Harry at 80 in New York: a rare, insightful review

Harry at 80 in New York: a rare, insightful review


norman lebrecht

March 05, 2014

It is a truth universally acknowledged that American critics have a cloth ear for the composer Harrison Birtwistle. They simply don’t hear what we hear – that Harry is one of the true originals, an inventor of languages of which he is the only speaker. Even Alex Ross struggled in The Rest Is Noise to get to grip with the grit of a Birtwistle score. It’s a cultural thing. British and European critics have similar difficulties with, for instance, Harry Partch, George Crumb or Robert Ashley.

So here’s an exception.

George Grella of New York Classical Review went to a Birtwistle concert and came away wondrously confused:

This is a difficult proposition in Western classical music, built on the premise that music moves through time to resolution. Birtwistle works with short phrases and patterns that do repeat, but the repetitions come after a complex sequence of events, and there is no explicit sense of progress leading from one to the other. Sometimes the phrases sound the same as before, sometimes they sound different.

Hearing these great compositions is like being lost in the woods, searching for a path, and finding oneself going in circles. But time has elapsed, so the landscape changes through each iteration.

Read the full review here.


Did the New York Times review this concert? Is it still, was it ever, a paper of record?



  • Tim Benjamin says:

    A howler in the very first sentence of that review – Birtwistle’s “The Mask or Orpheus” – is this some new piece of which the world is hitherto unaware?

    The final sentence seems to be missing a crucial comma. Or is it?

    “The music seemed like it would never end in the best way.”

    I guess this is why “newspapers of record” have subeditors (even if they don’t have very many reviews)

  • Bla bla bla…. Birtwistle is a product of postwar modernism, wallowing in subjects of destruction and nihilism, death, Untergang, and being feted for it. As for his originality: anybody who has tried to get through his Minotaur ‘opera’ knows that it is merely Viennese expressionism at its most dissonant moments, with the breathing deleted and what remained, ritualized – absurd whining without any contrasting element… everybody shoud die… all is destructive drives… etc. etc. I remember a gala premiere of one of his pieces, celebrating death, destruction and the plague in 16C Flanders, everything and everybody supposed to die from this or that mishap, which was celebrated in a TV programme by enthusiastically showing an engraving of that period with a totally devastated landscape, admired by everybody involved. A clarinettist was interviewed who expressed his happiness about a small motive he was allowed to play time and again amidst the lava of destruction, being a quote form the finale of Beethoven’s quartet nr 16 in F opus 135. The whole occasion was grotesk: which civilization in history invested so much effort, money and effort to happily celebrate the death of their own culture? The reason was, of course, that everybody tried to be ‘up to date’ , tolerant to ‘the new’ (which had become stale and old already for half a century), and was misinformed. Even the poor Queen had to be present to give the gala a touch of glamour (a penny for her thoughts).

    In other words: Birtwistle’s achievement has been greatly overrated and misunderstood for what it really is: postwar nihilism packaged as progress. It is an act of offence to let this sonic drudgery loose on the Americans.

  • Mark D. says:

    Subscribe to comments only.

    Thanks Norman.

  • Will Duffay says:

    To be fair, most of the UK has a ‘cloth ear’ for Birtwistle. Let’s not pretend he’s popular except with a very small number of new music acolytes.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Birtwistle is pushed by a reactionary ‘elite’ of people who believe themselves to be supporting the ‘avantgarde’, wishing B to be seen as the Grand Old Man of British Music. They are wrong: B’s work was the postwar misery garde, now outdated and without any musical meaning transcending the historical context of its inception. The real Grand Old Man of British Music is without any doubt David Matthews, who belongs to the real ‘avantgarde’ of today, exploring a personal interpretation of tonal traditions, opening-up a future where contemporary music can recover from the nihilism of the last century. Birtwistle’s work is, in comparison, merely a little pretentious desert with in the middle a coated turd on a silver plate.

      • Such British fuddy-dutty-ism, to suggest as “grand old man” a composer no one has heard of. Knowing your methods I know you will want to browbeat me for not having heard of him, but your insularity is a matter of record. Are you confusing him with the Dave Matthews Band perhaps?

        A suggestion like that is a curious combination of the insularity of Brits like Cedric Milquetoaste who part their hair down the middle and use just a little too much hair tonic. TS Eliot cultivated that look. Maybe he was trying to seem authentic.

        There is no doubt the Birtwistle is one of the very most important British composers of the last 75 years.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Many people wholeheartedly disagree with that last sentence… and they are not the least important. We know from history that real greatness is mostly appearing long after the event, when – for a majority of people – a more objective look is possible. Claiming mr B is, or is not, a great composer is risking both confirmation and ridicule; trusting on musical insight and instinct, we should make such assessment independently from marketing, fame, or from people with degrees. But quality becomes visible / audible when we compare things. Compare any Birtwistle piece with David Matthews’ “Concerto in Azzurro” and then it becomes quite clear who is really gifted here. Matthews explores the premodernist past and finds new ways of personal development; Birtwistle explores another past: the sonic postwar hangover and repeats it with delight, good for him, but it is miserable in all respects. I stick with musical competence, expression and beauty – all timeless qualities and thus, invulnerable to aging. Mr B has already aged considerably in comparison since WW II has aged, together with his music.

  • It is NOT true that “Western classical music [is] built on the premise that music moves through time to resolution.” That is an unvarnished bias toward conventions of tonality, and such biases are usually evidence of propaganda.

    Composers like Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies make more sense if you have a good feeling for Dufay and Ockeghem. The tonal system didn’t exist for them either.

