the cmrc blog
Crossing a desert without any friends. “Selfies at the Louvre”
Working with Michael Finnissy this year at one of his many birthday celebration events (this was a performance of Plain Harmony with COMA and the BCMG in Birmingham), I was struck by one of his tangents. It seemed he was a reviewer for the press at one point and gave a good review of a piece by Michael Tippett (I forget which). He received a handwritten note from Tippett thanking him for what appeared to be the only good review, remarking that composing was “Like crossing a desert, without any friends” (paraphrase).
Much though I, and probably most composers, would like narcissistically to think that theirs was the tougher struggle, that their generation has it worse, or that the environment in which they work somehow influences them to write a particular way, this one quote, expressed by one of Britain’s historical elite and harboured by one of my compositional idols, has been helping me steadily get through my own little narcissistic rut.
I am in this analogy sitting at the top of a dune and building sand castles, or rather attempting to. Three years on now from the end of my PhD (many thanks UoY) and I have been facing some of the worst writer’s block I’ve ever had. Indeed writing this very blog could help towards breaking it.
Many things have changed in my life since I handed in my little box of scores. I’ve lost seven stone. I’ve taken up exercise and healthy eating seriously. I’ve left my beloved York and moved to the West Midlands (the horror!). I barely drink. I’m in a stable relationship, and I’m about to be a father.
In many ways, I’m happy. When I was studying for my PhD I both was and wasn’t happy but we can safely say that I spent a long time dealing with crippling anxiety.
What does this have to do with composition and research? The research part of doing a PhD I’ve always found a little misleading and helpful in equal measure. It’s like a distraction so that you don’t have to think about the implications of what you are writing. I began studying composition because I could not reliably find an answer to why it was that any particular piece of music made me feel the way I did about it. “What was that?” I’d ask my teacher. “How do I do it?” “Look at the score”. I’d look at the score and see nothing other than exactly what I’d heard in the recording (more or less) but with no explanation as to where it had come from.
Any fool can poach material from another person’s work and misappropriate it to their own cause. I have done this many times when in need of yet another thing to balance my precarious mental state on, a piece of “material” I can elaborate on without having to come up with anything original. The point my mind keeps driving at when I pick up a pencil is “why?”. Where do you start? What makes a meaningful piece of art?
I visited the Louvre a couple of years ago for the first time. My companions had in mind a single goal of ticking off the big ones. “Venus de milo”, “Gabrielle d’Estrées and Her Sister, The Duchess of Villars”, “The Great Sphinx of Tanis” and of course the Mona Lisa. I had less driven intentions and was slowly making my way round the Caravaggio section, totally absorbed, when I became aware of a low rumbling sound, and a pulsing rhythm underfoot. This gradually increased in intensity, maintaining a low rumble and now accompanied by the high partials of rustling material and an implied metre of intensity. Something was up. A steady stream of people filed past, swelling in numbers by the second. Had some famous painter turned up? Was there a fire? Were they being pursued?
I idly turned a corner, and there she was, a postage stamp lost among the giant throng of tourists who seemed at first to be beaming directly at me, until I noticed their companions with their phones, tablets and cameras, and yet more people with their backs to Mona and their arms or selfie sticks in the air, beaming happily to prosperity, squeezing the button and moving on.
I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I don’t know why the Mona Lisa is famous. I don’t even know why it’s considered a masterpiece. It’s a good painting, yes. I’m not as aware of De Vinci’s broader output as I’d like to be and could not tell whether this one was any better than the rest of his prolific work. In being confronted with the strangely diminutive painting I felt a great compulsion to stare for a while and ruminate on why this piece of paint and canvas attracts so many people to it. I’m keenly aware of how easy it is, when someone tells you something is a masterpiece, to nod one’s head and inwardly note “this thing I don’t understand = masterpiece”.
I later learned that the Mona Lisa first gained mass global notoriety in 1911 when it was the subject of a high-profile art heist by petty criminal Vincenzo Peruggio and was later recovered. The painting had previously been the subject of writings and had once hung in Napoleon’s bed chamber so I gather it was not unknown beforehand. I could be wrong about the importance of this. Staring at it though, the requisite 3 meters away, under its protective glass, and with the tourists thronging around me I was no closer to gaining any artistic insight into the matter.
As to the people around me, and why they held it in such esteem… I got irritated. I asked one, standing with her back to the painting, updating her profile picture on Facebook with her brand new selfie “have you looked at it?”. “I’ve seen it already” she said, tetchily, and got back to pressing “like” and tweeting. Suddenly I felt very old. I reminded myself of an old lady I used to see at poetry meetings, writing wince-worthy rhymes about how terrible war is. Making all too blunt points in a futile, artless but nevertheless respectful attempt to put the world to rights.
It’s tempting to conclude the blindingly obvious point from all this. The actual value of art is arbitrary and privately subjective. The value of fetishism and iconism is much higher in our society. We exist in a world dominated by images of the self. In the world of the selfie, the object of a selfie might as well be arbitrary in its original purpose, so long as everyone knows what it is. This is both profoundly depressing and strangely comforting. Why try to create “meaningful” work when it will ultimately be modelled and then discarded? Why strive to create artistic value when mere fame is enough? On the other hand, what’s stopping me from writing utter trash?
Not Writing Utter Trash should, on reflection, have been the title of my thesis as I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. As the last few paragraphs of this blog have attested, it is very easy to think yourself in knots and never write another note. At one point during my doctorate, a colleague was discussing the possibility of me writing a piece for them: “But not like that vocal piece with the random noises. That was meaningless”. I was taken aback. The piece they were referring to was Poem in Silence, to date my most performed and talked about composition, and based on my actual life experience of having epilepsy. I was so much caught up with my own intimate knowledge of its meaning (every performance makes me hold my own breath) that it had never occurred to me that someone could sit through it and glean not even one ounce.
“Write about life, write about this, write about how difficult it is to write. There are so many things you can write about”: Finnissy’s advice to me on the thorny subject of writer’s block. I have yet to make it through more than 30 minutes of his A History of Photography in Sound, but it seems he can find endless ways to transcribe almost anything into the strangely inappropriate medium. “You obviously have a lot of things to say, don’t devalue your own contribution”: Tansy Davies, with a sideways glance at Michael, probably wishing he could have said something more useful. The most important piece of advice from Finnissy that weekend, on the subject of having a career in composition: “What do you MEAN? Grow up.”
With that, I fully intend to. My life is full of meaning. How difficult, after all, is it to transcribe the rumbling sound of frantic tourists in the Louvre? How hard is it to describe the economic turmoil of mainland china? How full of life is the world as I run down the canal towpaths? How can I not write about the mute struggling and utter relief when I reached the finish line of my first marathon? What can one not do with the first recording of one’s own child’s heartbeat? How tortured does a composer have to be before their anxiety prevents them from writing a simple lullaby?
I’m used to writing Serious music. Serious music describes the Serious parts of my life. Pain and mawkishness are all too easy to describe in music. Happiness, as I’m finding, is more of a challenge. Humour seems like an impossible dream.
Dr. Edward Caine is a composer, pianist and conductor based in the West Midlands. Edd studied as an undergraduate in music at Durham, and then went on to complete a Masters and PhD in composition at the University of York with Prof. Roger Marsh. His work has been performed internationally and he has been the recipient of several high profile commissions. Edd is fond of a Custard Cream, but if pushed would choose a nice Bourbon. More information: http://www.edwardcaine.com/