The composer wears no clothes at the BBC Proms

The composer wears no clothes at the BBC Proms


norman lebrecht

August 26, 2016

Krzysztof Chorzelski, violist of the Belcea Quartet, has taken issue with Mica Levi’s world premiere, Signal Before War, performed last Saturday as one of the new works at the BBC Proms.

Once you’ve listened to the short piece, you might well be inclined to agree.

Point, what point?

Here’s Krzystof:

On Saturday 20 August at this year’s London Sinfonietta’s BBC Prom concert a new work entitled “Signal Before War” was given its world premiere. Ever since hearing this piece a very strong feeling of rage has been mounting in me. After giving it some thought I decided that I cannot remain silent in the face of what I consider nothing short of an outrage.

What is “Signal before War”?

It is a work for solo violin consisting of a long and slow slide from the bottom of the violin’s register to the top lasting three and a half minutes. The sound produced by the violinist becomes louder and louder as the pitch rises and at the top of the ascent the performer uses vibrato.

That’s it. My description is not a rough outline of the work’s structure – it is a fully comprehensive, detailed account of literally everything about “Signal Before War”.

And it is literally everything about “Signal Before War” that I find offensive.

To call a three-minute slide a “musical composition” would be extremely far-fetched and patronising at a music workshop for school-children with no prior exposure to music.

To commit a three-minute slide to pen and paper and then to send it to the British Broadcasting Corporation in return for a fee (paid for by the taxpayer) is an act of extraordinary arrogance.

But to call this three-minute slide “Signal Before War” is just vile cynicism – a shameless attempt to give gravitas and “contemporary edge” to one’s sterility by tapping into the images of our world’s very real pain and suffering.

And yet, amongst the reviewers present at the event we have the Evening Standard’s Nick Breckenfield who finds that the piece has “the power of intense stillness within constant slow-motion” and the Guardian’s Tim Ashley who calls it “brilliant”.

I am a classical musician – a performer reasonably versed in the musical landscape of our day. I have a keen interest in the music being written nowadays and I regularly commission works from composers whose music speaks to me. I have a pretty good idea of what it means and how much it takes to hone one’s musical craft. I know that achieving true musical expression requires taking risks, not being afraid of failure and of what the others think about us.

I am quite sure that “Signal Before War” has none of the above qualities. It doesn’t, therefore, deserve even to be considered a failure. Its’ long sonic assent needs to be recognised for what it is – it’s a three-and-a-half-minute-long winding up of the composer’s middle finger in our direction and, even more importantly: in the direction of true artistic expression.

It needs to be answered in kind.

This composer wears no clothes.

martland naked

(cover photo of the late Steve Martland)



  • Nathan Braude says:

    very well written Krzysztof!
    Can’t agree more with you.

  • Peter Pasquale says:

    Well said. If the Guardian critic Tim Ashley had been reviewing a concert given by school children and heard this piece, would he seriously commit to print the word ‘brilliant’ in one the UK’s most respected newspapers for coverage of the arts? Are are the public, who pay for this type of work, constantly meant to feel patronised and stupid for ‘not getting it’? It’s shocking that many of the critics are too weak, too scared, and -ultimately- too vain to express what they think, and by patting themselves proudly on the back in print for having ‘got it’ they only perpetuate such cynicism. It’s not a question of style or aesthetics; experiention is vital, as many great 20th Century composers have shown (Ives, Cage, Carter etc.). All the other works featured in the same Proms concert were revealed (regardless of lighting, visuals, context, titles etc.) as meaningful artistic statements, born out of real integrity (take the stunning new piece by David Sawer, for example). What’s depressing here is that public money has been wasted, and that this situation then goes almost entirely unchallenged. For young composers aspiring to one day to receive a Proms commission, is this the wilfulfully cynical attitude they should adopt to achieve such an aim? I have no issue with this particular composer or her artistic aims. What I do deeply resent is the blind, lazy critical endorsement that this type of work receives, given that it probably received a four-figure sum of tax payers’ money to ‘write’. That amounts to several weeks’ of slog for someone on the minimum wage. When composers are in such desperate need of commissions, should this situation go unchallenged?