    • Tim Benjamin says:

      “Composers like Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies” – they are really quite different composers you know, they are just the same age. Birtwistle’s music is clearly much harder going for most people, whereas Maxwell Davies has written some things that could pass the popularity contest into which some people are strangely eager to enter composers, whether or not those composers give two hoots how popular/ist they are. I think Birtwistle would not even give one hoot.

      I saw Birtwistle give a composition masterclass once. By far the best attended in my time at that institution and the least tedious. He was quite abrasive and definitely one to call a spade a spade. It was thoroughly refreshing from the usual eggshell-treading and relativism that often goes on, treating students as customers, a fear to call out crap for what it is, etc etc. I think I remember him telling one student “I have nothing to tell you, who’s next?”. Some of his pithy but constructive suggestions I have found very useful since, and I’ve tried to remember as much as possible. I’m glad I was only observing and not taking part!

      I think his music is in a sense very much like his “teaching” style. He doesn’t really care what you think but he’s going to say what he wants to say. If you are the kind of person who is going to find something in it, you will really find a lot in it. If you are not, then you should probably move on. A “Marmite” composer I suppose!

      Personally, of the supposedly “difficult” living composers I find a lot in Birtwistle to repay the effort. Others… distinctly less so!

    • John Borstlap says:

      Wrong, wrong and wrong. An existing artistic tradition is not ideology but practice. Composers like Birstwistle, who made their careers on the wave of postwar modernism, are products of propaganda. And Dufay and Ockeghem are tonal composers through and through because that was the only system they had. The medieval modi were tone systems within which tonal relationships form the fundamental basis.

      • John, you are a very talented guy who has decided that the Aesthetic of Birtwistle’s music is not to your taste, and have composed some well regarded music that is tonal. I respect your decision and the rationale behind it.

        I agree with you that Dufay and Ockeghem (composers whose music I love and have performed) are essentially tonal composers whose tonal system was based on the Medieval Church Modes. Ockeghem went even further and composed a Mass that was designed to be performed in any of them (with suitable adaptation – Musical Ficta). During the Renaissance, the Modal System essentially clustered around the two modes that form our tonal system, and even in the early Baroque there was some discrepancy in minor keys over how the top end would work – hence the plethora of false relations particularly in English Music of the Period.

        Having studied in a music department that was host to an International Contemporary Music Festival, each year I opened my mind and ears to music that challenged my aesthetical ideas about music. I will admit there was quite a lot I loathed. However, there was music I also enjoyed once I got my head around it (and having heard.

        There has been some Birtwistle I’ve detested – The sax concerto he wrote for John Harle for a Last Night of the Proms in 1996 comes to mind. However, I loved his Opera Gawain.

        The merit that some find in music that you don’t should not be the issue to be questioned here. Both Dalhaus and Roger Scrutton have written well regarded texts on Aesthetics. They say nothing about whether a piece is tonal or not.

        That music post 1910 broke free from the constraints of the tonal system is clearly evident in the practice of the time, simply because the Second Viennese School existed. That music went on an experimental phase in the post-war era is more than ideology as there Composers like John Cage and Pierre Boulez composing.

        Your tastes, and your musical decisions are that – personal. They say nothing about the overall subject of aesthetics.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The fallacy of 20C music theory is, that any value judgement in music is subjective and thus, is merely a matter of taste. That is wrong: there exist objective standards of aesthetics which can be argued and demonstrated, and if they include subjective factors, that does not mean that through subjecivity some level of objectivity cannot be reached. Taste does not necessarily interfere with value judgement.

          The mythology that modernism ‘opened-up a whole new world’ is merely offering an excuse to unmusical but ambitious people to pick-up ‘modern music’ and feel nicely ‘up-to-date’, and escape aesthetic value judgement. Hence the overrated image of mr B.

          That there is a difference between music (which makes use of tonality to create tones within an interrelational context) and sonic art (which treats sounds as such) is not a matter of taste. I don’t like most of Benjamin Britten’s work (matter of taste) but respect and appreciate him as a master. The same with Shostakovich of which I like only very few works. Personalizing opinions is also a way of neutralizing and blunting unwelcome observations… I think it is common sense to look into the arguments; if someone says that 2 x 2 = 5, I want to check that and not let my conclusion be dependent upon the taste of the person who entertains such opinion.

          Modernism focussed upon the purely material level of music, denying the entire psychological dimension (where ‘expression’ happens). Indeed it opened-up a whole world of possibilities, because sound liberated from the ‘burden’ of psychology/expression, can do many more things in terms of sound. But that is an altogether new art form and should not be confused with music, which creates wrong expectations from sonic art and negative comparisons with music. It is not too difficult to see that sonic art is an inferior art form if compared to music, because so much poorer in aesthetic and artistic terms, and there is nothing wrong with that. The difference in artistic and aesthetic quality between Tracey Emin’s unmade bed (which won the Turner Prize) and a painting by Velasquez is obvious to anybody with a residu of intelligence and cultural insight. This is not a matter of taste but simply a common sense observation.

          Scruton has, more than any other music theorist, explored this territory in his Aesthetics of Music (OUP), with irrefutable conclusions…..

          • John – like you I’ve read this book.

            I agree with you about your point in the paragraph re modernism, and it will take me some time to digest the concept that it may be “another sonic art form – not music”.

            From my performer’s perspective, engaging on the psychological dimensions of music is an aspect that I enjoy. That you can dislike a composers work and still achieve their mastery is a quality that we both share (albeit not with Britten and Schostakovich whose music I enjoy and in the case of the former, perform).

            Expression, getting into the inside of a composers mind, attempting as a performer communicate that with an audience is why when I teach, I talk about more than mere technique. The analytical discipline I was taught when studying historical musicology has proven invaluable – as does a lively mind. The latter being something I admire in you.

