A classic case of out-of-your-depth

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd end the war on drugs

Patrick Hennessey
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power