Get high on this composer's music - it is enough
Classical music has the unfortunate habit of flogging memes to death. There is no better example than the current click bait-impelled storm over the Last Night of the Proms. This latest brouhaha not only discredits those on both sides of the faux debate, but also, and more seriously, it devalues the very music that is, or more accurately was, the raison d'être of the Promenade Concerts. So, turning to another much-flogged meme, claims that yet another undiscovered masterpiece by a woman composer has been uncovered may, understandably, induce a degree of ennui. But it would be wrong if that ennui means the new recording of Ethel Smyth's The Prison is overlooked.
Today, it is difficult to find any coverage of Dame Ethel's music that does not major on her backstory of suffragette, imprisoned activist and lesbian: for instance Erica Jeal's thoughtful Guardian four star review of The Prison inevitably has a subhead beginning "A long overdue first recording for this work by the one-time imprisoned suffragette..." It is ironic that for years many, including this writer, have tried to refute the stereotyping of women composers as second-rate talent. Only for well-meaning advocates to impose different stereotyping on the same long-suffering composers. In the chemically-enhanced 1960s Ravi Shankar famously declared 'Get high on the music, it is enough'. So let's park Ethel Smyth's backstory, and instead dig deeper into the premiere recording of The Prison.
Born in the English county of Kent in 1858 into a wealthy bourgeois family, Ethel Smyth started studying at the Leipzig Conservatory in 1887. However after a year she left because she was dissatisfied with the teaching regime; but she stayed in Leipzig where she took private took harmony and counterpoint lessons. Leipzig was a great centre of music activity, and while there Ethel Smyth met influential composers including Dvořák, Clara Schummann, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. In 1898 her first opera Fantasio was premiered in Weimar. Her best-known work Der Standrecht (The Wreckers) was performed in Leipzig and Prague before being given in English translation in London conducted by Thomas Beecham in 1909. Dame Ethel moved in cosmopolitan circles and the photo below shows her in exalted company at the 1922 founding of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in Salzburg.
From 1911 to 1913 Ethel Smyth was active in the English suffragette movement. In the last two decades of her life composing was curtailed by increasing deafness, but in 1930 she completed The Prison. The composer's programme note for the premiere described the work as a symphony for soloists, chorus and orchestra, with the lower case symphony donating the ancient Greek concept of rhetotical rather than orchestral concordance. Dame Ethel created the libretto from The Prison: A Dialogue by the philosopher and writer Henry Bennet Brewster (1850-1908). The book is a Platonic discussion by four friends of the final text written by a prisoner on the eve of execution. For the libretto the composer distilled the discussion down to a dialogue between the Prisoner, sung in the premiere recording by bass-baritone Dashon Burton, and his Soul, soprano Sarah Brailey. Dame Ethel Smyth conducted the world premiere of The Prison in the Usher Hall Edinburgh in February 1931, and five days later none other than Adrian Boult conducted the London premiere at Queen's Hall.
For Chandos' newly-released premiere recording, The Prison is performed by the New York-based Experiential Orchestra conducted by its founder native New Yorker James Blachly who masterminded the project and is also music director of the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra. The Experiential Orchestra started in 2009 with "Loft Parties" that jammed small audiences into a midtown loft, with the performances morphing into Ibiza-style after-parties. Subsequent projects have experimented with abolishing the traditional barriers between the audience and the orchestra. The “Introduction to Beethoven” series broke with classical dogma by tracing Beethoven’s creative arc by performing excerpts from all his symphonies, and inviting the audience to sing along with the Ninth. The apogee of The Experiential Orchestra's heretical trajectory was reached with its Rite of Spring Dance Parties, which invited the audience to dance to Stravinsky’s ballet - see photo below. Yes, we've heard it too many times before, but one enthusiastic audience member of the Stravinsky mosh pit declared “this is the future of classical music”.
From loft parties to a titled composer born in Victorian Britain is a strange journey, even for an Overgrown Path. So I asked James Blachly to explain how he got high on Ethel Smyth's music. James kindly agreed to an interview, and I started by asking him to explain how his Experiential Orchestra came to perform and record The Prison.