            I do would not attempt to try to convince you that 2×2 =5, but I might tell you there are 10 people in the world, those who comprehend Binary and those who don’t. I think you know where I’m coming from.

          • Tim Benjamin says:

            Please can you list for me some of these “objective standards” of musical aesthetics, and explain how they relate to contemporary composition in particular as distinct from performance, and how they differ from mastery of craftsmanship? The key word here being “objective”. I am genuinely interested to hear as I don’t think such standards exist, but I’m willing to be corrected if wrong.

            But to take up your Emin / Velasquez example, which I think is fallacious. Velasquez’s “Pope Innocent X” is clearly a technically better executed and more insightful painting of a pope than Emin’s “My Bed”, but then Emin’s “My Bed” is a far more convincing portrayal and exploration of the abject than Velasquez’s “Pope Innocent X”. If you want to claim that one is objectively superior to the other in terms of absolute aesthetics of art, be my guest, and I will be mightily impressed if you can put together a half-way convincing argument, even making allowances for the limited form of a blog comment.

            I’m not the biggest fan of musical modernism either – much of it is academic and uninspired, much is ridiculous, much of it was composed by talentless poseurs – but there are some great and very “musical” (not just sonic) works. “Great” – what do I mean by that? I’m not entirely sure I can explain objectively, but over and above the exemplary craftsmanship, I was moved by Birtwistle’s “Minotaur” for example in the same way that I am moved by other “great” musical works. I found the Keres particularly terrifying and the energy and insanity Birtwistle managed to convey in them is comparable to parts of the Rite of Spring (which I assume we can both agree is a “great”).

          • John Borstlap says:

            Dear Tim,

            “Emin’s “My Bed” is a far more convincing portrayal and exploration of the abject than Velasquez’s “Pope Innocent X”.”

            This sentence explains why I will find it very hard to find arguments that you will easily grasp, because in this example you compare a nonsense object (Emin’s bed) with a work of art within a mimetic tradition (Velasquez’ portrait). Emin has not put any artistic interpretation into her subject but simply exposed it. That is not art, because art consists of a personal, artistic interpretation of a theme, of a subject. Emin’s ‘work’ is concept art which is not art at all, anybody can exhibit his/her unmade dirty bed – it is an offence to any intelligent person. It does not deserve serious opposition, but the people who gave it the Turner prize should have been dismissed immediately from their position – if they had one.

            I fully agree that the Rite of Spring is great, but I think it is a great work in spite of the destructiveness it expresses, not thanks to. By the way, it is a fully tonal work, which is the source of its power. But ‘music’ which effectuates ‘terror’ is not great for only this reason.

            Let me at least suggest, as a modest beginning to be explored elsewhere (for example, Scruton’s ‘Beauty’) that objective aesthetic standards become visible (audible in music) where we can compare. If we would only know African masks, and we are aesthetically sensitive, we would appreciate and understand their expressive force and stylized beauty. But when you would, thereafter, get to know – let’s say – Greek sculpture, you would know that you were confronted by a far superior beauty and expression. This does not diminish the African masks’ artistic value, but would place them not on the same level as Greek sculpture. And so it is with everything artistic. Therefore, Birtwistle has some primitive qualities, which are appreciated by people who don’t know much better, but they are infinitely inferior to the qualities of – say – a Debussy score or, indeed, Stravinsky’s early ballets (or later ones, for that matter). The richness of artistic expression we can explore nowadays due to the infinite information that is now available to us, also means that we can see / hear that there are things that are good, and things that are better, and that are much better, and things that are inferior, nonsense, crap etc. etc. Art is an education of the senses and the sensibilities… as well as intelligence.

          • Tim, you don’t need anyone to agree with you, but I don’t mind saying I agree with most of what you say.

            Careful corresponding with Borstlap, he is an attack dog about Modernism.

            No reasonable person could ever deny that most Modernism is not superior art, regardless of your system of aesthetics.

            However, most art is bad art, just as most people’s efforts at most things take a lot of effort, and nevertheless usually fail. Nevertheless, we have to do what we can to make our way through it responsibly, if we want to give future talent giants on whose shoulders they may sit.

            If five to ten percent of any era is presently remembered I’d be surprised. If five to ten percent of musical Modernism is worthwhile, we’re doing fine. Maybe that’s a satisfactory Prophet Margin.

          • Glerb says:

            Sorry to be a bore – just because Dufay and Ockeghem used major and minor chords occasionally doesn’t make them tonal composers. Their music does not use tonality. It’s not about key, it’s about mode. Their world was absolutely pre-tonal.

            For the record, I think Birtwistle’s music is fab.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Good for you!

            As for tonality: that seems right if one defines tonality to the major/minorsystem which had only a restricted time span. If one defines tonality as the binding force of overtone relations (exact or approximate) it is another matter.

          • Tim Benjamin says:

            This seems to be a problem with a lot of your propositions John. If you want Dufay to be a tonal composer, simple, just redefine tonality. You don’t want Emin to be art, simple just redefine art. Unfortunately I am more interested in a discussion of the scale of object aesthetic quality which you claim exists than an ontological debate, but I fear it will once again (as always happens when things get interesting) degenerate into “what is art?”, before we get to “what is good/bad art?” and then finally “what is good/bad?”

            Re tonality: I do see where you are coming from. However what everyone else means is the diatonic system of the common practice era and which was certainly not around in that form during the early Renaissance. It has roots going back to Greek genera of course which handily brings us back to Sir B’s favourite subjects.

