Monday, November 18, 2013

Britten looking forward

To celebrate his 50th birthday Benjamin Britten, who was not a fan of anniversary celebrations, was invited to write an article for the Sunday Telegraph. However the result - titled Britten looking back - was not what the newspaper expected, because it was devoted entirely to discussing the creative current that arced between Britten and his teacher Frank Bridge. Transmission - the process by which eternal wisdom passes from teacher to student - has been likened to an electric current arcing from one conductor (electrical not musical!) to another. The master's role is to transmit the teachings that lead to enlightenment, and although transmission is usually associated with Buddhism, it also occur in classical music. In 1963 Britten expressed his dislike of anniversaries when he asked a friend "What's so special about being 50?". So to celebrate his 100th birthday I am not following the well-worn path of eulogizing the man and his music, but instead offer Britten looking forward, a discursive exploration of how the creative dharma passed from him to two contemporary composers.

Britten was not a teacher in the formal sense; but transmission extends beyond formal teachings and Britten gave the essential encouragement that launched a number of young composers on their careers, with Oliver Knussen recently recalling how "Britten pointed me on the right path in the simplest, kindest way". Another composer who benefitted from that essential encouragement was Jonathan Harvey, who in a radio interview with me described how he met Britten at Repton and was then invited to Aldeburgh after showing the senior composer a sample of his compositions. Jonathan tells of how at the Red House he spent time "playing tennis, going for a swim, and meeting rather distinguished people". Britten arranged for Jonathan to formally study with Erwin Stein, but, despite the divergence of their composing styles, Jonathan describes Britten in the interview as:
... a wonderful teacher - brilliant - he could tell immediately what was going to work and what was not going to work, what would be effective and what not, and that was an enormous help.
And just as Jonathan Harvey received transmission from Britten and other masters including Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt, so the creative current arced from Jonathan Harvey to another young composer.

Ramon Humet, who is seen above, met Jonathan in 2000 at a summer workshop for young composers organised by the National Youth Orchestra of Catalonia. Born in Barcelona in 1968, Humet had studied composition with Josep Soler and his work as a telecommunications engineer had given him a grounding in electronics and acoustics. That meeting in 2000 between Ramon Humet and Jonathan Harvey changed the course of the young composer's career. He began to explore the infinite possibilities offered by spectralism, guided by the senior composer's view that "ultimately spectralism is at the basis of music, it is the nature of sound". An endorsement contributed by Jonathan Harvey to the 2007 recording of Humet's piano cycle Escenas del bosc reads:

Ramon Humet's music is delicate and subtle, with high poetic imagination. Humet is a hope for the future; he has a fine ear, and a spirit full of light.
That reference to "a spirit full of light" shows how the chain of transmission spread beyond the purely musical. In the radio interview Jonathan Harvey describes how Buddhism influenced his life and music, and Eastern culture - particularly Japanese art and the discipline of the haiku - is also an important influence on Ramon Humet. A fascination with the East has found expression in Humet's music; notably in his tetraptych Música del Esse (Music of non-being), and in other works such as Quatre jardins Zen (Four Zen gardens) and Jardí de Haikus (Garden of Haikus). This links Humet not only to Jonathan Harvey, but also to Benjamin Britten, whose fascination with the East influenced many of his works including the three church parables which have been described as "poised between... Zen-Buddhist symbolism and and Christian medieval morality play".

György Ligeti, Toru Takemitsu, Per Norgard and George Benjamin were among the stylistic influences on the emerging composer and in 2007 Humet was awarded the Olivier Messiaen International Composition Prize. This resulted in international recognition in the form of a commission from Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and in 2007 Humet's third book of Escenes del bosc was set as a mandatory piece for the prestigious Concours Olivier Messiaen de piano. The header photo is from the acclaimed 2013 production of Ramon Humet's opera-oratorio Sky Disc (Disc del Cel) for Halle Opera which, with a libretto by Rebecca Simpson, dramatises the story of the mysterious astrological artefact known as the Nebra Sky Disc found near Halle in 1999.

Two recent recordings of Ramon Humet's music are noteworthy. Música del no Ésser, an impressive sounding CD from the Spanish Tritó label, couples the title work with the composer's Piano Concerto "And The World Was Calm". Música del no Ésser is a four movement work and, like Jonathan Harvey's 'Glasgow Trilogy' of Body Mandala, Speakings and …towards a Pure Land, the movements can be performed independently or together. Completed in 2010, the themes of Música del no Ésser are described by the composer as being "generated by a very concise melodic motif". Each movement is inspired by a line from the death poem by the 14th century Zen monk Daido Ichi:
A tune of non-being
Filling the void:
Spring sun
Snow whiteness
Bright clouds
Clear Wind.
Ramon Humet's preoccupation with Japanese culture also informs the newly released CD Niwa on which the London Sinfonietta directed by Nicholas Collon play Quatre Jardins Zen for three percusionists, Jardí de Haikus for violin, cello, piano and three persussionists, and Pètals, for violin, cello and piano. Niwa is the Japanese for garden and, like Toru Takemitsu, Humet's music is influenced and inspired by the stylistic economy of Zen gardens. This new CD is on the new independent Spanish label Neu (New) Records which will also be releasing Humet's Homenaje a Martha Graham (Homage to Martha Graham); samples can be heard on the Neu Records website.

