Saturday, 2 May 2009


So, we finally made it to the end of Plug 09 and the vast and wonderful John De Simone's Symphony, by John De Simone. But first a couple of curtain raisers. Pre-concert in the café bar we had my own sequenza for trombone Exercise performed with great humour the wonderful Davur Magnussen. As it's my own piece I'll pass over this quietly, except to note that one of Scotland's other great trombonists was in the audience, John Kenny. A personal joy for me to have him there; many years ago it was a workshop and performance he did of the Berio trombone sequenza which helped set me on the musical path I am on today. I'll have to talk to him seriously about doing this piece at some point...

The evening concert was always going to be an odd piece of programming, with three sequenzas in the first half before the symphony. First on was Yvonne Paterson to do Rory Boyle's Touch. A very professional piece of writing, well performed, with a good range of by now fairly well-known extended techniques for the flute. Excellent decision here to put a mic on the flute, which really helped bring forward the subtleties of the sounds. Unfortunately, somebody then left the PA turned on and humming quietly throughout the entire remainder of the concert; rather distracting!

Second sequenza was for double bass, by Blair Russell, performed by Edward Lucas. In a different mood I might have criticised this piece for lack of sequenza-icity, as I have some of the other pieces this week. However, this simple and characterful work won me over, kind of treating the bass as if it was a huge cello, or a huge viola even, with lyrical, bowed melodies only occasionally counterpointed with more percussive sounds.

Julia MacDonell had a good go at Nicholas Scott's sequenza for french horn, but for me was unable to make very much of the two ideas which seemed to be all this piece had to offer, a loud and distinctive stopped note glissando, and some less distinctive moto jazzio syncopated material. And tritones; lots of 'em, perhaps in rebellion against the harmonic intervals native to the instrument.

So, the long awaited John De Simone's Symphony, by John De Simone. From the programme note;

'I need to be writing the music I want to write, not what I think I should be writing. So I decided to compose what I always wanted to compose, even before I was a composer, and that's a large symphony'

There's something about this endeavour which really resonates with me. John talks about the joy of sitting in an orchestra and playing tuba parts, particularly early C20th century ones. I've not had a chance to play much of that repertoire, but certainly as a listener I feel like I know what he means; I could spend entire evenings happily listening to symphonic works by Prokofiev, or Shostakovich, or Walton, or even Rachmaninov… But, that's not the kind of thing a contemporary composer is 'meant' to be into. Bit of a guilty pleasure, really.

Anyway, of course, John's fifty-minute, four movement symphony was a tour de force. How could it be otherwise; he is a virtuoso composer with a complete grasp of the harmonic, rhythmic, textural and orchestral means needed for a work like this. The first movement was very clearly structured, climaxes in the right places, and really made out of quite straightforward musical stuff; repeated notes, long notes, ostinati, chordal punctuations.

The second movement was a scherzo, as one might expect. I kind of wished I hadn't been at the rehearsal for this, otherwise I might not have have been bothered about how tricky this was for the band to pull off, triplets and quintuplets across changing time signatures. If I'm not mistaken, some of this same material appeared a few days ago in John's Panic Diaries, where it seemed more apt for a one-instrument-to-a-part chamber ensemble than here. Overall, I felt that it got a bit bogged down in complex rhythmic detail which didn't quite come off, like a flatpack wardrobe which won't quite go together, a couple of screws left over at the end...

Third movement, slow movement. And, yes, beautiful; here we had some of those high notes which John seems to hear, but poetic and aching rather than screeching, a single high note dissolving into a minor third, a definite post-Shostakovich moment. Very, very good use of instrumental colour later in this movement; one of those instances where one is, umm, charmed to use an old fashioned term by some novel instrumental colour, looking round the orchestra in puzzlement to see which combination of instruments is actually making that wonderful sound. Later on this movement seemed to subvert it's own beauty, almost ugly, screamings and stabbings; self-criticism perhaps, and the only place where this work lost me somewhat.

The last movement of course a finale, moving from a simple minor ostinato to a long, complex thread of semiquaver melody passed round the orchestra, then an unexpected passage of comedy triplets rhythmically cross-modulating into a shortish but appropriately rousing 2/4 ending.

Questions I ask myself; a couple of days ago I was arrogant enough to dismiss four of my fellow composers' works as sounding like 'indifferent 80s TV music'. What is the difference here? Is there one? Is it just my expectations? Is it that John is a chum, a fellow postgrad, and generally regarded around here as someone who is pretty near the top of the tree? Am I just hearing what I expect to hear, once I've seen the composer's name on the programme?

No, I don't think so. There is something distinctively different and original going on here. If a composer like John writes a passage which sounds like, I don't know, Stravinsky, then he is competely in control of that; it's like someone writing about Stravinsky, in his own words. With less skilled and experienced composers, it's often just that they haven't yet figured out how to get beyond writing something that just happens to sound like Stravinsky; in which case it would probably be better to just go and listen to the original.

Then, the means. This symphony it seems to me works as a symphony without doing any of the things which are supposed to make a symphony work. As musicians and listeners, we're indoctrinated with hundreds of years of analysis which tell us very firmly that what makes a symphony great is thematic unity and large scale harmonic organisation, or, for a more modernist take, a deep formal structure and novel instrumental sounds. None of it! None of it! It's not there! There were no 'themes' here, barely any melodic material at all; no tonal forms, no formal structures and no cheap C20th special effects. Yet, for fifty minutes it held our attention, while remaining completely true to the symphonic tradition. A great achievement, really, and it certainly left a small part of the composer in me feeling a little jealous of what this guy had managed to pull off.


Seb said...

Good to read your thoughts about the symphony, especially as I had to run off to a party (life is terrible) straight afterwards rather than talking nonsense in Traders (something about Plug I enjoy...)

What hit me about the piece was how emotionally satisfying it was. The musical language is obviously way different, but when after the event I was trying to figure out why (like yours) my attention hardly ever wandered, I came up with Kurt Weill's symphonies. Something about gorgeous sounds?

Big and Juicy (my favourite line from Three Oranges). Or "smakelijk", Dutch for "tasty" and a word almost impossible to say without licking your chops (which was what I was doing on leaving the hall at the end).

No idea why or how it worked so well, it just did - but I like your comment about how it didn't do anything of the things symphonies are "supposed" to do.

Fantastic night.