            I once arranged the 12 pitches of the tonal system in the order they appear in the harmonic series, i.e. the overtones to which you refer, as a 12-note row. Clearly those 12 pitches are themselves very artificial in terms of piano tuning for example, but that’s an argument for another day. Anyway, it had some very interesting properties (by the standards of serialism). I don’t suppose you would count that as “tonal composition” but it was an interesting exploration of the unknown (to me at any rate)

          • John Borstlap says:

            Well, there we go….. Thinking of the shelves under the numerous explorations on the subject, cracking under the weight of doubts, uncertainty and ideological discours, an attempt to define art could be: art is the aesthetic and thus stylized interpretation of life as experienced by man, addressing itself to both the senses (emotional territory) and the intellect (rational territory). Since people have both individual / idiosyncratic experiences and mutual experiences, a work of art will show both sides of experience. Good art is art that satisfies many requirements in the same time: aesthetic refinement, personal expression, intellectual depth (more layers of meaning than the surface level), artistic craft (the ability to create a work that can be considered ‘well done’, as best as possible), and: integrated: the parts relating to the whole, and with clear boundaries which set the work apart from the sphere of every day life. Good art is supporting the forces of civilization which are supposed to lift man above the animal sphere and give him inner freedom (read Scruton!). This is merely sketching a basic context. I would like to refer to Aristotle who described mimesis in relation to art. It formed the basis of a couple of millennia of great art with infinite development and variation… more interesting than ms Emin’s unmade bed.

            Given the uncertainties and fragility of human life, an important ‘function’ of art has always been giving meaning to life experiences, to balance-out the suffering that human life inevitably brings. So, there is this element of life-enhancing. Mr B’s celebration of death, destruction, bloodshed, etc. etc. does the opposite, all the more amusing that he is having a good time by showing society its Untergangsfantasies for which he is rewarded by a title. In my opinion, his work is postwar hangover art, trying to show the abyss of human negativity. For a while that may be functional, but turning it into a cult seems grotesk to me. Especially his Minotaur opera is absurd in its unrelenting violence…. he obviously finds great pleasure in it all, and that could hardly be an expression of some civilized value.

            As for tonality: the different interpretations being around are confusing… and tonality as the major-minor system fits nicely into modernist ideology: overcoming of / liberation from tonality, progress, etc. The materialist approach of music as developed by modernism needed a purely rationalistic ordering principle like serialism, but all that can never supplant the ordering properties of tonality. Modal music, diatonic music, chromatic music, are all different applications of tonality…. different means of expression. Debussy is a good example, it seems to me, of someone using all these means at will and following his appetites, not any system or ordering principle. To my feeling the heart of the matter is the overtone series which is a natural phenomenon, which is adapted within the various tone systems of music, as can be seen (heard) in every musical tradition on the planet.

          • Hi Tim, Ordering the overtone series in that way is very interesting. It is easy to get the first ten pitches of a twelve-tone order; after that the intervals keep getting smaller before (starting from C) we have F and A remaining. Presumably these are in the order of and F and A since, the intervals continually getting smaller, the F and A are met through default in that order. However I can’t readily find a description of the overtone series that goes beyond the 19th partial. If you have more info about this I would be interested to know of it.

            One thing this tells us is that whether F or A is the last pitch to be found, these two pitches together forming a 6-4 chord with the fundamental support the idea that the 6-4 chord is the most dissonant triad of the conventional three-pitch triads. Even augmented and diminished triads are formed to the fundamental before the 6-4 chord is formed to it.

            So it is possible to say that a form of the major triad is more acoustically dissonant than augmented or diminished triads.

            The pitch A being a sixth from the fundamental there is also the sense in which the added sixth is the most dissonant interval around.

          • John Borstlap says:

            All this shows again that academic degrees do not in the slightest garantee some basic musical understanding. It is theoretical speculation without any contact with reality. The overtone series are a natural, physical phenomenon, while musical tone systems (including concepts of consonance and dissonance) are human constructs, combining acoustical factors with hearing habits which are learned. Dissonance happens in a cultural context, not in a natural context: what is ‘consonant’ in Debussy is ‘dissonant’ in Haydn. That is why something like an ’emancipation of the dissonant’ (Schoenberg) is not possible because it is not a ‘thing’ that – bond within chains before – can be ‘liberated’.

          • I hope that by not reading your words that I am not being too “aggressive.”

          • ok, that’s enough. you’ve been spammed out.

          • I don’t see the tonal system as being restricted to to major and minor keys. Indian Classical Music is tonal in that it uses a system of Ragas. The Church Modes were a tonal system, just not as restricted as diatonic tonality.

            We are not calling a spade a spade here. We are looking an a panoply of garden implements. All are used for horticulture, but one can actually dig with a garden fork. (To use an analogy)

          • John Borstlap says:

            I fully agree. Well said.

          • I get it Joanna, you don’t know what you are talking about. Your relatively few words are remarkable for having such a high concentration of error. Whatever you think you are talking about, you are clearly not too worried about how well it has a verisimilitude to the facts. It would really be a good idea to read a reliable history book. I suggest Donald Jay Grout.

          • Glerb says:

            Joanna, that’s not what tonality means in its proper sense. Please stop bending the definition to include modality, whether diatonic or not.

          • To Joanna,

            There is no contemporary music theory that puts forward the claims that, as you put it, “any value judgement in music is subjective and thus, is merely a matter of taste.”