James Blachly: Thank you so much Bob for this interview and your description of the piece, and for your tremendous work to keep the world of music expanding. Simply put, I fell in love with the music. At the very first downbeat of the first rehearsal, I got shivers up and down my spine, and it was like being in the grips of a powerful force, an inner drive that led me to create a performance edition of the work, and ultimately to this recording. That journey has taken four years, from that first performance of excerpts in 2016 to the US Premieres in 2018, to the recording in 2019 and its release in 2020.
Bob Shingleton: You explained that The Prison was programmed in a concert of music by women composers. What were the other works in the programme, and how was the work received?
JB: Yes, that first performance with orchestra in 2016 was of about 15 minutes of the piece for The Dream Unfinished [photo below from that event]. The other works on the program were also wonderful – music of Margaret Bonds and Florence Price, and a commission from my friend Courtney Bryan that I conducted, sung by the incredible Helga Davis. That first performance was a very powerful one. It was called “Sing Her Name,” and it focused on the tragic and awful death of Sandra Bland in 2015. For that performance, we invited singers from Cantori NY to join us – they had just sung the work a few months before, in the piano performance premiere directed by my colleague Mark Shapiro. We also had members of Downtown Voices, a chorus hosted by Trinity Wall Street.
The orchestra was a volunteer freelance orchestra, all of them committed to social justice. The Smyth in the midst of that concert was very very powerful, but it was a long and intense evening, so in a way it was one of many amazing moments. Still, I think it was a revelation to many in the orchestra who had not heard of Smyth; and similarly for the audience. I knew right away that the Smyth was something I wanted to explore much more deeply. That concert was also the first time the Florence Price Piano Concerto in One Movement had been heard by many in the audience, conducted by my colleague John McLaughlin Williams and played by Michelle Cann, and that beautiful work has become very frequently performed since then.
BS: In Robert Hugill's appreciation of The Prison you refer to a 'great composer' paradigm, in which the baton of a composer's perceived greatness is passed from generation to generation. This means that if the baton of greatness is not passed, a composer is marginalised; as is the case with Ethel Smyth, Malcolm Arnold, Elizabeth Maconchy, Edmund Rubbra and many others. Some time ago I wrote about the same problem and proposed that audiences need permission to like unfamiliar music. How do you think that permission can be granted?
JB: I completely agree about audiences and how they approach music, and I think the way an audience is invited in has everything to do with how they experience a piece. For a lot of audiences, there’s a sense that if it’s not on the list of generally accepted masterpieces, it doesn’t have value. And then there are places where there is an expectation for newness, and audiences have come to expect and enjoy being the first to experience new pieces– like the Cabrillo Festival for Contemporary Music in California. That audience comes hungry for fresh sounds. But they are also invited to the experience in a welcoming way; composers speak about their works, there’s a whole environment that was developed during Marin Alsop’s 25 years there.
I think once you develop an appetite for new sounds, you begin to really thirst to find new ways of communicating. It’s thrilling! I developed that appetite in abundance at Oberlin, where my colleagues included the founding members of ICE, and where there was just a tremendous excitement around new music. You spoke about getting high on the music itself. I can share with you that one of the most out-of-body experiences I’ve ever felt was listening to Charles Wuorinen with the BSO in around 2005. I would come to study composition with him briefly, but at the time I just knew that my synapses were firing in a way that they never had before, and I truly felt like I was floating. It was so exhilarating. When you open yourself up as a listener, it’s pretty incredible what that’s like in the concert hall.
We have commissioned several pieces and performed a good amount of new music with the Johnstown Symphony, and it has always gone over well. I think that has to do with a level of trust from the audience, and also our approach, which is not an “eat your broccoli” kind of thing, where you say “you should like this and if you don’t then that means you aren’t sophisticated,” nor do we say “you probably won’t like this but we are trying to do our part by putting it on.” We present every piece we play as something we love and want to share with them; and if we can open it up in some way, that’s great.
I’ve also always felt that “I liked it,” and “I didn’t like it” are needlessly limiting. So instead of setting up that binary, I like to invite people to notice. What did they hear? What was it like to listen? Empower the audience, in other words, and validate their experience, without it being about like or dislike.
BS: James, returning to The Prison, how did American forces come to record British music for a record company based in the East of England, near to where an Overgrown Path is written. How difficult was it to sell Chandos the idea of recording The Prison in the States?
