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Resistance and Reflection: Richard Barrett in the 21st Century

Author(s): Arnold Whittall


Source: The Musical Times, Vol. 146, No. 1892 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 57-70
Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.
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ARNOLD

WHITTALL

Resistance and reflection: Richard Barrett in


the 21St century
As capitalism becomes frantic in its efforts to survive, only the armaments industry flourishes. Are we not fools to let ourselves be so misused? [...] If the murderous weapons of
war are to be forced once again into our hands, what are we going to do with them; where
is the real enemy?

So
i. MichaelTippett:
Those twentieth century blues
(London: Hutchinson, 1991),

pp.48-49. For background


on Tippett's engagement
with Marxand Trotsky,
see Ian Kemp: Tippett:
the composer and his music

(Oxford: Oxford University


Press, 1987), pp.25-39 and
325-26.

2. For recent thinking on the


subject,see David Clarke:
'Editorial', Twentieth-Century
Music 1/2 (September 2004

[publishedMay 2005]),
pp.15-59, and the essays
by KarenPainterand Anne
Shrefflerin Musicand the
aesthetics of modernity, edd.

KarolBerger & Anthony


Newcomb (Cambridge,
Mass.:HarvardUniversity
Press, 2005), pp.165-2o00

and 217-45.
3. MichaelNyman:
Experimental music:

Cageand beyond(2nd ed.,


Cambridge:Cambridge
University Press, 1999),
pp.170-71. For a more
recent perspective on
Cardew,including a
critiqueof 'Soon', see
Timothy D. Taylor: 'Moving
in decency: the music and
radicalpolitics of Cornelius
Cardew', in Music &Letters
79/4 (November 1998),
pp-555-76.

ENDS the Foreword to Michael Tippett's 'agit-prop play' War ramp,

'which was performed in various Labour Party premises in or near


London during 1935'.As Tippett put it in his autobiography, written
many years later, 'during this period I was moving towards a major artistic
statement of all that I felt about the state of the world. WarRamp was one
attempt in this direction, but an unsatisfactory one': 'looking back at
Handel's Messiah and the Bach Passions [...] led me to realise that if I could
not make my big statement work effectively in the actual theatre, I could do
so in a dramaticpiece for the concert hall." A childof ourtime was the result,
and (as will emerge later) not everyone agrees that it effectively confronts a
'political problem', not least because musical, aesthetic elements tend to suffuse the political with that strangely positive aura that pertains to all but the
least successful art-works.
The dilemma of how best to relate musical expression to political
conviction persists.2 Back in the 1970osthose 'addressing themselves with
great determination to evolving a function for themselves as musicians and
a music which will "serve the struggle of the people" ' could be brought under the aesthetic umbrella of experimentalism, in 'an attempt to resolve [...]
"the crippling contradiction in modern bourgeois art", namely that "those
artists who have achieved a revolution within their individual artistic languages have rendered their own efforts a useless nonsense, because of their
works' total lack of revolutionarycontent".'Having used these comments by
Alan Brett, an associate of Cornelius Cardew, Michael Nyman ended his
Experimental music (1974) by quoting 'Soon', a 'community' song in F major

inspiredby Mao Tsetung which indicates the extent of Cardew'sprogression


away from the mainstreamavant-gardism of his earlier years.3
Thirteen years on from Nyman's comments, Richard Barretttook up the
theme in the conclusions of his striking and still relevant essay on Cardew.
If working-class people are not in a position of awareness to accept any music in the service
of socialism except the inevitable patronage offered by composers like the later Cardew,
working in a deliberately simplified and banal idiom, then this is the fault of the processes
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Resistance and reflection: Richard Barrett in the 2st century

of exploitation and stultification dealt out by the ruling classes to serve their interests. It is
not good enough to assume that people who are expected to make rational and informed
political decisions are at the same time incapable of being rational and informed about the
culture of their projected society. It is unfortunate that most people are not in a position to
come into contact, let alone sympathize, with radical musical ideas.

