The test pilots of music's future

Dartington Summer School in Devon may have become an institution - everyone who is anyone in classical music has studied or taught there. But is it still a hotbed of musical innovation?

Michael Church
Friday 18 August 2000 00:00

If you want to take the pulse of Britain's musical life, the place to begin is Dartington Summer School. Everyone who is anyone - players, conductors, composers - has studied or taught at this idyllic Devon manor; this is where movements are launched, ensembles are born, new ideas test-flown. Master-classes all day are followed by concerts for much of the night, attended by professionals, globetrotting groupies, and fascinated locals.

If you want to take the pulse of Britain's musical life, the place to begin is Dartington Summer School. Everyone who is anyone - players, conductors, composers - has studied or taught at this idyllic Devon manor; this is where movements are launched, ensembles are born, new ideas test-flown. Master-classes all day are followed by concerts for much of the night, attended by professionals, globetrotting groupies, and fascinated locals.

The events that I gatecrash, on my first evening there, point provocatively both forward and backward in time. First comes a harpsichord recital by an intense-looking gent called Colin Booth: Bach suites and sonatas on a sonorous two-manual beast based on a Hamburg prototype from 1710. His playing is impressive, but what impresses me more is the inscription above the keyboard: "Colin Booth fecit". And this beast really is a work of art: fine oak inlay on the keys, wild-flower designs on the soundboard, and an exquisite elaboration of Waterhouse's Echo and Narcissus on the lid.

Small print in the programme informs me that the maker is also the painter, that he releases his own recordings on his own label, and that he is currently preparing a handbook entitled "Did Bach Really Mean That? - an introduction to the conventions of Baroque notation". Phew.

Next up are the Dufay Collective. I don't go a bundle on their Merrie England chirpiness, but it is certainly lovely to hear the mellow sound of viols in consort. Then two big pianos are hauled into position, Joanna MacGregor sits down at one, and Harrison Birtwistle is summoned to explain why he wrote what she will play. The five pieces that make up Harrison's Clocks, he says with his slow Lancashire burr, should really be named in the singular, since each reflects a part of his imaginary clock's mechanism. "And mechanisms reflect repetition, which is the essence of a great deal of music. And repetitions have long been a preoccupation of mine."

After dazzling us with these multi-layered (and madly fast) works, MacGregor moves to the other piano, whose innards are crammed with the contents of someone's kitchen cupboard. And out of it, as prescribed by John Cage, comes the sound of wind-chimes, Javanese gamelans, and African wooden xylophones. With serialism now a -wasm, and the whole game opened up, it's through old-fashioned experiments like these that music is now transforming itself.

Next morning, I look in on a new experiment which Birtwistle is engaged in, where the only instruments on view are a row of dancers' bodies and a computer. To explain his purpose, the composer draws a crenellated line on a blackboard, then another line which repeatedly cuts through it. "I'm extending musical logic into movement, starting with an abstraction which leads to an interpretation." Er, come again? "I'm trying to find a relationship between rhythm and dance which is not a simple one-to-one. I hate that sort of stuff."

What he's gunning for, it emerges, is the "Mickey-Mousing" style of choreographers such as Mark Morris, whose dancers are endlessly locked in sync with the beat. Lea Anderson, choreographer of the Cholmondeleys - the bodies in question - puts it another way: "The dancers will hear one pulse through a click-track, and the musicians will play another. The audience will see one pulse expressed visually, and will hear it overlaid with a different one. We want to see what rhythmic tensions this will create."

Birtwistle observes that he started down this road with the National Theatre's Oresteia, training the actors to punctuate their iambic pentameters with measured silences. "Once we had this framework, I could fill it with anything. I could fill the 10 beats I'd given the actors with 10 trombones, if I wanted." Will this impact on his future composition? "Probably. But we reserve the right to fail." I leave him presiding over a line of arms semaphoring meticulously out of sync. If the idea sounds arcane, the basic truth is not: music is simply returning to its roots in dance.

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Returning to Renaissance roots, I find Colin Booth tuning another of his harpsichords for a performance of English virginal music by his mentor Colin Tilney. And here I learn what was lost when the Victorians replaced the "natural" scale with the tuning system known as "equal temperament" that allows pianists to modulate through all the keys, rather than just a few. While the "remote" keys sound painfully discordant in his Renaissance tuning, the home keys have a warm stability, a groundedness which homogenised modern instruments, Steinways included, come nowhere near.

Indeed, Booth is vituperative about Steinways, and their relentless march through the institutions - one result, he claims, of Radio 3's loss of nerve and consequent middlebrow pandering. "We hear far less harpsichord music on radio now than we did 30 years ago. Steinways are used for grotesquely inappropriate things - not only Bach and Scarlatti, but even sometimes for Couperin."

Booth is also scathing about people like Yo-Yo Ma, who think that because Bach sounds like Bach whatever he's played on, it doesn't matter what liberties you take with interpretation. Booth's book will be designed to induce players to "get inside the score, to see the variety of possibilities behind those rows of black dots". He's opposed to Yo-Yo's anything-goes approach, but he's also opposed to what he sees as the arbitrary tyranny of modern notation, where Bach's original flexibility of intention has been ironed out.

Dartington's organ maestro David Titterington - soon to star in the Proms' premiere of Hans Werner Henze's new Symphony - is in qualified agreement with Booth. As Titterington is currently demonstrating with his ambulatory Bach recitals - there are superb organs lurking in Devon - it makes no sense not to capitalise on the power of a big Victorian instrument, if you have one at your disposal. But he too sings the praises of temperament.

"If you play the final descending chromatic chords of the chorale ' O Mensch, bewein' on an equal-temperament organ, they sound fairly ordinary. But if you use one with an earlier tuning, it stops being sweet and balanced, and becomes painful and intensely dramatic." As both players point out, composers such as Bach and Scarlatti deliberately traded on the tension set up by the discord of remote keys.

If all this raises unanswerable questions - you can't retune your organ, as you can your harpsichord, to suit the occasion - no such doubts are to be found among the lutes and viols. Because music written for the viola da gamba is often played on the cello, people tend to regard the viol family as cognate with the violin, but nothing could be further from the truth. The viol is closely related to the guitar, with its frets, six strings, and flat back which gives it its peculiarly clean sound. According to violist Richard Boothby, a founder-member of Fretwork, the viol's future is looking rosy at present. George Benjamin and Alexander Goehr have recently composed works for their consort, and their next exploit will be to record works for viols by both the 16th-century Taverner and his 20th- century almost-namesake.

And as for the lutes - well, thanks to the upsurge of interest in Dowland and his ilk, they're in heaven. "The lute has a massive repertoire, which would take more than one lifetime to learn," says master-lutenist David Miller. "It doesn't matter that modern composers aren't much interested in writing for it."

For details of Colin Booth's recordings, tel: 01749 870516

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