    • Geoffrey Pettigrew says:

      ‘It’s not a question of style or aesthetics; experimentation is vital, as many great 20th Century composers have shown (Ives, Cage, Carter etc.)’ – and you need say no more. Who are you to decide what a ‘genuine’ work of ‘integrity’ is? How can you so pompously elevate yourself above the commissioner, the player, the ensemble and the composer who gave this life? It’s extraordinarily arrogant, and the story of the conservative establishment’s response to innovation since time immemorial. Surely this has to be seen in the context of the composer’s other work. Individual works of art cannot be seen in a vacuum, otherwise the experimentation of previous generations would have made absolutely no sense. Talk about cynicism and patting one’s self on the back!

      • John Borstlap says:

        Ives, Cage and Carter great composers? This claim undermines the intention of the comment. Ives was an amateur, Carter a brilliant sonic artist, and Cage was not a composer but a decomposer. These are not arrogant, pompous etc. etc. expressions of an elitist, reactinary, conservative position, unwilling to accept experimentation, but simple observations that can be argued at length but which will not be attempted here, life is too short. That often, excellent works are initially not accepted, does not mean that you can turn it around and say, where a work is not accepted, it MUST be a good piece.

        The art form has always been driven by experimentation by indepently-thinking composers, but where their experiments resulted in works of quality, they were accepted and understood not long after performance.

        • Geoffrey Pettigrew says:

          Indeed, this is not to say that because this piece is radical, experimental and provokes a reaction it is good. It may be or it may not be. However the original article boiled down to: this is musically unfamiliar and seemingly simplistic, and therefore it is NOT good/music. I am merely asserting that this conclusion cannot be drawn, and if it were much of the musical landscape would be unrecognisable. And to our detriment.

        • Greg from SF says:

          So speaks John Borstlap, the musical and intellectual superior to Ives, Cage, and Carter.

          • pooroperaman says:

            So many more Borstlap CDs on my shelves than Ives, Cage and Carter ones…

          • John Borstlap says:

            But that is not so difficult: read what they wrote, and listen to what they sent into the world as music.

          • Pianofortissimo says:

            Borstlap CDs? I have one, an almost 20-year-old release of chamber music, really very nice chamber music especially a Capriccio for violin, horn and piano, it’s back to Brahms and on again. Ives? Not really serious but very entertaining if you get the references right, I just love some of the songs. Carter? Wonderful music in the decade after WWII, his Sonata for cello and piano would be a very good choice to play before Borstlap’s Hyperion’s Dream for the same instruments in a recital… Cage? Well, let’s stop it now.

  • Una says:

    Well, it reminds me of the ‘Unmade Bed’ exhibition at some gallery in London some years ago, and the artist got upset as two blokes decided to have a pillow fight on the bed, and upsetting her ‘work of art’ for which no doubt she’d have been paid handsomely.

    Well said Krzystof. It would be classed as a joke if it weren’t so costly to the taxpayers, the Proms and contemporary music in general. Another gimmick. Laughing all the way to the bank no doubt for so little …

    I suppose they had to pay to look at his body as well … not a pretty sight.

    • MWnyc says:

      I actually think Tracey Emin’s My Bed is an interesting and heartfelt piece of work, once you look at it in the right way.

      As composer Kevin James wrote in this article about modern music, “subjectivity isn’t actually a matter of taste. It’s a matter of expectation.”

      (His next sentence is quite worthwhile: “When it comes to art and artistic renderings, there is, unfortunately, often a disconnect between what an artist is presenting and what an audience believes their price of admission is buying.”)

      Tracey Emin’s My Bed isn’t a piece of visual art meant for visual aesthetic contemplation, as, say, a Vermeer or Turner or Manet or Picasso or Jackson Pollack or Lucian Freud is. It’s like an autobiographical essay – except that, Emin not being a writer, it’s an essay made up of objects (all hers) to be looked at and figured out rather than of words to be read and figured out. So you look at the objects in and around Emin’s bed the way Sherlock Holmes would look at clues and deduce the state of Emin’s mind and life at the time she created the installation.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That installation is, according to your own description, NOT art. It is a demonstration of an idea with the help of real objects, as anybody can do – but they should not call themselves artists and a museum should never exhibit such installations as art. The context for such products is wrong: a separate exhibition space should be provided and be called ‘Exposition of Objects Informed by Ideas’. Concept art (which Emin’s thing is called) is not art.