4. RichardBarrett:
'Cornelius Cardew', in
New Music 8y, edd. Michael
Finnissy & Roger Wright
(Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1987), pp.32, 31.
5. Louis Andriessen: Theart
of stealingtime, ed. Mirjam
Zegers, trans. Clare Yates
(Todmorden, Lancs.:Arc
Music, 2002), p.74. See also
RobertAdlington: 'Louis
Andriessen, Hanns Eisler,
and the Lehrstiick',in The
Journalof Musicology21/3
(2005), pp.381-417. For more
on 'the dilemma of how to
makenew art- particularly
music - from within the
traditionsof high art without
alienatingthe mass of fellow
citizens', see Leon Botstein:
'Listening to Shostakovich',
in Shostakovichand his
world,ed. LaurelE. Fay
(Princeton & Oxford:
Princeton University
Press, 2004), pp.355-84
(this quotation, p.373).
6. Gordon Downie:
'Aestheticnecrophilia:
reification, new music,
and the commodification
of affectivity', in Perspectives
of New Music 42/2 (2004),
pp.264-75.
7. RichardBarrett:'Tracts for
our times?', in TheMusical
Times(Autumn 1998), p.23.
The quotation in the next
paragraphcontinues from
this one.

This follows closely on the claim that 'the politicization of music must be rethought, the solution lying in integratingwith the working class rather than
either cheering it on from the sidelines or lecturing it from above, however
much one may thus cut oneself off from existing modes of dissemination':
and Barrettdeclares, 'the idea that music somehow standsoutside the realities
of the class system is an illusion; therefore the style of an engaged socialistic
music should be one which is accessible, here and now, to the working
people.' Then comes the crucial question: 'but what style is that?'4
The answer (not advocated by Barrett)that 'revolutionary content' is not
merely consistent with, but positively requires a late-Cardew kind of accessibility, is part of the Lehrstiicktradition, extending from Hanns Eisler and
others early in the 20th century to, most obviously, Louis Andriessen - at
least before the abrasiveness of works like De staat gave way to the aim of
making 'beautifulpieces which can console people ': and it is possible to trace
a clear distinction between responses which regard the political relevance of
such works as authentic and responses which, at their most extreme, generalise dismissively about 'aesthetic necrophilia' and 'the commodification of
affectivity'. In this reading, only the 'constructionism' of total organisation
(as essayed briefly in Europe by Boulez and others around 1950) adequately
resists 'arbitrarypower': and this kind of music therefore remains the only
path to salvation, the only adequatevehicle for appropriatelypolitical, revolutionary content.6
In 1998 TheMusical Timespublished an article in the form of an interview
by Richard Barrettwhich included the following perspective on modernism.
As far as I am concerned, the 'modernist project' is still in its early stages, at the beginning
of what Konrad Boehmer (paraphrasing Monteverdi) has referred to as the 'terza prattica',
crucially informed by what is becoming an 'age of digital reproduction', beginning from
the invention of electricity, in the same way as modal music has its roots in the human voice
and tonal music in instruments. It is far too early to speculate meaningfully on what the
implications of this may end up being. Nevertheless we ignore it at our peril.7

Those who hold different views about the ways in which the evolution of
music should be historically interpreted might find 'peril' a rather strong
word. Can failing to respond actively to a contemporaryissue in the artsreally
be so momentous? For Barrett,who belongs to a tradition of artistic enactment with roots in dramaextending from the ancient Greeksto EdwardBond,
pursuing the modernist project means
resisting the evaporation of meaning, significance and process which often appears to be
the defining characteristic of contemporary art, indeed is actually celebrated in the rhetoric

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of postmodernism. It does not mean scouring the cultural past for attractive, amusing and
above all 'accessible' trouvailles, or retreating from reality into mysticism. It does not mean
rediscovering tonality as if one would 'rediscover' that the earth is in fact flat or that the subconscious does not exist or that mass and energy are not 'interconvertible' or that 'the Lord
upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down'. It means abandoning all
affirmation save that the work of art exists, as a token of thepossibility of human dignity.

8. ChristopherNorris:
'Marxism',in New Grove,
2nd ed. (London: Macmillan,
2001),

vol.I6,

p.20, col. I.

