Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Bizarre activities

Taking the advice of Arnold Bax to heart, your humble correspondent accompanied fellow blogger Heather to a Venetian blinds convention! Considering how infrequently such conventions are held, I was surprised at how fascinating it was.

Errr, no. Actually, I was helping Heather move her stuff into her new apartment. Tantalizing as it sounds to me now, the idea of a "Venetian blinds convention" was a product of my own fevered imagination as I loaded three (!) sets of Venetian blinds into a van. (Note to Heather: time to start throwing things out.)

What's on for tomorrow? Bus joyriding - a bit of fin-de-siecle extravagance before my bus pass expires. Yes, you read that right.

Hardly less bizarre is my ambition to learn the serial Organ Symphony (1960) by Australian composer Malcolm Williamson. I'll be test-driving a portion of the symphony in recital in Toronto next Wednesday, before performing the piece in full at the end of the month. It's a fascinating piece, based on a nine-tone row but including a variety of influences from medieval organum and isorhythm, the French romantic organ tradition, Olivier Messiaen, to jazz and popular music of the time. I don't plan to mention to the audience that the piece is serial - the musically literate might smell a hint of tone-rowishness in the second movement, but surely not in the gorgeous F-sharp minor modality of the Aria I or the quartal harmonies and angular rhythms of the Toccata. I think that if the modernist music of the mid-twentieth century is to be revived, we must somehow separate itself from the dry scholasticism which used to accompany it. (The audience doesn't need a two-page programme note explaining the row permutations in a serial piece, any more than it needs a fold-out Schenkerian voice-leading diagram for a Beethoven symphony. They don't care.)

Williamson's music is worth reviving. I first encountered his music when I sang as a member of the children's choir for his Julius Caesar Jones. This figure gave us headaches:

You'd think this would be enough to make any normal child run screaming from the room, but the music clicked with me surprisingly quickly and has stayed with me all these years. I had no idea who Malcolm Williamson was at the time, although he was very much alive when we performed it and serving as the Master of the Queen's Musick. I only realized last year that he died in 2003; I read nothing about it in the papers at the time. (For anyone else who was in the same boat, here is one of the better obituaries.) I suspect that part of his recent obscurity had to do with his colourful lifestyle (his unusual sexual proclivities made the papers a few times, and he had serious problems with alcoholism), and the fact that the royal family apparently grew to dislike him (he frequently failed to deliver on important commissions for ceremonial events, and perhaps because of this is the only Master of the Queen's Musick in recent history not to have been knighted). Still, none of this should matter if the music's any good, and I've been pleased to see some of his orchestral music appear on recordings in the last few years. Organists should take note - here's a composer who learned our instrument for the sole purpose of playing the organ works of Messiaen (a worthy goal!) and spent his whole life writing organ repertoire. Humour your blogging friends - learn a Williamson piece today!

By the way, if you ARE the kind of person interested in the row permutations of the Williamson symphony, there's a really interesting article (PDF format) here.

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