Professor Anthony Pople

Architect of a novel 'Tonalities Project' for music analysis
Click to follow

Anthony John Leonard Pople, music theorist, teacher, recording producer and composer: born Croydon, Surrey 18 January 1955; Lecturer in Music, Lancaster University 1983-95, Professor of Music Theory and Analysis 1995-97; Professor of Music, Southampton University 1997-99; Professor of Music, Nottingham University 1999-2003; married 1988 Angela Horrocks (two daughters); died Nottingham 10 October 2003.

How do listeners to music make sense of what they hear? Those who work in the sub-discipline of musical research known as "music analysis" are typically driven by this most fundamental of questions.

It is only relatively occasionally, however, that the answers found by music analysts have the scope and clear-sightedness necessary to throw real light on musical experience. Anthony Pople confronted the challenge with unflinching passion and energy, and over the course of a brilliant career, now cut short, developed a theoretical approach to music that harnessed computer technology, cognitive science and cultural understanding to offer unparalleled insight into how music "works".

Pople's principal subjects of investigation were the "approachable" early 20th-century modernists so beloved of adventurous musicians and concert-goers today - particularly Scriabin, Stravinsky, Berg and Messiaen, but also Sibelius, Ravel, Vaughan Williams and Tippett. What fascinated Pople about this music was the way in which it negotiated with, but did not reject, the heritage of 19th-century harmony, with its recognisable key notes, chord structures and harmonic successions.

For Pople, all of this music partakes of an expanded system of "tonalities". The plural is important: earlier attempts to explain this repertoire had either underestimated its strong seams of tradition (by setting it crudely in opposition to 19th-century tonality) or, conversely, had neglected what sets it apart (by simply calling it "tonal"). Pople's work, whose various strands were eventually brought together as the "Tonalities Project", was explicitly intended to reflect (in his words) "the rich variety of the music itself".

Not content with elaborating his ideas in scholarly book and journal articles (of which there were many), Pople developed a uniquely sophisticated software package in which he sought to reconcile the flexibility of his analytical approach with the notorious inflexibility of computer processing.

Data corresponding to a musical score is fed into the programme via a spreadsheet; then, the operator engages in a "process of exchange" with the software, refining its settings in accordance with the "hunches" of musical intuition. The programme output may confirm a listener's introspective explanation of their experience, but it may equally suggest entirely new interpretations. Initially chary of disseminating a product that he felt was less than fully developed, in the last months of his life Pople prepared a version for wider use. The story of the Tonalities Project has only just begun.

The combined musical and technological expertise necessary for such an undertaking was one of many respects in which Pople proved himself a man of quite outstandingly diverse talents. As an undergraduate at Oxford (where he won an Open Scholarship to St John's College after schooling at Dulwich College) he initially read Mathematics, turning to music only later.

While still a student he spent time performing as a professional violinist. He also composed a number of finely crafted chamber and orchestral works; his first publication was a completion of Frank Bridge's last, unfinished composition, the so-called Unfinished Symphony. As a young lecturer at Lancaster University this prodigious moonlighting continued, this time as the recording producer for Peter Hill's award-winning series of discs of Messiaen piano music (1984-91).

A colleague of Pople's described him as "a remarkable (and rare) combination of brilliant scholar and nice bloke". Pople's kindness and interest in others was felt not least by his students. Where some with his talents might have felt tempted to remain in the rather enclosed world of high-level academic research, Pople's career was marked by a formidable production of approachable materials designed particularly to assist undergraduates in their studies. Two handbooks on Berg's Violin Concerto (1991) and Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (1998) and an edited companion to the music of Berg (The Cambridge Companion to Berg, 1997) are now staples on university course lists.

In 1995 Pople was elected Editor of the journal Music Analysis, a position he held for five years until illness forced him to refocus his energies on his own research. His energy, good judgement and charm ensured the continued success and distinctiveness of the journal during a period when new trends in musical historiography and interpretation risked eclipsing close textual examination.

In addition to his role as Director of the Computers in Teaching Initiative Centre for Music, based at Lancaster, between 1989 and 1997, he served on numerous national advisory boards and panels. Similarly imaginative leadership marked his four years as Professor of Music at Nottingham.

Outside his hectic academic schedule, Pople's wife, Angela, and his two daughters, Lucy and Flora, were sources of joy for him, and he was always eager to share tales of the latest domestic event or adventure. He had passions, too, for rugby, cricket and motor sport, and maintained an intricate model railway in his loft.

He bore the discomforts of his long illness with enormous dignity and remained the most positive, forward-looking and boyishly enthusiastic of academics right through to the end.

Robert Adlington

Comments