JB: We came to record the piece because I had come to the conclusion that if we didn’t do so, it may be a long time before this piece was heard beyond those initial premieres (by Cantori New York with piano; by TDU in excerpts in 2016; by Johnstown in 2018, and five weeks later, by Cecilia Chorus NY in Carnegie Hall), we would need a commercial recording and an international release. Those performances were exhilarating - but they weren’t reaching enough people. The work wouldn’t be widely known without a recording. So we were the orchestra because I was on a mission to get the work known and appreciated around the world.
We approached Chandos because our producer, Blanton Alspaugh and Soundmirror, knew Ralph Couzens and agreed to bring the recording to him. We had a list of labels to approach with the recording, and Chandos was at the very top. We were just thrilled that they accepted it as a part of their catalogue, and they’ve done a marvelous job with the production and marketing.
BS: I was struck by the excellent sound quality of the recording, which is particularly striking when auditioning the SACD layer. I am a great admirer of Chandos' work; but it is fair to say that the quality of sound they capture is sometimes marginally compromised. I hasten to add that this is not due to lack of professionalism, but rather that the niche repertoire they specialise in is sometimes recorded in less than optimal acoustics - good concert halls often make indifferent recording venues. Tell us about where The Prison was recorded and who the Stateside production team was.
JB: I have also been deeply gratified by the quality of the sound of the disc. I have to give full credit for the sound to Soundmirror, Blanton our amazing producer, our recording engineer, Brandon Johnson, and the brilliant post-production of Mark Donahue. John Newton, the famed founder of Soundmirror, was also at the session, and helped add his master’s touch to the proceedings [photo of John Newton above]. When I first went into the booth, I was just blown away by the level of artistry on display in the sound they were getting. The SUNY Concert Hall NY was also a terrific room to record in.
BS: It's fair to say a recording of The Prison is not going to sell as many copies as yet another Mahler symphony. Without giving too many confidences away can you explain how performances and premiere recording of such a deserving but niche work were financed?
JB: Absolutely. My work for the past four years has been to try to convince people of the value of something that they could hear. It was a lot of “trust me – this is an incredibly powerful and beautiful piece of music!” And to their credit, over 150 donors came through to support the work, including several at a very high level, and many with whatever they could afford through a Kickstarter campaign. For some, it was Smyth’s incredible life story; for others, they took it on faith that the music really was going to be worth hearing.
I am incredibly grateful to all of our donors, and to the EXO board, for supporting this project from the beginning. You are right - it won’t sell as many copies as a lot of other recordings. But it can still have an important impact, because if we collectively start taking Smyth more seriously; if people start teaching her as an important composer in our conservatories, and if her music is increasingly heard in the world’s concert halls, we will be shifting how we view music history in some capacity – in a way that to my view expands our musical world and fills in some gaps we may have had.
BS: James, we share similar views on how classical dogmas need to change to reach a wider audience, and I have written about what classical music can learn from a trance DJ. Anne Midgette's sniffy Washington Post review of one of your Stravinsky Dance Parties ended rather unhelpfully by suggesting that the performance would have worked better "...in some kind of large room with seating where people could hear the music better. Like, I don’t know, a concert hall". You are on a mission to, and I quote, "increase audience engagement and empower audiences". But do you sometimes feel you are pushing water uphill trying to do this?
JB: You can’t please everybody all the time, and I’m proud of EXO for taking risks. If the musicians love what we’re doing and the audience loves what we’re doing, I’m happy. I don’t feel like we’re pushing water uphill. I just wish we had a lot more money to put on all the concerts we dream up. I just spoke to my friend Andrew Yee [cellist of the Grammy-winning Attacca Quartet] and we are planning a concert of him playing Don Quixote in a warehouse in Gowanus, Brooklyn in 2021 with massive art and lighting. We have no limit of ideas; and the audiences are always ready to dive in. I think people are ready for – and crave, and need – fully immersive experiences. Get us out of our regular lives, let the music take you to another world. That can be in a concert hall, and it can also be in a lot of other creative, evocative places.
BS: A degree of rigidity is creeping in to classical interpretations; with 'cookie-cutter' performances of the masterworks becoming the norm. Stravinsky at a dance party is definitely bucking this trend. What are your views on how contemporary interpreters can change how a work is viewed and understood?