Neu Records are trying to beat the hegemony of downloads by releasing physical CDs presented in exquisite packaging and with comprehensive documentation, supplemented by added value downloads offered exclusively to CD purchasers. Niwa, which is seen below, was recorded in both stereo and surround sound mixes and the label makes a major feature of the 24bits/96kHz recordings being made available as FLAC 5.1 downloads to purchasers of the album with the headline of their website declaring 'Surround Contemporary Music'. Their surround sound mixes puts the clock back to the notorious Bernstein/CBS Rite of Spring by locating the listener in the middle of the musicians - see session photo below.

Majoring on the surround mix seems rather a questionable strategy as 5.1 soundcards are not common except among video gamers, and, as well as a 5.1 soundcard, four matching monitor-quality speakers are required to create an acceptable surround image. All of that to put the listener in the middle of the performers; which is somewhere, personally, that I do not want to be. Then there is the question of whether the mix is optimised for stereo or surround listening... Apologies for being rather hard on a new label that is daring to be different. But, personally, I would much prefer Neu Records to offer high resolution multi-channel stereo (front image with rear reverb) and SACD formats. But don't let that technical diversion put you off, because Niwa in its sonically outstanding Red Book CD guise is an excellent introduction to the music of Ramon Humet.

Classical music has an over-abundance of 'outstanding young talents' and 'unrecognised geniuses' and I have no intention of adding to that surfeit. But Ramon Humet's music is particularly noteworthy as an examples of what in the radio interview, and also in Arnold Whittall's invaluable 1999 biography, Jonathan Harvey described as the vital marriage between linear music and global music. By linear music he meant the classical music of past centuries - "composing against what has already happened, what has been established as a pattern". And by global music he did not mean cross-cultural world music, but transcendental music that concerns itself with eternity and spirituality and "seeing everything as a whole, as a unity". This is the music of eternal wisdom - dharma - that evolved in the second half of the 20th century from composers such as Stockhausen and Messiaen.

The transition from linear to global involves "thinking about time in a different way", moving from the detail of the past to a world view that transcends temporal and stylistic constraints. Ramon Humet's Microludis fractals is based on computer generated fractal sequences while Jonathan Harvey used technology to create his own unique fusion of the linear and global in works such Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, Speakings and Wagner Dream. Benjamin Britten was both a beneficiary and critic of the linear technology of the gramophone, and the tension between linear and global appears in recorded music, where the transition from linear technologies such as LPs and CDs to the global technologies of downloads and cloud computing has had a cataclysmic impact on the music industry.

We are currently celebrating the Britten centenary, a genius whose creative span stretched from the linear Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, which with its roots in Purcell was composed against the background of the past, to the global Third String Quartet, which looks forward to death and eternity. The Young Person's Guide was written in 1945 when recorded music was only available on shellac 78s, while the Third String Quartet was composed in the same year that Telenet - a commercial computer network that was a forerunner of the internet - was launched. Both classical music and technology have changed beyond recognition since Britten's death in 1976, and Jonathan Harvey and Ramon Humet are just two beneficiaries of a continuing chain of musical and cultural transmission in which Britten is a vital link. Another link is the valuable work of the Britten-Pears Foundation and Aldeburgh Music; with their workshops, residencies and commissions these two organisations continue to transmit the dharma thereby allowing a new generation of composers to create, to quote Daido Ichi, "music of non-being filling the void". Even if official celebrations have not found quite the right balance between the material linear and transcendental global, there are still many good reasons to celebrate the Britten centenary this week.

Sources include:
~ Jonathan Harvey by Arnold Whittall
~ Benjamin Britten by Humphrey Carpenter
~ Reincarnation: The Boy Lama by Vicki Mackenzie
~ The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony by Stephen Schwarz
~ Interview with Jonathan Harvey by Bob Shingleton broadcast on Future Radio Sept 5 2010. For broadcast purposes this interview was edited to 28 minutes followed by a performance of Speakings. Following Jonathan's tragically early death this interview has become an important historical document. So the links in this post point to the unedited master file of the interview which contains an additional 28 minutes of material. The includes, just to give one example, Jonathan's memories of Hans Keller. As the interview is unedited there are some minor fluffs, but these are a small price to pay for such a rich document. For copyright reasons the performance of Speakings is faded out.

CDs of music by Ramon Humet:
~ Música del no Ésser on Tritó
~ Escenas del bosc on Ars Harmonica
~ Niwa on Neu Records

Scores of Ramon Humet's music are available from Tritó Edicions

* On An Overgrown Path will now take an extended break as I will be spending Benjamin Britten's birthday and my own numerically less auspicious birthday on the same day in a Benedictine monastery up a mountain in France out of the reach of radio, TV and the internet, but with Gregorian Chant to delight me. Of necessity there will be a delay in moderating comments and answering emails. Back sometime in December I hope.

** Also on Facebook and Twitter. No review samples were used in the preparation of this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). V 1.1 30/11 with session photo.

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