        And then, to show how thin the supporting ideas are:

        “…. subjectivity isn’t actually a matter of taste. It’s a matter of expectation.”

        Think this sentence through. What does it say? Expectation is subjective, but not taste. Expectation in the context of a work of visual art? According to what is meant by the term ‘art’, expectations are normal and not necessarily subjective: it depends on context, expectations can be very objective (as with dentistry for instance). And what about taste? Is taste not subjective? But that is what we always have understood by the word, and we can expect things that are not to our taste (as, again, with dentistry). This sentence is one of those utterings which suggest content but are mere superficial slogans, they say nothing of substance.

        “His next sentence is quite worthwhile: ‘When it comes to art and artistic renderings, there is, unfortunately, often a disconnect between what an artist is presenting and what an audience believes their price of admission is buying.'” This is implying that visitors of a museum expect the offerings being in line with the price of their entrance ticket. But such thoughts only come into one’s mind if the offerings are obvious unserious nonsense, like Emin’s bed, or Duchamp’s pissoir, or Maroni’s little tins with his own excrements. Only THEN you think: did I come for THIS? and then, not only the time spent in the museum but also the ticket price is felt as a waste, adding to the negative experience. Any defense of such nonsense is opening the doors further to the mentally challenged and pranksters to present their waste as art. Indeed it often happens that the viewer does not understand the work of art, but if the work has artistic content, after some time it will be understood and appreciated (as history shows). But you cannot turn it around and say: ‘This work is not understood, and THEREFORE it must be a valuable work of art’.

        • MWnyc says:

          Believe me, I’m not one to say that a work of art is valuable because it’s misunderstood.

          As for your argument that museums should not exhibit conceptual art because it is not art – sorry, John, that ship sailed fifty years ago. Like it or not, museums and galleries have been showing conceptual art for a few generations now.

          • John Borstlap says:

            … which does not change anything about the notion that it is something that cannot be justified. The fact that many people do absurd things is not an invitation to join them. This reaction is, it seems to me, an expression of conformism, the same conformism that keeps the nonsense on the (well-paid) rails.

  • Robin says:

    Can’t agree more with what is written.

    Even more shocking to read the reviews… coming from Evening Standard and Guardian.

    The message these reviews sent to young composers is all so wrong – you have to compose ‘music’ of this ‘quality’ to be reviewed positively. Music… what music?

  • John Borstlap says:

    This perfectly sane reaction sums-up pretty well the problems of contemporary music as they are still hindering real developments in the field:

    As long as people running the musical establishment are prone to fall into such idiotic traps, which can be seen through even by an alien, audiences’ idea of new music will remain distorted and entirely negative.

  • David Osborne says:

    Dammit, I’m on a break…

  • David Swaddle says:

    It may be apocryphal, but in the 1960s a composer at Cambridge University apparently submitted a cabbage as his final composition portfolio (and passed). One can, of course, justify and defend anything from an intellectual standpoint: perhaps the cabbage in question can be seen as an intricate graphic representation of what the performers are meant to express, the shapes of the leaves representing melodic swells etc, etc.
    This Proms piece is only a few steps removed from the cabbage scenario (though in this case was paid for by the public). If someone writes a divisive, controversial piece, that’s fine- but let’s at least ensure that it really is divisive and controversial, rather than being presented with leading critics and much of the musical establishment blindly heaping praise on it.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There is another Cambridge story which is interesting: a student had to write an orchestral score but had no ideas, and the deadline came close. A fellow student said: “Why not using an existing piece and write it backwards, so that nobody will recognize it? You can take anything, Ligeti, Birtwistle, Berio… whatever.” The student in question decided, after some deliberation, to take a recent piece by his professor and write it backwards, a work with definite postmodern traits. But he failed his exam and received a reprimand from the jury: “We think that sending-in a copy of Debussy’s La Merjj is extremely bad taste and insufficient proof of fulfilled requirements of attending lectures and supervisions”.

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    To be accurate, it’s funded by the licence payer rather than the tax payer. There may be some who feel the money could be better spent; on two minutes of Graham Norton’s or Jonathan Ross’s screen time perhaps. Every commissioner takes a gamble based on available knowledge and if they are unhappy they will most probably gamble elsewhere in the future. I didn’t hear this particular piece nor am I aware of the BBC’s opinion of it, but I do know that Levi wrote one of the most intelligent, inventive and interesting film scores for years (Under The Skin) and in my opinion would have been worthy of the commission on the basis of that alone.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Film music should not come into consideration for serious commissions for the Proms.