            You are making things up. Please study at least a little bit of music theory before volunteering your notions as credible. That remark is not in any case about music theory, but is some kind of extremely flaccid aesthetic idea according to which relativization of ideas is assumed. It works to keep children peaceful in front of the television set, or helps justify one choice of shoe style over another, if you don’t have any better way to make up your mind.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Cultural relativity (“any value judgement is relative, there is no archimedian point outside the framework from which to judge things”) is not a fruit of contemporary music theory but a mental backdrop of modern culture in general. It is part of the egalitarian view of society, a reaction against hierarchical social systems (class society etc.) and inspired by lefwing political theory. However beneficient it may be in terms of social justice, within the cultural field it does not work since there, everything is dependent upon individual achievement and quality hierarchy. But this should not invite academics to offend, with their degree in the hand, people who happen to entertain other ideas.

          • It is, when the word “tonality” means key system and not simply the Western Idea of Diatonic Tonality.

            I did study music theory and musicology as an undergrad, and although the arrival of children meant that I did not do a Post-graduate degree either by research or teaching, I have most definitely continued to study.

            I teach Theory to Grade 8.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Understanding of the basics of (art-) music is, fortunately, not restricted to Ph.D. types. In contrary, often the rationanlistic vivisection of the dead bodies of music produces lots of misunderstandings which can only be corrected by the living thing, music performances.

          • I first read “A History of Western Music ” Edition 3 Donald Jay Grout in 1985! Since this work has been subsequently edited by Palisca amongst others, and is only considered a reasonable text for the first year of an Undergraduate Music Degree, perhaps Dr Fulkerson would consider that someone who graduated in 1991 might be capable of digesting slightly weightier tomes.

        • Tonality is not a default of certain harmonies. It is a system of functioning relationships. These relationships are absent in the music of Dufay and Okhegem. It is crude ignorance to describe their music as tonal.

          Their was a gradual development of superficial aspects of the tonal system through the Renaissance, such as the appearance of triads, but the early Renaissance composers do not write tonal music.

          Some of the materials of tonality are available by Palestrina and Lassus but their music is not composed using the tonal system either. Tonality is not assured in its earliest recognizable forms until the Baroque era.

          You people who achieve “concensus” in the teeth of the facts demonstrate baldly substandard competence with those facts. Agreeing with each other does not make you correct.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Ho ho ho… That is not so simple a matter. In modernist ideology, the concept of ‘tonality’ referred to the major-minor system which had a relatively short life span: Baroque till, say, 1900. But there is another, and much better, understanding of ‘tonality’ and that is the interrelatedness of tones, resulting in (musically) meaningful combinations. In this sense, tonality is a matter of correspondence based upon mathematic proportions, which are embedded in the overtone series. Of course this interrelatedness works wihtin the medieval modal systems, as it does in the major-minor system, as in the chromatic music of later Scriabine, early Schoenberg, many works of Berg, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok etc. etc. Also in non-European traditions: when we listen to the Arabic Maquam and hear the quartertone deviations from the basic tones of the applied scale, we experience the expressive tension created by getting-away from the tone and going-back to it, comparable with the European notion of dissonance and consonance. Also here, it is the playing with tonal relationships which makes the music interesting and expressive.

            The notion of tonality as the major-minor system is conventional and confusing and should be forgotten…

            Referring to tonality as a system that got outdated and was ‘overthrown’ by Schoenberg is mere mythology, a misreading of music history. Not tonality was undermined in the later Wagnerian operas and later music, but the classical structural principles. For instance, tonality in Tristan, Parsifal and Goetterdaemmerung is reinforced by chromaticism and not undermined. That is why this music is very intense in terms of expression, which would not have been possible if tonality was ‘undermined’, or weakened’. Read Scruton’s ‘Aesthetics of Music’ for a thorough exploration of tonality, and all this will become quite clear.

          • Borstlap, being overbearing does not give credence to your words. You are not going to change the facts about music.

            Apparently you are used to running all sorts of palaver around people who don’t know any better. Your name dropping and attempts to pull concepts out of your hat isn’t working. Anyone who doesn’t understand what you are talking about doesn’t understand because what you are talking about doesn’t make sense. The only people who know what you are up to are people who know you are a fraud, though people who know they are confused about what you are supposedly saying do in fact have a clue.

            BTW someone else has the practical rights to “Ho ho ho,” which in no case is part of any music theorists’ discourse.

          • Christopher, can we agree to disagree here, as I really do not want to go into analytical detail re the works of Dufay and Ockeghem (who I have studied) in order to make my point re Church Modes being a Tonal System.

            That the Diatonic Tonal System did not exist in their day, is something I will agree with, but that is it. As soon as that system was threatened by other scales and other ideas of tonality, the integrity of thee modal system, and the implied harmonies that they contain have made me re-appraise them.

            I hasten to add this is not out of ignorance. However, one of the joys of music theory is it is not set in stone. There is the Musical Theory required to pass certain examinations at ABRSM grades and school exam level, and Music Theory that is a dynamic process.

            Like you, I am one who has listened, and one who has also looked at these composers in depth. We appear to have come to a different conclusion.

      • As usual, Bostlap, you are making up rubbish spam and serving it as communion. The belligerence of your communications is really distasteful, to the point of lacking attributes of civilized discourse.

        It is an historical fact that the tonal system did not exist during the generations of Dufay and Ockeghem. You will not find a plausible music historian who agrees with you. Not even triads as later composers thought of them existed, and the triad itself was treated as a dissonance (while clusters were assumed if arrived at linearly). You technique of attempting to bludgeon decades of music history teaching is what reduces your words to mere bigotry.

        The pitch-organizational methods of Dufay, as for one well-known example in Nuper roasarum flores, and the canonic and rhythmic methods of both composers, and many others of their time, are used by later composers such as Maxwell Davies, and the way their music makes use of pitch is audibly similar.

