the cmrc blog
Words and Music 11: British Values and Joe Steele
As a school governor I have to approve policies which include the teaching of British Values. I find this deeply troubling, but there’s nothing I can do about it. What are British Values? Apparently they are ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith’. Aren’t these just civilized values? What’s specifically British about them? Of course, we know what this is about. It’s about making sure immigrants become good citizens and not terrorists. Take out the reference to British Values and what you have is the teaching of good citizenship, which schools have been doing for years. By emphasising that these are specifically British values, which they are not, we run the risk of re-enforcing the chauvinistic and erroneous view that We British do things better than anyone else; and we know where that leads. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not unpatriotic. I know which cricket team I support. But I deplore Nationalism and everything that goes along with it, and I don’t want to see our young people coached in it.
Musically, too, I have always had a love-hate relationship with the idea of ‘British music’. That has been, really, a ‘class’ thing. Classical music has tended to be the preserve of the privileged. It’s not quite so bad now, but there was a time when to be accepted in classical circles in this country you needed to be, or affect to be, posh. So, for example, as a teenager I loved the vocal music of Benjamin Britten, but I had a hard time squaring that with the suffocating posh-ness of Peter Pears; and of Britten himself, and of Imogen Holst. Their public school world was not my world. I met Pears and Imogen Holst once at Aldeburgh, when the university chamber choir gave a concert there. We sang the 15th century Salve Regina by Hacomplaynt – the only known work by him. Imogen Holst spoke to me afterwards and bubbled effusively: “ Oh Hacomplaynt is absolutely my favourite composer”.
One of the modern pieces I really struggled with, and still do, is Walton’s Facade. Somehow I can take Noel Coward, because he’s so far over the top it’s amusing. But Facade just reeks of upper class young things revelling in their superficiality. It’s ironic really, because Walton came from a modest Lancashire background. But Oxford sorted him out and he was accepted into the moneyed Bloomsbury set. I’m a great admirer of Walton’s music in general, and at one time wanted nothing more than to write something as powerful as Balshazzar’s Feast. But I could never get on with Facade, and in particular with the plummy narration.
Thus my heart sank when a third year student a few years ago told me he wanted to write, for his final year ‘solo project’, an updated version of Facade. Despite my misgivings I agreed to supervise the project and, to cut a long story short, Joe Steele amazed me. His Unfortunate Mammals is a setting of poems and epigrams by the American Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), poet, critic and satirist. The eleven pieces range from 30 seconds to 4 minutes, mostly for speaker but sometimes for singer and small ensemble, and they have a ‘cabaret’ feel, like Facade. Joe staged the piece in the tiny ‘Drama Barn’ at York, with the audience sitting on the floor around the ensemble, creating an intimate and immediate environment. The reciters were actors and singers, who gave the performance a sense of theatricality, and conveyed the witty texts beautifully. They were able to do that, in part, because of Joe’s score, which struck the right combination of rhythmic precision and freedom, so that the texts could be delivered naturally and not be compromised by over-scoring whether they were sung or spoken. The invention and humour in the music matched that of the texts, all working together to the same end, and without a trace of the twee-ness so often encountered in attempts at humour in music.
I had thought that perhaps Unfortunate Mammals might be a one-off; but it seems not, because this weekend Joe amazed me again. His Tenth Visit is a quite different work – serious and moving – but it demonstrates the same sensitivity to text and the same instinctive talent for dramatic structure and timing. I heard it performed by ‘Percussing’ (Ana Beard Fernandez and Zoe Scheuregger) in a ‘Late Music’ concert in York which was full of excellent new pieces for their combination of soprano and marimba. Joe’s piece stood out. The Tenth Visit is written from the perspective of a woman whose fiancée has recently suffered a severe facial disfigurement whilst fighting in the First World War. She closes her eyes to imagine his old smile; she wrestles with the guilt of wondering if she would be happier if he had died, and whether it would be wrong of her to leave him, given that his prospects to find work would now be limited; she reminds herself twice that she is ‘not a shallow person’, just weak and frightened; finally she resolves that she ‘must become more open’. I don’t know if Joe considers himself a poet; but he is. This is a text of real power, and if I hesitate to call it a poem it’s only because it seems consciously arranged to work as a lyric – it has a touch of musical theatre in the way phrases are repeated sometimes: (‘And had I thought about that? Really thought about that?’) The musical setting is not at all musical theatre, though, even if it has moments when it could almost slip into that. Joe’s music is characterised primarily by melodic writing which feels natural and is memorable and he writes harmonies; but when the text needs to be crystal clear he knows the value of the monotone – the best way to convey words clearly – and of syllabic setting, so that words are not stretched out to become unrecognisable. Like all good composers, Joe knows how to draw the listener in, too. The opening of the piece consists of little tremolos on the marimba separated by pregnant silences, which set up a sense of expectation, and which then carry on beneath the voice, gradually transforming and providing depth to the line without ever getting in the way. It was almost possible in performance to follow the entire text without referring to the printed programme, and that is rare. I bought the Percussing CD on the way out, and was delighted to find The Tenth Visit on it, along with great pieces by David Lancaster, Martin Scheuregger, Jonathan Brigg, Rose Hall and Emma-Ruth Richards. Really – I recommend it! British, and good value, and not too posh.