What's in a name - or rather, a title? Call a work The Spirit's Harvest or - echoing Marlowe's Dr Faustus - The Song Streams in the Firmament, and listeners will most likely expect a preoccupation with visionary, even apocalyptic experience. Titles such as Spring's Shining Wake or The Stones and Lonely Places Sing would seem more redolent of a late Romantic / early Modern tradition of landscape evocation after Bax or Sibelius, while A Day in the Life of a Mayfly might suggest a whimsicality verging on camp. How to explain, then, that far from indulging spiritual yearnings or flitting through the Celtic Twilight, the composer of all these pieces has resided these 30 years in a tiny square at the unfashionable end of Islington, pursuing a musical life of unremitting usefulness?
Sixty today, Anthony Payne is, of course, long familiar as a music reviewer to readers of the Independent - though the freshness he continues to find in many of the supposedly most hackneyed classics is just one of the things that makes it difficult to believe he really is 60. Before the Independent, he contributed for many years to the Daily Telegraph, assigning more analytic articles to such periodicals as Tempo, while publishing books on the music of, respectively, Schoenberg and Frank Bridge that have become standard texts. Yet Payne would undoubtedly regard his manifold activity as an explainer of music - which, over the decades, has also run to a great deal of broadcasting and more recently to university teaching both at home and abroad - as secondary to his central concern, which has always been composition.
Or, at least since his 11th year when, visiting relatives in Godalming, he chanced to hear a chunk of Brahms's First Symphony on the wireless and found himself rooted to the spot - a wholly unexpected revelation, since there had been no "classical" music to speak of in his background. None the less, his schooldays at Dulwich College were largely to be filled by attempts to compose in the styles of Haydn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Sibelius, whose music he was excitedly exploring, and about whom he continues to write with special warmth. By the time he arrived at Durham University to read music in 1958, he had already composed quite a portfolio of pieces, increasingly influenced by such early 20th-century Romantics as Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams. Then, in his final term, he suffered a nervous breakdown that put an end to creative work for over four years - during which time he gradually established himself as a professional writer on music instead.
But the hiatus also set him thinking about the gap between the then rather unfashionable English tradition that he loved and the challenging new techniques of the Continental avant-garde that excited so many of his contemporaries. Ultimately, he seems to have concluded that he could only achieve a personal synthesis by returning to the most basic musical materials. It was over the full four-year period it took him gradually to elaborate the 20-minute span of what he was fittingly to title his Phoenix Mass - a period that coincided with the beginning of his lastingly happy marriage to the soprano Jane Manning - that Payne began to discover the complexities to which such simple procedures could lead. By the time he had substantially completed its grandly hieratic structure for choir and brass in 1969, he had elaborated many of the most characteristic techniques of his mature music. These he immediately began to explore, often with an almost mathematical rigour, in a sequence of early scores that remain his closest in spirit to the Continental avant-garde and culminated in his String Quartet (1978), an astringent mosaic structure in which the contents of three contrasting movements are continuously cross-cut.
Yet already such manipulations were beginning to be infiltrated by Payne's more poetic proclivities. And not just in such vocal works as the eloquent Thomas Hardy settings A First Sight of Her and After (1974) for 16 voices - though these were to lead to the exquisitely sensitised Tennyson setting for Jane Manning and ensemble, The World's Winter (1976), and the fiery Book of Revelation setting for chorus and organ, The Sea of Glass (1976). Perhaps more salient still was Payne's brass band commission, Fire on Whaleness (1976), a baleful evocation, complete with sad fanfares and billowing smoke music, of the funeral scene at the end of Beowulf. Salient, because although Payne's output of some 50 scores to date has explored most of the traditional genres except opera, he has continually returned in his orchestral and, more unusually, in his chamber music to what might be called the constructivist tone-poem: a kind of complementary concept in which the more literary or visual his inspiration and the more colourful or wayward his detailed invention, the more Payne seems to seek strong, objective forms to encompass such richness and variety. Beneath its teeming, fantastical surface, A Day in the Life of a Mayfly (1981) for sextet proves a strict study in the simultaneous passing of time at different rates. And it is typical of Payne that when he decided to compose in his own manner a detailed paraphrase of Delius's In a Summer Garden entitled Spring's Shining Wake (1981), it was less out of nostalgia than from his conviction that Delius's oblique continuities represented a genuinely radical new concept of structure.
A few of Payne's bolder forms have been open or "narrative" in procedure: his first Proms commission, The Spirit's Harvest (1985) for large orchestra, based upon sketches dating back some 25 years to the circumstances of his breakdown, progresses from serenity through turbulence to catastrophe with just a flicker of regeneration at the end. And the recent Orchestral Variations: The Seeds Long Hidden (1994) continually allude to composers who have influenced him - including that seminal Brahms's First experience - compounding a virtual autobiography in music. But Payne's more usual approach has been to take a tight nexus of specific chords and rhythms and to "unpack" a grandly symmetrical form from its internal tensions, whether in the decorative sensuousness of Sea-Change (1988) for septet, or in the vastly turbulent and semi-palindromic half-hour span of his second Proms commission, Time's Arrow (1990): a depiction of the expansion of the Universe from initial Big Bang to its furthest reach, and then its retraction to the next Big Bang - conceived, incidentally, quite independently of Martin Amis's eponymous novel.
It might be wondered why, apart from the periodic attention of Radio 3, a composer of such accomplishment is still comparatively little heard in concert and so poorly represented on disc. In these competitive days, it helps composers if they are also conductors or performers of their own works. Payne is neither, his many devoted years of service to such organisations as the Society for the Promotion of New Music have tended to benefit other composers, while Jane's Minstrels - the ensemble of brilliant young virtuosi he has helped his wife run since 1988 - is devoted to eclectic programming of the Webern- juxtaposed-with-Elgar kind, rather than the promotion of Payne. However, and at last, NMC, the contemporary British label set up by the Holst Foundation, is about to release a CD single of Time's Arrow, dazzlingly recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis who gave the knock-out premiere five years ago. Which of the other record companies will now follow up with a selection, say, of Payne's ensemble pieces - one thinks, for instance, of the haunting woodwind harmonies and scuttering strings of his Symphonies of Wind and Rain (1991) for 11 players - music which, in its idiosyncratic balance of construction and atmosphere sounds, at best, not quite like any other composer?
n Time's Arrow will be available on CD (NMC DO37S) later this month
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