        Audibly similar, that is, for someone who has listened.

  • ed says:

    John you are a delight to read (and though I’ve not had the pleasure, your music is something I’d like to hear) but maybe, you also doth protest too much, like those ardent practitioner advocates of Newtonian physics (which is a tried and true- and elegant- system), that it is the last word on that ‘science’……Archimedes, anyone? (No, I didn’t forget the modern theories, or the N dimensions)

    • Ed, the closest I’ll get to Archimedes is the bathtub, but I won’t fill it so full of water to displace my own weight of water all over the bathroom floor. I may not be huge, but even a small adult load of water would cause tremendous damage to the dining room ceiling and the lighting circuit -let alone the contents of the dining room.

      Somehow I don’t think I would be that popular with my husband (who is a physist by training) or the insurance company come to mention it.

      Please don’t think I mean to get at John. He’s someone who is clearly articulate and talented. I simply don’t agree with him about everything. He’s also clearly got an agenda – one that I can sympathise with.

      My great love isn’t for modernism either, but I do want to keep an open mind.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Please do disagree with me… that will help you understanding why you think as you do, and the other way around. (Wilde: ‘When many people agree with me, I get the feeling that I must be wrong’.)

        I wish everybody with an open mind to open it even more, so that they can make comparisons and see through the nonsense that is around in the cultural field, and especially in the reserve of ‘contemporary music’.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Please don’t take sharp formulations as signs of fanaticism… which they are not: I am merely stating the obvious and I cannot help it if this ‘obvious’ is something blunt. A structural trait of modernist mythology is that art progresses (which is obviously not the case), and that (serious) contemporary music is an exploration of sonic possibilities in the way science is an exploration of reality (which is obviously also not the case: sonic explorations don’t ‘prove’ anything). In art, there is no ‘last word’, but there is also no ‘progress’: has Birtwistle progressed – in artistic terms – beyond Bach? The means develop, but artistic value is to be found in artistic vision and expressive value.

      Science and art are fundamentally different disciplines.

      The opening of infinite ranges of sonic possibilities that modernism has created, was bought on the expense of deletion of the art form’s dimension which formed its most fundamental nature. Thereby, it created a really new art form, fundamentally different from music, like photography developed alongside painting in the 19th century. In other words: artists like Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis etc. etc. are really Great if we forget their work is supposed to be music. In fact, they were much more ‘new’ than even they imagined.

      • John, you are a breath of fresh air!

        I cannot agree with you that science and art art fundamentally different disciplines. One science, is evidence based and relies largely on a logical though process. The other is a more intuitive, creative process. However that analogy is only skin deep. Great scientist have required to use their intuition and make creative leaps in order to design the very experiments that they rely on for their evidence. Throughout history, the arts have reflected the Zeitgeist of each epoch. Through doing this, the artist is complying with rules, syntax, literary devices, artistic conventions, tonality and much more. The language may be different, but with these comes structure, and that is an ordered way of thinking.

        Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis etc., to use the list of composers you initially cited, intended their creations in sound to be considered as music. Therefore as this is their intent, it is music. I will give you than it was and is more ‘new’ than even they imagined. If this is the case, maybe this turns a traditional Western Idea of Aesthetics on its head. Maybe the vast majority of people (and I include myself in this to a certain extent) are just not ready for their music.

        Bach’s music (and I love Bach, and find it very expressive) is very logical in its construction. Is Birtwistle attempting to take his music beyond Bach, or does he have different intentions?

        In stating what you believe is obvious to be the case, this does not mean that someone else will take another view on the matter.

        • John Borstlap says:

          All that sounds very plausible… But the difference between science and music is, that science is an exploration of physical reality through theory (indeed including visionary, intuitive assumptions) which is tested and assessed, creating a cumulation of ‘hard’ proof, on which to build further. So, real progress: we now know more than 200 years ago. Music however, does not prove anything, but is a form of expression and communication. Structure in music has a different meaning from structure in science. The fallacy of postwar modernism was that it tried to be a science, hence IRCAM in Paris (also sometimes referred to as the Institute for Retrograde Conservation of Abominable Musicians, because music as such did not play a role there). The goal of science is to arrive at some objective, testable truth about reality, which is nonsensical in music.

          As for Bach….. I believe we should take the context into consideration. Bach did not want to prove something about physical reality. The ordering in Bach is a reflection of an awareness of the ordering of the universe, expressed in a tonal art form. This has nothing to do with scientific thinking, I believe! Nothing is ‘proven’ in Bach apart from his ability to express this deep-seated order and harmony, and also have its subjective experience by man included. By the way, without a tradition this would never have been possible.

          As for the being ready for Boulez et al: I think we should have an open mind to such extent as to include the possibility of their misconceptions and lack of musical insight into account. The other day I read Xenakis’ “Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition”, which is hilarious…. treating sonic art as a scientific enterprise.

          • John, this comment has both amused me and been thought-provoking.

            I agree with you re. Bach, and love the alternative for the acronym IRCAM!

            I’ve not read the treatise by Xenakis, but it does not surprise me.

            True, science does set to arrive at some form of objectivity through empirical means. Music being an art form is an expression, and therefore subjective.

            Science and indeed mathematics do have their place in music, but as a means to an end rather than as the modus operandi.

  • Rosalind says:

    OK, a question: If you were going to recommend an entry point to Birtwistle’s music to someone who has not listened to his work before, which piece or pieces would you choose?

    • Tim Benjamin says:

      There is a lot on Spotify. But I would avoid the temptation to “dip in and out”. With Birtwistle it pays to listen to a whole piece, in isolation. And to really listen – it really isn’t background music!

