BOOK REVIEW / Let the tuba run wild, say the composers: 'Composer to Composer' - Andrew Ford: Quartet, 17.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
IN ALL the 30 excellent interviews with contemporary composers collected in this book there is one question that seems guaranteed to raise the conversational temperature. No matter whom he is talking to or where (home, publisher's office, end of a fax machine), Andrew Ford knows just the way to get up his interviewee's nose. As one of his subjects puts it: 'Oh, are you talking about this accessibility shit?'

Well yes, he is. And the point is not - as the same composer goes on to describe it - 'totally irrelevant'. From the listener's perspective, the question: 'Am I likely to enjoy your music?' is one that matters. Andrew Ford gallantly puts it to almost all the composers he speaks to.

Sensitive readers may be mildly offended by some of the answers. There are an awful lot of composers in this book who don't much care for audiences. Elliott Carter, a distinguished old boy of the accessibility-is-bad-for-you school, tells a story in which the audience features as 'the enemy'. Sir Harrison Birtwistle tells us he can't be held responsible for our 'concentration problems'. And even Steve Reich, often considered something of a softy on the subject, sounds distinctly hard-nosed, castigating orchestras for playing his music only out of charity.

There are composers who are on the listener's side, of course. John Tavener claims it would be a 'sin against the Holy Spirit' for him not to take his music into the 'marketplace'. And Louis Andriessen believes the public should simply 'not be bothered with music they don't like' (advice heeded often enough). Clearly these are musicians with an emotional commitment to audiences; only the intellectual commitment to back it up seems sometimes lacking. Michael Nyman's vague pillaging of Purcell and Mozart could do with a better defence than that it sounds good; and John Tavener's definition of a successful composition as one that a 'sixth-century man' who had just been dug up should be able to enjoy, looks simply impractical.

There's a lot of potential confusion here, and Andrew Ford does well to keep it to a minimum. Being a composer himself helps. He knows the score, so to speak: knows to ask what composers do when they sit down at their desks or pianos or computers in the morning; what first sets them thinking about a piece (an imaginary 'auralscape'; 'a commission'); what the mechanics of composition are ('make sketches and let the tuba run wild'). Bare facts are more valuable than any amount of bad interpretation: even Shakespeare's laundry bills, as T S Eliot said, might tell us something useful.

Certainly a heavy ballast of facts is what keeps these conversations tethered to the ground. The most basic questions are the subject of debate in this world of 'serious' music, and strong ideological winds are constantly threatening. 'No consensus' is about the most frequent phrase in these interviews. The composers lack what many fondly imagine to be the most fundamental musical property of all: a common language.

Not that any of this, it must be said, prevents some fine (if, naturally, difficult) music from being written. It's just the distant, unfriendly pose of some composers that strikes one as curious: their discussions seem really to concern the listener only when the tone is more personal. 'Po-

faced serialism,' John Tavener taunts Alexander Goehr across the floor of the house. 'Bloody boring]' Alexander Goehr throws back. And if the Professor of Music at Cambridge can come so gratifyingly down to our level - well, maybe things aren't so bad after all. Much more of this from the intellectual crowd and they might even have people going to their concerts. And then where would they be?

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