Along with so many other fascinating items in the July Newsletter, I very much appreciated John Norman’s vision of a more caring society evolving in the wake of Coronavirus [Issue 221, page 16]. Many of our habitual activities are undergoing a beneficial transformation under lockdown, for unexpected reasons, and lateral thinking is suddenly promoted from an eccentricity to a necessity. We need to understand that the virus is a gift from Gaia – the last chance, humans, to get your act together by being less selfish and more respectful.

With theatres and concert venues all closed, the cancellation Suffolk’s own internationally respected Aldeburgh Festival, the summer rock festivals, the Proms, bands, choirs, school concerts and so much else cancelled, inventive and collective uses of internet media have found a significant role in morale-boosting. But speaking for my profession as a composer, I’m less than happy at the prospect of losing the collective audience, harnessing as it does the intuitive power of the crowd to encourage the very best from the concerto soloist, the actor, the school choir, in fact all performers. Live performances reawaken the creative in us, and we applaud them in gratitude for the enrichment and refreshment we receive.

Architecture has been described as ‘frozen music’, and Goethe’s aphorism has sometimes been inverted to describe music as ‘architecture in flux’ – for, in both disciplines and indeed in other fields of design, the principles of sturdy structure, lightness and ornament, functionality and economy, appropriateness to social setting etc. are key. Where I, as a composer, perhaps diverge slightly from John Norman’s narrative (and I am grateful for his kind encouragement to present this issue here) may be illustrated by a recent experience of mine. 

The organisation Sound World invited a dozen composers to each contribute gratis a new work designed to raise money (through crowdfunding) for instrumental performers who have been hard hit by the cancellation of their concerts, and therefore their income. But as composers we couldn’t work with the performers as we’d normally do, nor could they rehearse together as an ensemble, as they’d normally do. So my score was represented by a click-track, to which the performers recorded their own parts, then the three parts (trumpet, horn, and bass clarinet) were expertly combined et Voila!  Here’s my new piece!

Or not, because without the context of the other players, without the human subtlety of replying to each other in musical conversations that may be confirming, or re-shaping, or contradicting, the individual players in a new piece are like actors who don’t know how their remarks fit into a dialogue, or into the overall plot, mood, and structure. And that’s only the first hurdle because, without an audience, the ensemble doesn’t receive the attentive audience response that normally nourishes it. Add to that the issue that, in times of profound social change (and I don’t think we can assume we are anywhere other than at the mercy of such times now), artistic language is transformed. It has to be, whenever human experience itself is profoundly transformed. Think 1911: Elgar and Kipling and bustles. Then think 1921: female suffrage, the charleston and Le Corbusier. 

The zeitgeist will be transformed radically in the coming years, and the present structures and precepts will fade away. We can already hear the collapse of radio humour, we witness the narrowing of news coverage, we swallow the threat to our prosperity and health, and accept the loneliness of a non-social life, we pass our time in a hazy dream of resigned alienation …. And yet, probably, this is only the beginning!

So, while I delight at John Norman’s vision of a post-industrial, family-centred world, I’m suggesting that the performing arts (and I wouldn’t exclude sports) identify an imperative at the core of humanity for which the concept of social isolation is an anathema. We have yet to digest the unpalatable truth that Gaia’s gift includes the exemption of those under 35 from harm. They could gather in pubs, clubs, parties, town’s stadiums and concerts to their hearts’ content – together with their partners and children and contemporaries – were it not for consideration for oldies. One wonders how long their patience will endure and whether oldies (I certainly include myself) are entitled to prevail over the Thunberg-generation ecological realism.

Geoff Poole D.Mus

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