January 3, 2013 saw me apprehensively lobbing into the great city of Southampton for the Royal Musical Association’s yearly postgraduate conference. This august affair lasts roughly the same time it took Christ to die and rise again (but packs far more into the stingily triduan timespan). In addition to presenting a paper of my own (I got the graveyard session, held the morning after the conference dinner), I attended about 20 others, as well as keynote addresses, a handful of helpful advisory sessions (in which we, aspiring academics all, were corralled into lecture theatres and methodically disillusioned about our career prospects), and numerous coffee breaks, in which I awkwardly attempted small talk with fellow conference-goers (though mostly I fell into an Oxford clique, which, in its Oxford way, was scarcely less awkward). What a knees-up it was – a tremendous way to usher in the new year.
Anyhow, after my paper (on Pärt’s Miserere and Josquin’s Miserere mei, Deus) had tiredly come and gone, I was followed by Jessica Ruth Morris of Cardiff University, who perked everybody up with a talk entitled ‘Postminimalism in Music’. Postminimalism – it’s an elusive term indeed, on whose very intractability Ruth spoke informatively and with suitably wry resignation. It is a label, in fact, over which several composers have actively sought proprietorship (a far cry from the aversion to the ‘minimalist’ badge expressed variously by Young, Riley, Reich and Glass). Among these knights aspirant, we learned, were William Duckworth (with whose Time Curve Preludes I was pleased to acquaint myself) and Michael Torke. Another, more recent, work nominated by Ruth for membership in the nascent postminimalist canon was Max Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed, recently released by Deutsche Grammophon. This work, in which Richter takes on The Four Seasons, displays an audacious willingness to get his hands dirty – bloodied, some may say. It’s made a splash, and I recommend having a listen (it’s available on Spotify). It’s also what really got me curious about just what, if anything, might constitute a postminimalist relationship with musical pasts more remote than the facilely syllogistic ‘minimalist’ period itself.
Plenty of post-1900 composers used old music to inform and colour their newer offerings. But, wilfully fragmentational practices such as collage aside, how many engaged in the implicitly more modest undertaking of putting old wine in a new bottle? Vivaldi Recomposed infuses The Four Seasons with much from the world of popular music: familiar avian motifs now bestride muscular, predictable four-chord cycles, ambient strings trigger strong urges to bliss out, and swathes of new material proliferate that could only plausibly have sprung from the pen of a cosmopolitan composer thoroughly imbued with musical sensibilities attaching value to both high and low styles. So with what, if anything, can it readily be compared? (Don’t say ‘William Orbit’).
Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, reworking Pergolesi, was the first candidate work to occur to me. Could there then a relationship between Richter’s project and the generative impulses of early twentieth-century neoclassicism? All in all, I think not. At bottom, the neoclassicists were still caught up in, and their stylistic audacity was ultimately defined by, contemporary crises of modernity: they reacted, in other words. Pulcinella is in many ways an outlying work (though its fame is just), for neoclassical composers still sought ways to write new music, and the new music they wrote was still highly self-conscious as to the historical ordination of musical language. Vivaldi Recomposed is not, as far as I can tell, similarly burdened.
I next hit upon Sven-David Sandström’s agonisingly chromatic intensification of Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, O Lord. Not so very long ago, I heard this searing piece performed by the choir of St James King Street. Purcell’s original had already been presented, though not immediately beforehand: another work was interpolated, but only one – merely enough to separate self and other. What drove this particular piece of programming? Something to do with memory, perhaps: well-known pieces evoke very ingrained, and often very specific sets of personal associations in the hearer (emotional, spatial, temporal, often all three and more). Any act of musical renovation such as Richter’s, in which the unfamiliar and familiar interpenetrate completely, has the capacity to disrupt those associations, generating disorientation, discomfort, or even outright distress. The more clichéd the music under renovation – and what Western music is more clichéd, more encrusted with associations, more intraculturally appropriated than The Four Seasons? – the more dramatic this effect can be.
It all seemed plausible, and various accounts (listeners’ and performers’) of Vivaldi Recomposed have indeed mentioned lostness – a sensation which, let’s not forget, takes on especially vivid acuity when experienced in familiar surroundings. On the other hand, relatively few critical voices seem to regard this as objectionable. How then has Richter succeeded in cushioning the blow he strikes by removing Vivaldi from our homes and hearths, and relegating him to the garage, to be seen through a glass darkly or not at all? I’m not quite sure, and perhaps this is the non-polemical black magic wrought by the successful postminimalist. Exploiting the ever-increasing democratisation of cultural expression, Richter has created an artefact that treats an old favourite unthreateningly and respectfully enough that we can’t possibly object, while catering magnificently to some of our more recently learned habits: our eagerness to listen casually, certainly, and perhaps also our growing fondness for sound bites.
On the train back from Southampton, I listened to some resolutely traditional music: Haydn’s Die Schöpfung, in fact. The oratorio format suddenly sparked another recollection: Bill Dobbins’ jazz arrangement of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in its entirety, which has been recorded by the King’s Singers. Might Richter simply be engaging in the kind of imaginative covering – we might call it ‘rendering’ – that we associate with Joe Cocker’s ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, or Hendrix’s ‘All Along The Watchtower’? If so, then – given his choice of material to render – he is engaged in deep critique of the stability of the musical work-concept. My last thought, then: perhaps the preservation instinct that Richter clearly displays, which (at first blush, at least) contrasts mightily with destructive anti-historical impulses of certain foregoing musical movements – might not prove a rather amiable hallmark of postminimalism, however that term ultimately stabilises in musical discourse.