      For “vintage Birtwistle” you might try:

      Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum – nice and short(ish), and to the point

      Silbury Air

      Secret Theatre


      The theatrical works (of which Secret Theatre is not one…) are best if you can see them as well as hear them, but it might well be worth you checking out “Punch and Judy” as a definitive piece of British music theatre – his first “opera” though some debate the term as applied to a piece like that, and so coined the term “music theatre” instead. Personally I find the style of singing required occasionally quite tiresome but your mileage, as they say, might vary! It’s a brilliant piece to see as well as hear.

      The “sax concerto” that Joanna refers to is “Panic” and I personally very much enjoy it! I think it’s possibly one of his more accessible pieces, especially if you are into modern jazz or, say, the music of Peter Brötzman. If that sounds like you then I recommend it. It caused something of an outrage at its premiere at the Last Night of the Proms but I don’t know why. I mean it’s not exactly “Fantasia on British Sea Songs” but who cares really. It’s a very cool piece.

      • Tim – I agree with your approach. Birtwistle is definitely not background music!

        Personally I did not like “Panic” – or at least I did not like it at that concert.

        His Operas are very much “Music Theatre” in almost a Purcellian idea complete with Masques. There the similarity ends. Still worth giving them a go.

    • John Borstlap says:

      (From the side line:) Be careful if you suffer from depression or / and suicidal moods.

  • Personally, I found his opera Gawain rather approachable, and there are excerpts that make for a manageable introduction.

    I would avoid the Sax concerto he wrote for John Harle.

    I’m certain there are others who would have other ideas.

    With any current composer, the best thing is to go find a weekend where a retrospective of his work is being performed and immerse yourself in as much as possible. It is far better to make your own mind up about a composer through experiencing the music rather than be guided.

    If after this, you decide that his music is not for you, then you have given it a try, if you decide you do like it, then “google” his output, and listen to some more.

  • John, your opinions on Modernism are easy to discern and a few clicks through a search-engine means that you are easy to search out. The same can be said for Christopher Fulkerson. John can’t see the point, Christopher is a proponent.

    Tim composes, and studied with Martland (who had a few choice words to say about modernism when he was alive- not all complimentary). Yet Tim appears to have chosen to listen and make up his own mind (which is what I decided to do too). Three years studying at Huddersfield meant that I certainly heard plenty of contemporary music. Some of it I loved, other bits I loathed. As a parent of a GCSE music student, I’m encouraging him to listen to as much music of as many different genres as he can. If he chooses to embrace modernism, that is his choice, if he can’t stand it than that is also his decision. Until he has actually listened to a piece how does he know?

    At 19 (when I began my degree) I had very set ideas about all-sorts of musical concepts. Over the years, since I learned to question everything, these ideas have changed. I also only believed that tonality could apply to the Western Diatonic System. It was only through composing using a modal system, and through listening to World Music that I appreciated that this was not the case.

    Rosalind asked the question how and where does one start to appreciate the music of Birtwistle. Tim’s suggestion of check what is on Spotify is a great idea. I first listened to New Music of all different types in the concert hall. Check radio listings – it being Birtwistle’s 80th birthday this year, Radio 3 is bound to be broadcasting some. This is not just how I’d suggest Rosalind starts, it would also be the way I’d suggest my own son to (although he should check that his dad is out, as Modernism definitely isn’t his thing!)

    • John Borstlap says:

      That’s all fine stuff, it should indeed wholeheartedly be recommended, to anybody who studies music, to listen to everything there is, and then make-up your mind. That is why I object to the phrase:

      “John can’t see the point, Christopher is a proponent.”

      which could easily be turned around.

      Modernism was one of the subjects I studied most. I even read the abominable texts of its arch fathers, Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis… which are revealing, like ‘Mein Kampf’, and thus also wholeheartedly recommended to people interested in 20C music.

      One should be so open-minded as to include the possibility that understanding modernism on a fundamental level can make one see the point very, very clearly. Objection to an art form does not necessarily mean not seeing the point. Modernism has destroyed much of our musical culture, and if someone warns about that, it may be that such warnings have a ground. Chris’ aggressive and defensive manner, betraying a lack or arguments, is a case in point. Modernism is (was?) an ideology, like Marxism, communism, nazism, deconstructivism, etc. etc. which are thought systems not rooted in, but projected upon, reality. That’s why they are called ideologies.

      • I certainly did not want to cause you offense John. Maybe “from having listened and studied it at length, John has decided it isn’t for him.” would be better.

        At least you appear to appreciate the merit of reading and listening to as great a variety as possible (and not limiting me to “A History of Western Music -edition 3” -Donald Jay Grout, a book that not only have I read, but I have serious issues with -beginning from how he exaggerate’s Beethoven’s role as a pivotal composer, essentially Classical, yet moving towards the Romantic period, yet completely disregard’s Schubert’s contribution to the same transition – but I digress…)

        • Tim Benjamin says:

          I am ambivalent towards Modernism in fact Joanna, there are pieces that I thoroughly enjoy (or at least appreciate), a few I think are great, but for each of those there are swathes of music that I just can’t get on with and find headache-inducing. I also find the sometimes-used highly mathematical approach to music to be, by and large, unmusical and dull. Finally, I personally think that one or two of the major modernist composers are complete frauds (but not Birtwistle).

          “from having listened and studied it at length, John has decided it isn’t for him.” – actually that is not quite enough. I think John has decided that modernist music has no merits whatsover, not for him, but in absolute terms. I admire this bold position but I’m only disappointed not to see the argument “proving” it, as an objective aesthetic standard would require! A few simple statements of logic, or a few tests to apply offering consistent results, not “go read Scruton” or “go read Grout”, or – heaven help us – “go read Adorno” etc. I’ve read the standard texts and have found nothing objective in aesthetics whatsoever. What have I missed?

