Composers, Performers and Machines- An essay by Alan Parsons.



During the over sixty years that I have been writing music one of the most important areas of change has been in the technical means available to composers as aids or additions to their art. For nearly fifty of those years, like most of my contemporaries, I simply used a pencil and a rubber for sketches and a pen for fair copies on sheets of manuscript paper. For the past ten or twelve years computers and music programmes, notably Sibelius, have been generally available. Without any doubt I can say that, while I hope the style and composition techniques have remained unaffected, the way I compose has certainly changed. With the aid of a music programme one can mechanically access such devices as inversion and retrograde, intervals can be added to a whole chain of chords with a single click, whole sections can be removed or inserted. Just have a look at what is available in the ‘composing tools’ section of your music programme. The ease with which these devices are available brings with it obvious pitfalls. Accidentals need to be checked, and the use of mechanical devices can take over the compositional structure of the piece. It has now become quite frequent for performers to complain, should a piece of music prove to be difficult or demanding, “Your computer may be able to play this, but I can’t!”


Similarly, mechanical aids are now available to performers. Although certain electronic devices were available earlier, it can safely be said that electronic, or more precisely electrophonic, music began in the 1950s with Stockhausen and his associates. Listening to today’s electrophonic music one can still hear the influence of such Stockhausen pieces as Kontakte and Mixtür. It was not incidental that Stockhausen studied phonetics with Meyer-Eppler, and many of the electronic timbres used today can be heard as deriving from phonetic sounds.


The two concerts in this year’s New Music Day amply illustrated many of these points. Lola Perrin’s Her Sister’s Notebook used multi-track recordings of a bass clarinet together with a live performer. The first section uses imitative ostinatos, the second has mainly chordal textures, the third is more rhythmically lively in the (recorded) accompaniment to the (live) bass clarinet, the fourth has a more easy-going swing to it, again with ostinato rhythmic patterns, the fifth is again mainly homophonic with some appealing close harmonies, the sixth consists of an extended solo from the live player. In the final sections we are back to lively rhythms and largely homophonic textures. This is a captivating piece with some beautiful textures, but one must ask: could it not have been performed by a live bass clarinet choir? Are the electronics in this case merely a substitute for live performers?

The evening concert began with Music for Bass Clarinet and Piano by Theo Loevendie. Here there is no electrophonic input, but instead extended instrumental techniques are used such a playing directly onto the strings of the piano and the use of hand and arm clusters on the keyboard. The bass clarinet uses its full range as well as multiphonics and the more traditional flutter-tonguing. This is an exciting and purposefully constructed piece holding the attention with a powerful dramatic sense of direction, the result, evidently, of a fine collaboration between composer and performers.

Jenni Pinnock’s Ori was again the result of close collaboration between the composer and performer, making good use of the techniques possible with Chrissie Caulfield’s electric violin and its accompanying electronic gadgetry. This includes the ability to record the live performer and then play back the result to create ostinati as a background to the live performance, a technique pioneered by Stockhausen in the 1960s with Spiral. The composition relied heavily on minimalist repetitions, both in the live part and inevitably in the tape-loop-like effects of the recorded music. Jenni combined all of this in a controlled structure.

Chrissie’s own composition, Afternoon Nightmare, used her electric violin against a background of fascinating electrophonic ostinati. The phonetic origin of many of the electronic sounds was very much in evidence here. The mood is serious, not to say a little scary! But it is, afterall, a nightmare! There was a dramatic, climactic build-up of textures before the effective quiet ending with beautiful textural transformation in the final seconds. This is a very personal and moving piece.

Stuart Russell’s Exit Strategy combines electronics, including musique concrète effects such as the sounds of railway trains with the wheel flanges screaming against the rails. There are also references to computer games and the music of Ligeti. Such eclectic sources can only be justified if the result hangs together as a genuine musical composition, and here Stuart certainly produced a satisfying and meaningful composition with plenty of dramatic challenges.

The programmes also contained a good deal of music not using electronics. Laurence Glazier’s Trio for 5-string violin, bass clarinet and piano (first movement) uses relentless motor rhythmic counterpoint reminiscent of Stravinsky’s neoclassical style of the 1920s but without Stravinsky’s harmonic stringency and rhythmic interest. Colin Blundell’s A Pickle Sandwich and Tim Torry’s Pale Enchantment were, each in its own way, pleasant enough undemanding pieces using a fairly traditional musical language. Colin introduced a fully written out quasi-improvisatory element.

I thought there was an interesting and complete contrast between my Three Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, written in 1953 and inspired by the condensed expressionistic style of early Schönberg, Berg and Webern and Alan Bullard’s Etudes for Piano, an ongoing work from which we heard five pieces. Here the style was expansive and relatively ‘easy going’ in the manner of much interwar English piano music, although, in the tradition of Piano Etudes, demands were made on the performer. Nevertheless, again in the Piano Etude tradition, each piece made and developed one musical statement or idea. As always with Alan’s music, the pieces are beautifully written for the medium.

Mark Bellis’s Music for Bass Clarinet and Piano was another early piece, written in 1978 during one of Peter Maxwell Davies’ composition classes atDarlington. Like my clarinet and piano pieces its style was condensed and expressionistic, effectively using the full range of both instruments, and techniques ultimately deriving from the instrumental experimentation of Schönberg, Berg and Webern at the beginning of the twentieth century.


One thing most of the pieces performed demonstrated was that, inevitably, for much of the time, the medium is the message. This was as true of Alan Bullard’s Piano Etudes as of Chrissie Caulfield’s Nightmare.  All composers are and always have been influenced in their compositional methods by the medium they are writing for. The best composers and the best musical compositions are those where the medium and the message are perfectly balanced. This was certainly true where, in the case of J.S.Bach and W.A.Mozart, the composer was often the original performer. But great performers don’t always make great composers. And what about transcriptions and arrangements? Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue may well have begun life as a very effective violin piece. Whether or not it was J.S.Bach who transcribed it, it has certainly been turned into a very effective organ piece.

There is always the temptation to allow the medium to take over. Paganini may have added much to the techniques of violin playing through his compositions, but by no stretch of the imagination could he be called a ‘great’ composer. To assume that simply to put together a collection of sounds, because they may be original, startling or merely ‘difficult’, whether the sounds are generated by a traditional musical instrument or by electronic means, one has a valid musical composition is to kid oneself. Conversely, simply to assume that in ‘writing well’ for an instrument without stretching the performer and the audience one is adequately fulfilling one’s role as a composer is equally unjustified. I think it can be counted as a tribute to say that, in the vast majority of cases, the composers represented at this year’s New Music Day wrote good and convincing pieces of music in a way which fully exploited their chosen medium.


Alan Parsons June 2012





















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