Remembered Music and the avant-garde

Amidst the generally kind reception given to Remembered Music, the wonderful Zelkova Quartet’s CD of my quartet pieces, one comment stuck out.  It was from the Gramophone‘s reviewer, Pwyll ap Sion.  

Mr ap Sion, a lecturer at Bangor University, wrote, “Sympathetic listeners will no doubt identify with Simpson’s unfussy tonal style; others more willing to embrace modernist ideals and the spirit of the avant-garde may well dwell ruefully on the rather perverse notion that, as a point of comparison, James Dillon’s String Quartet No 2 was being written at almost exactly the same time as Simpson’s String Quartet in C.”  

A fair point.  I don’t know Dillon’s Quartet No 2, but I have heard some of his work, and I believe he is bracketed by musicologists with “new complexity” types like Brian Ferneyhough.  So, not much like me then, for sure.  What lesson can we draw from ap Sion’s faintly purse-lipped observation?

I could say lots of dusty things about modernist ideals; and if the avant-garde are to be judged by their self-description and the quantity of their followers among the paying public, they have proved to be singularly inept Pied Pipers.  However the broader point is a good one.  To what extent is one obliged to follow the cultural mores of the time? 

I would argue not at all.  For one thing, the great attraction of composition (and of art generally) is that it offers the opportunity for almost complete freedom.  You really can do whatever you like, provided you don’t hurt anybody.  I have chosen to respond to modernism by more or less ignoring it.  I don’t feel it offers a plausible account of the world.  In classical music terms I prefer to respond to the great masters writing between 1650 and 1950.  That’s my prerogative.  It’s the tradition I inherited, and there’s so much admirable about it that I prefer to try and build on it rather than junk it altogether.

But there is a more localised point too.  I have coined the term cultural foreshortening to describe the effect that the availability of so much centuries-old art at the touch of a button has on our way of experiencing it.  In the same way that the top of a building or mountain seems closer than it really is, when we have a machine which will play us the Beatles, or Kylie, or Monteverdi within a few seconds of our request, the old stuff seems contemporaneous with the new.  The idea that we should judge what we hear by the date of its conception is one mostly for musicologists.  Whenever it was written, we either find music (or art generally) gripping or we don’t.  And the more that art recedes into the historical past the less anyone cares whether, for example, my C major quartet was written in 1994 or 1934.  A well-created work of art constitutes its own world – it either persuades on its own terms, in which case we accept those terms and open ourselves to the experience it offers, or we don’t.  In which case the art deserves to be forgotten.

Fortunately we no longer live in a time in which there is “a style” and all must conform to it.  There was in western music a fairly serious attempt in the second half of the last century to impose such a style – the “great serialist terror”, something accomplished by preventing performances of composers who didn’t conform – but those days have to some extent gone, and so it’s a little easier for people like me to poke our heads out into the sunlight.  And given the slow proliferation of musics out there, who is in any event to decide which is the dominant stylistic trope to which we should respond?  The reviewer seems to think it might be James Dillon and his ilk.  But it’s a mark of their failure to grip our collective imagination that their work often provokes little more than a shrug.

And there are plenty of other dominant stylistic tropes I’ve cold-shouldered too – Mr Dillon isn’t alone.  For example, at the time he and I were writing our quartets Wet Wet Wet sold so many copies of Love is All Around Us that in the end they got fed up of it being at Number 1 and withdrew the record.  You will have worked out by now that, despite the millions it sold, I ignored Wet Wet Wet as well as the disciples of “new complexity”.  What kind of rebel am I?!