          • John Borstlap says:

            In response to TIm Benjamin:

            “I admire this bold position but I’m only disappointed not to see the argument “proving” it, as an objective aesthetic standard would require!” This is a valid observation… but isn’t it unreasonable to expect scientific proof in a territory which is so fundamentally different from science? ‘Objective truth’ through science means: truth referring to purely physical objects and phenomenae. But humans also live in a human sphere which goes beyond the purely physical level. It is there where art ‘happens’, and through subjective reasoning, arguing, and especially: comparing, one can arrive at some objective truth. There do really exist objective aesthetic truths, for instance that Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ is a beautifully stilized image of an important part of human experience and Damien Hirst’s cut shark in formaldehyde is not. The Titian offers a whole world of experience and meaning through the imagination, and through a superbly developed artistic craft, it contributes to understanding of the human condition as art is supposed to do, the Hirst merely offers an object and nothing more. This is not merely ‘subjective opinion’ but, within the context of human civilization, human culture and developed aesthetic taste, something of objective truth. It is like the green of grass that you see and that I see but it cannot be scientifically proven that we see in fact the very same colour; but yet, in a process of comparison and exchange, we can both agree that we are part of the whole system of outside reality which is grass, and inside reality which is the experience of grass, and conclude that in this world, in our human cultural context, we can trust that the conclusion that the grass we both see is the same green, is true in an objective sense. If not, we end-up in destructive insanity, emotional alienation, mihilism, like Birtwistle’s Minotaur-opera.

            Really, in case of REAL interest in the matter, you should read Scruton’s recent essay which delves deep into this question of objectivity and subjectivity on the site of The New Atlantis:


            which explains exactly this matter of subjective versus objective in an excellent way and much better than I can do within this space.

            The misunderstanding that aesthetic questions are purely subjective and thus, cannot claim any objective truth, is the influence of a purely materialist world view, which is the result of misunderstanding of science’s real territory and its limitations. It is a contemporary prejudice which makes us blind to aspects of our own lives.

            And as for Birtwistle: it seems imperative to ask here: what does it say? What is it, objectively and aesthetically? Because that is the essence of its truth, whatever way we subjectively interpret it. The more we are developed aesthetically and subjectively (!), the more chance we get at some objective truth, like having seen many times the green of grass and discussed the matter with our fellow beings.

          • Thanks for clearing that up.

            The subject of historiology and aesthetics applied to music fascinates me. That you have read some of the standard texts and found them as riveting as paint drying is fine by me. It would be a very boring world if everyone was the same.

            The same is true when it comes to our musical preferences. Reading later in this thread, the one thing John has said that I agree with is study the score, not what someone has written about it. The same applies to listening with your own ears and forming your own judgement.

            Philosophers can attempt to define greatness and beauty on an absolute scale. Being human, they are destined to fail, even if they do come close. Just like an historian can never write the definitive history. It is a good thing really, for if this wasn’t the case, there would be nothing for the next generation to do!

        • John Borstlap says:

          Thank you Joanna…. As for Grout: that is a thoroughly conventional and biassed music history indeed. As soon as he gets into the 19th century, he wallows in all the bourgeois prejudices that have hindered a clear view upon music history, and the 20th century is riddled with misconceptions. The best uses of the book are weightlifting for beginners or balancing a defect table.

      • Elaine L. says:


        “Modernism was one of the subjects I studied most. I even read the abominable texts of its arch fathers, Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis… which are revealing”

        I’ve also read a couple of their texts and agree with you.

        I think these composers failed to understand that due to a confluence of genetic attributes, not through a simple “art gene” but through a contingent INTERMESHING in our genetic wiring, human beings are predisposed to take pleasure in symmetry and proportion, harmony and progression, structured drama and linear narrative.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I fully agree. That is a very fundamental truth about the human condition. From this observation it follows, that art music is not about pure sound, and / or its exploration, but about its meaning. Modernism attempted to turn art music into some sort of science, with the expected result that it is bad science and bad music. But if considered sonic art, one can find some really fine works in that territory – provided one does not compare it with music.

          As for the difference between art and science, read Roger Scruton’s recent essay about neurothugs who try to reduce art to neurological stimuli and nothing more:


  • Rosalind says:

    I love this thread! Thank you very much to everyone for the listening recommendations which I am definitely going to follow up. Somehow Birtwistle has slipped underneath my listening radar. I would like to think I have open ears to a very wide range of composers – historical and contemporary, but remain convinced that sometimes we have to ‘grow into’ their music. Nothing to do with musical aesthetics or how many academic essays we’ve read, but simply our own abilities to enter into their individual sound worlds. Some of the best advice I ever got as a student was: “Read the score, not the academics.”

    Is it here that I should confess? I still find it very hard to concentrate through the music of Debussy, but ever since playing a totally way out score by Henze as a student violinist, I’ve devoured everything I can find by him. (The score was Heliogabulus Imperator… one of my most vivid performing experiences.)

    • John Borstlap says:

      “Read the score, not the academics.” That’s great! I fully agree. In this connection it is interesting to find-out that Debussy also did not like academia, except the rare occasions that an academic analysed his music with understanding.

      Debussy – who knew a thing about academia, having gone through the conservatoire trainings of his time – focussed upon man’s sensitivity of experiencing the outside world instead of the 19C concentration upon subjective, internal emotional experience of the composer. The poetry of nature or fantasy becomes audible, without the personality fo the composer getting in between.