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?
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.
(cover photo of the late Steve Martland)