Where have all the random mutations gone?
Very refreshing to see Sir Andrew Davis leveraging the Michael Tippett link in the Chicago Symphony's Beethoven celebration this week. (Classical trivia question: has the Chicago orchestra's music director Riccardo Muti ever conducted Tippett?) Of course any Tippett in Chicago is good news. But it is, literally, little Tippett - the Little Music for String Orchestra (10 minutes) and Praeludium for Brass, Bells and Percussion (6 minutes). The website of Tippett's publisher Schott lists no forthcoming performances of his meaty Third Symphony, which quotes the opening of Beethoven's Ninth, or of his Piano Concerto which is influenced by Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto.
Those Tippett works are important random mutations of Beethoven's DNA; as are, for instance, Wilfred Josephs' Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, and Uri Caine's orchestrated/improvised Diabelli Variations. Martine Batchelor teaches a secular strand of Buddhist practice with her husband Stephen. In her book 'Let Go: A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits' she highlights the important of random mutations in this passage:
Repeated patterns in conjunction with occasional mutations are what makes the emergence and transformation of life possible. If there were no stable patterns that repeated themselves, it would be impossible for any creature to continue in a consistent form. But were there only repetition and no possibility of variation, the living system would be unable to adapt to change. Thus repeated patterns ensure stability while random mutations allow the possibility of adaption to new circumstances. Repetition and adaptability are equally essential for life to continue to evolve... By suppressing variation, the result is either stagnation or regression, which in the end only breakdown and chaos will change. Likewise, when we too are stuck in a fixed pattern of behavior and resist change, it too can cause us to stagnate and redress.Martine Batchelor's explanation of the vital role of random mutations applies to classical music, and there is no better example of the power of random mutation than Beethoven. But today repetition - Mahler one year, Beethoven another - is the order of the day, and random mutations - Tippett's major works - occur less and less. Much of the music that is passed off today as 'new' is not the product of random mutation, it is algorithmically-programmed mutation guaranteed to keep established comfort zones intact and audiences happy. We now live in a social media culture, and that culture, which is driven by approval - likes, shares, friends, followers- is the mortal enemy of random mutation. Create/curate outside comfort zones, and you will remain forever exiled from those zones.
That 1981 Decca recording of Tippett's extremely randomly mutated Fourth Symphony seen below brings this post full circle. The work was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony and premiered by Sir Georg Solti and the orchestra. The coupling on the recording is Tippett's Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles. I am reliably told by someone who tried to programme the Suite in the royal presence some years ago that Charles hates the piece. Which must mean it is important music, and proves, in more ways than one, the vital role of random DNA mutations.
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As I get older, I do find recordings made in the 1930-1960 period much more rewarding to listen to. That's perhaps because most are performances, not edited. I was listening to some Ravel and Debussy sonatas the other evening played by two highly-groomed youngsters (£1.50 in Wells market) recorded in 2017. Note perfect, no doubt highly edited, but lacking soul. Give me a few duff notes or dodgy entries anytime.
And it saddens me to say this. But if it had been Michele Tippett, it would be a very different story today.