A classic case of out-of-your-depth

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I attended a rehearsal for a classical music concert last week, which is not something I do every day. In fact I don't think I'd done it on any of the 17,760 days I had previously spent on Earth - though obviously when you get into these higher numbers the memory can't entirely be relied on. More to the point, it was a rehearsal for the world premiere of a piece of new music - Jonny Greenwood's debut as composer in resident for the BBC Concert Orchestra. The composition was called Popcorn Superhet Receiver (more of that name later), an austerely serious acknowledgement of Greenwood's enthusiasm for Penderecki and Ligeti and Messiaen and it was - in the diplomatic phrase my mother-in-law uses about food she hasn't tasted before and isn't entirely sure she wants to taste again - "different". Often, when you're out of your depth, you can at least see the bottom, shimmering away just beneath you. You feel that with a bit of stretch you might even be able to reach it... and even if you can't it's proximity is reassuring. But this, at least for a good hour or so, was mid-ocean incomprehension.

But it was also - in the other word my mother-in-law tends to fall back on in tricky situations - "interesting". Very interesting, in fact - since the aesthetic mystery of Greenwood's composition was folded in to the novelty of watching an orchestra at work on the musical factory floor. This wasn't the tip of the iceberg that appears on the concert platform - gleaming, wind-polished, notionally spotless - it was the hidden bulk on which that performance rides - irregular and and rough-edged. Even the fact that everyone was in their day clothes was intriguing. How odd it must be, I thought, to have to channel ethereal, indie-rock inspirations through middle-aged men in cardigans and cornish-pasty shoes.

The members of the orchestra were impeccably professional in their approach to Greenwood's piece - but you couldn't ignore the fact that the personal musical taste of some of the players was going to be at odds with that of the composer. How could anything else be the case given the range of material they have to play? Greenwood, crouched boyishly on the floor over his score, seemed unperturbed by this, but it struck me that it could easily induce a crippling self-consciousness. Writers never have this problem. It must be like typing onto a word processor which you fear will sigh if you use a clumsy phrase.

Popcorn Superhet Receiver, incidentally, refers to a piece of ham radio equipment that combines two frequencies to create a third - or something along those lines. It might have been useful if I'd known this as the musicians started to play the piece... but I doubt it to be honest, since the full explanation is even more baffling to the uninitiated than simply listening to Greenwood's extended skein of notes, swelling and falling and cresting over sudden crescendos. As a metaphorical straw to clutch at, it didn't really deliver much buoyancy. The most helpful remark, in fact, came from the conductor Robert Zeigler, who pulled the orchestra up at one point to make a fine adjustment to the ensemble "just so that we have a bit more of this... fog". The pause before the descriptive word and the hazy indeterminacy of the one he finally settled on was distinctly comforting. Obviously the feeling that I couldn't quite fix my bearings was part of the deal.

It did sharpen one niggling anxiety though - which was how a conventional audience would navigate their way through the piece. In the studios, every break in the playing was instructive - you could hear how crescendos were reshaped until they matched Greenwood's intentions and, after a brief muddle over scoring which had resulted in several parts running out of synch, how different the final effect was from the first run-through. Mistakes were self-evident even to someone as cloth-eared as me because they were followed by a tap of the baton. But how on earth would a concert-hall audience distinguish between an error of musicianship and a perfect rendering of the score - particularly since the piece deliberately includes scraping violin bows, crossed rhythms and deconstructed ensembles? Perhaps it doesn't really matter - but the concept of an artwork in which it is in effect impossible to distinguish failures of transmission from failures of creation struck me as unnerving. Where's the bottom?

I did eventually find a way to keep my head above water, by the way, once I'd relaxed enough to treat the piece as the score for an unfilmed movie, in my case an experimental work involving numerous shots of the aurora borealis. I even enjoyed the music a bit - quite independently of the privilege of seeing it worked on. You never know... given time, I might doggy-paddle out a bit deeper.

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