Radical rule-breaking and back to basics
There is a time for artistic licence – and a time to focus on basics of performing: William Brooks on Yeats, and string quartet masterclasses at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival
Composer Gerald Barry: not afraid to break his own rules. Photograph: Alan Betson
Composers are cheats. They have to be. It’s what they do. They inherit rules and practices, learn how things should work and how to make them work that way. And then they can throw away the book, write their own rules, and break them should they please.
Years ago, I was invited to a seminar that Gerald Barry was giving for students at TCD. Among other things, he explained how particular pieces came to be the way they were, and outlined the systems he had used to generate material for his piece, Things that gain by being painted, a witty treatment of snippets from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.
The processes he spoke about were straightforward, comprehensible, reproducible. You could imagine doing it yourself as easily as you could imagine alternating sections of material to produce a rondo. The students seemed impressed.
But having set up an apparently watertight system, Barry then tinkered with it, and modified the results. He played the original and then the altered version. The students were perplexed, and one asked why he had made the change. He simply hadn’t liked what he had arrived at, he said, so he made it better. The students seemed shocked, even alienated. They were happier with calculable certainty than with arbitrary creative intervention. One was appealingly rational, the other made them feel cheated.
I was reminded of Barry’s legerdemain by another composer, William Brooks, at a lecture he gave at the National Library last Wednesday, as a prelude to a performance of his Everlasting Voices. The lecture, about WB Yeats and the practice of what the poet called “chaunting”, recounted Yeats’s investigations into the possibilities of having his poetry chanted to the accompaniment of a psaltery, with the instrument used to reinforce key pitches in the melodic pattern of the voice.
You’ll find aspects of this kind of technique in Steve Reich’s Different Trains, the music mirroring at times the pitch and rhythm patterns of a recorded voice. It is also the generating force behind Roger Doyle’s The Idea and its Shadow, which trades on the gradual inversion of foreground speech and speech-generated background musical pitches.
Yeats’s idea was rather crude. It involved a laboriously reached, artificially drawn-out style of intoning words and a less-than-precise mapping of the pitches of the speech for the instrument to lock on to.
Brooks and his collaborators sought to replicate what Yeats had done, except that the psaltery, which caused difficulties in actual performance, was replaced by an autoharp. Brooks’s recreations, as played from recordings at the lecture, were odd to say the least, as if the strange, stretched delivery of Yeats’s own reading of The Lake Isle of Innisfree had been adopted for other texts with extra stretchings and pauses.
Brooks, who holds posts at universities in Europe and the US, has an obvious academic motivation for this research. But he’s also a composer, and the research was a prelude to his Everlasting Voices, which followed the lecture in a performance by the Sound-Weave duo, actor Nuala Hayes and clarinettist Paul Roe.
I can’t deny that the lecture filled me with a certain foreboding about the piece, not least because of the mechanistic processes that had so clearly fascinated the notoriously unmusical Yeats, and the way they seemed to have infected Brooks. But when it came to his own music, Brooks cheated royally, abandoning all Yeatsian strictures, adding a rich electronic sound-track to the live voice, autoharp and bass clarinet, mixing prose and poetry, and even creating a kind of dialogue through a pre-recorded male voice. The Yeatsian stilted delivery was subsumed, and the musical mind and ear allowed to rule.