it for themselves?
Anybody who draws the strong reactions that Bryars did has to have plenty going for him, or her. I seek them out now: the ones who were disowned by their teachers, or couldn't get through the reading panel of the Society for the Promotion of New Music, or inspire a tight-lipped consensus among the publishers, or fail to become a 'BBC Preferred Composer'. At least, the ones who don't sit around whingeing about their neglect but know their own worth and set about finding alternative outlets - often active rebels, though not always.
I have followed Bryars' subsequent career with admiration. It has not been uncritical admiration. The long version of Jesus' Blood issued on CD last year, with Tom Waits doubling up on the tramp's part, is surely a mistake: an anarchic, mould-breaking experience has turned into a comfortable wallow. But we all make our mistakes, and reviewers make more of them than most. Here's to the next composer that drives me to drink.
Bryars' new CD, 'Vita Nova', is out now on ECM
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content