JB: That’s really been our philosophy from the beginning – we don’t have to change the music itself, but we do want to invite people into the experience of that music in new ways. Simply performing Beethoven symphonies in a Loft, with the audience surrounding and near and inside in some cases the orchestra – that is enough for us to experience Beethoven in a different and thrilling way [see photo above]. Have a teenager sit inside the orchestra, and they might say, as one 15-year-old did to me one night “that was the greatest experience of my life!” And we had just played Schoenberg.
The two principles I absolutely abide by are to empower the audience to create and engage with their own listening experiences, and to let the music speak for itself. I don’t think we have to distract from the music with screens in order for us to appeal to modern audiences. With that said, I love that there is more and more experimentation going on in the field. We have a lot of ideas for how to invite people in, and others are pushing in other directions. There’s no right and wrong – it’s all about finding ways to experience music more deeply and joyfully. There are a lot of different restaurants; there are a lot of different approaches for orchestras to take. And I also want to put in a word for the power of an emotionally-charged performance of an orchestra in a great hall. We should always be innovating, but that doesn’t mean we need to throw out so much of what we do as a field that is really wonderful.
BS: That is very well said indeed James. Let's conclude by returning to The Prison. In the past good and deserving works have suffered from the over-hyping of revival performances, which has meant they have gone from hero to zero overnight. Two recent examples of this are John Foulds A World Requiem and Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony. The Prison was composed in 1930; in that year Charles Ives's Three Places in New England and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms were premiered. Your tenacious commitment to the work obviously shows you rate The Prison very highly. But tell us candidly just how good you think it is, and which better-known works would you rank it alongside?
JB: I appreciate that question so much. There were many times, particularly in the hard stretch of getting the recording funded, when I questioned myself rating it so highly. I actually spoke about this at length with Liz Woods, acclaimed Smyth scholar in the US [who wrote the liner notes for the Chandos release]. She and I both shared a similar experience, of having committed a substantial amount of time to promoting a work, and then really just hoping that it held up in our estimation once we finally heard it from beginning to end.
We both breathed a sigh of relief when we first performed the piece in 2018. It is, I think, truly wonderful. I find new aspects of it, and more through-lines that connect the pieces various sections, every time I encounter it, which is almost every day. I can appreciate that there people who will still place this below other work. And I confess that there were times in my life when I held fast to a hierarchy that was “yes, that was good, but it’s not as good as ___.” But I don’t even ask those questions anymore. I just feel grateful that this music is soaring through my head. And I can tell you that the philosophy of Brewster that she communicates through her music is compelling and generous and quite sophisticated.
I’ve come to appreciate that this is Smyth’s career-culminating masterpiece. This is her way of wrapping it all up, and also venturing into completely new territories, new musical language. And I’m so glad that so many people are now embracing it. Will this piece of music change the world, as Smyth hoped? Maybe so, if only on an individual level for a certain number of people. What matters to me is that we can now be affected by Smyth’s final composition, and engage with it. Let it settle; return to it a few months or years later, and hear more. It’s a voice from the past, but it has such an expansive message for us all.
BS: My thanks go to James Blachly for joining me on An Overgrown Path. Pierre Boulez coined the soubriquet musique pensant which I like to translate as 'music which makes you think'. In the interview James explains he has always felt that 'I liked it,' and 'I didn’t like it' are needlessly limiting. He advocates that instead of making binary judgements, we should invite people to think and ask - What did they hear? What was it like to listen? I totally agree with this and also concur with James' view that The Prison is Ethel Smyth’s career-culminating mastwork. But I also accept that Gerontius meets Gurrelieder may not be to everyone's tastes. However there can be little disagreement that Ethel Smyth's music and Henry Bennet Brewster's still very relevant philosophy makes you think, and today thinking is seriously undervalued. As James explains, people crave for and need, particularly at this dark time, immersive musical experiences that allow them to escape, even briefly, from the quotidien bleakness, and The Prison does just that.
Our binary culture with its dualist mindset means that too much important and deserving music is consigned to oblivion unless a passionate advocate picks up the fallen baton and carries it forward to future generations. James Blachly is such a passionate advocate, and he deserves our respect for rescuing The Prison from undeserved oblivion. His message is very simple, clear and refreshing: get high on Ethel Smyth's music - it is enough.
Chandos kindly provided a review copy of The Prison. My thanks go to John McLaughlin Williams for hooking me up with James Blachly. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).