      • Gary Carpenter says:

        Bad news for Vaughan Williams, Bax, Alwyn, Arnold, Schittke, Takemitsu, Copland, Shostakovich, Walton, Honegger, etc. etc.

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          Schnittke was very clear in this point: the music he composed for the movies was not art music, it provided his daily bread and made possible for him to compose serious music about 6 months a year.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Indeed, that’s what I mean. There is nothing against it, as long as it is not taken as serious music.

  • David Osborne says:

    Not so hasty people, she and her music are actually worth checking out. Reminds me a bit of early 90s band My Bloody Valentine. Now I’m on a break…

    • David Osborne says:

      Yes, very interesting and worthwhile music. But she’s an indie-pop artist, she says so herself. On further investigation my above description is not so accurate. Now I’m on a break.

  • Sherban Lupu says:

    Of course anyone can write any rubbish they choose and call it music while mocking the ignorant audiences. The revolting part is that it is scheduled and performed in the context of the BBC Proms no less, which is sadly becoming a dustbin for such garbage. Those in charge with programming it are actually responsible for this farce!

    • Christopher Culver says:

      “Of course anyone can write any rubbish they choose and call it music while mocking the ignorant audiences.”

      Accusing Mica Levi of “mocking the audience” is an extreme claim. While I don’t care for her music myself, looking at Levi’s activity (she already has a very productive and well-documented career behind her) suggests that she really does like the sort of sounds that she creates, and that if she brings a piece like this to a concert, it’s because she found it satisfying and sincerely hoped that some audience members would respond to it as well.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Wanting to share obvious nonsense in a concert context does not reflect very well on the composer, the performers, and the promotors.

  • Gordon Freeman says:

    Please… let composers write what they wish. If one doesn’t like it one doesn’t have to listen, and can leave it to people who are interested… It’s quite simple!

    There are plenty of other taxpayer-funded activities in any given country that one can vent more warranted outrage towards!

  • pooroperaman says:

    I was there on Saturday, and, in fairness to her, her interview made it clear that she’s really extremely dim. I presume she simply hadn’t a clue what she was doing.

    • David Osborne says:

      OK pooroperaman, you got that from the interview. Would you like a free assessment on what your comments in this forum say about you?

      The serious point is that you should perhaps reconsider the debating tactic of only making personal attacks. Regardless of the quality of this particular work, the composer is clearly a very talented individual with an excellent track record over an extended period despite her youth. She has also attained a high level of general public engagement. Not to be sneered at.

      • pooroperaman says:

        ‘a very talented individual’

        Of course she is. Maybe in a few years she’ll learn how to speak in sentences. Then she could progress slowly on to music of some sort.

        • David Osborne says:

          pooroperaman, you are a bitter, sad individual. Great to have you on board!

        • Christopher Culver says:

          Geez, Pooroperaman, do you get on Arvo Pärt or György Kurtág’s case as well, since they often prefer to let their spouses speak for them to interviewers? Some people are just very uncomfortable being put on the spot in interviews or having to express their intuitive creative activity in words, and that doesn’t have any relationship to their goodness or badness of their music itself. Mica Levi strikes me as a very thoughtful person who just really doesn’t like talking to journalists.

  • Giselle says:

    As much as people are entitled to their opinions, I do think this rant from Krzysztof Chorzelski sounds a bit bitter. I was at that particular performance and the piece was appropriate and interesting in the space. Moreover Mica Levi is not dim, her score for Jonathan Glazer’s film “Under The Skin” was the best I’ve heard in a long time.

    • Ian says:

      Did the audience like the piece?

      Indeed, going slightly off subject, I wonder does the audience at the Proms ever show displeasure?

  • Hilary says:

    For me, the most controversial aspect of the concert was the conductor who in one of his spoken introductions compared the GF Haas piece to Ligeti’s Ramifications in level of imagination. Sure, they are similar in terms of textural aspects but I couldn’t help but be struck by the portentous feel to the Haas. It’s a musical mannerism…pastiche even.
    On the other hand, Ligeti takes one by surprise.

  • George says:

    What ever happened to composers like Boulez and Carter?