9. RichardTaruskin:
'The poietic fallacy', in
TheMusical Times(Spring

The fervency with which the rejection of affirmation is affirmed here sets
up an intriguing tension with the kind of Marxist aesthetics which Christopher Norris associates primarilywith Adorno, and connects with a view of
art- Schoenberg, Berg and Beckett are instanced- that holds out 'againstthe
lure of a false utopia by expressing without compromise the harshness and
alienation of contemporary life'.8 For readersbeginning to contemplate the
history of Western music according to Richard Taruskin, it might be even
more useful to underline just how completely Barrett'swords contradict the
attemptto claim that modernism is a primary example of 'the poietic fallacy:
the conviction that what mattersmost (or more strongly yet, all that matters)
in a work of art is the making of it, the maker's input'.9 At its simplest,
Taruskin'sview of history requires eager acquiescence in this basic 'either/
or': the maker's input doesn't matter, the consumer's response does. As he
elaborates the point: 'ever since the middle of the i9th century, the idea that
one is honour-bound to serve the impersonal aims of history and the need
for art to evolve has been one of the most powerful motivating forces, and
one of the most exigent criteriaof value, among composers andcritics'(p.20).
And one of the most extreme results of this way of thinking, the emancipation of the dissonance, has been to erode the kind of audible distinctions
'that make musical meaning esthetically available to all' (p.29).
Taruskin'srecipe for 'a view of "serious"music' that turns aside from the
poietic fallacy and, once again, 'takes adequate account of its function as a
communicative medium' (p.34) appears not to require the final solution of
an elimination of atonality and serialism, a re-enslaving of the dissonance.
Yet he clearly doubts whether contemporary (late-modernist) pluralism is
enough to ensure that 'music [...] may once again - perhaps, eventually - be-

io. MichaelGraubart:
'Fallaciesand confusions', in
TheMusical Times(Autumn

come one of the arts that matter' (p.34). 'Matter',that is, to more people than
is currentlythe case? Michael Graubart,in his response to Taruskin,was prepared to concede that, even if the attempt to align the poietic fallacy with
idealistic organicism in Schoenbergiancomposition is misguided, the second
arrow in Taruskin'squiver, the 'historicist fallacy' hits its target. This, Graubart comments, refers to 'the idea that music must continually develop onward and upward and that the value of a composer's work is to be judged by
the development in style that he has engendered'.0 On the face of it, this is
not totally distinct from the kind of development proposed by Barrett in

2004), p.23.

1998. But would such a development - if it actually happened - ensure that

2004), p.10. Further page

referencesin text. See also


Taruskin'sOxfordhistory
of westernmusic,vol.2: the
seventeenthand eighteenth
centuries(New York:Oxford
University Press, 2005),
pp.13-14.

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musical meaning is no longer 'esthetically availableto all'? Why should it be


assumed that the meanings generated by the 'terza prattica' should correspond, technically, to those of its modal and tonal predecessors?
If a composer's social, political and aesthetic perspectives have 'the
possibility of human dignity' at their centre, this need not render the possibility of uplifting individual listeners - a kind of positive alienation - an
unrealistic prospect. Barrett writes of his recent orchestral work NO
(resistanceand visionPart z) that it involves 'music which offers firstly resistance to the insidious penetration of corporate values and, therefore, "dumbing down" into all aspects of culture; and secondly a vision of how music
(and, by extension, its social context) could possibly be otherwise'." Similar
values appearin his 1998 declaration that
my compositions are as simple as they can possibly be. I am constantly trying to find ways
of making them simpler without losing that sense of desire which motivates them, without
competely losing the truth they are attempting (though I dare say largely unsuccessfully)
to apprehend and express. I think of music as 'internal realism'. Is there any evidence that
the human mind is any more rectilinear, any more simple, than the world it tries to grasp?
(Barrett 1998, p.23: see note 7).

DIFFERENCE
between Barrett's angle on the human mind and
Taruskin's is extreme, and although Taruskin seems not to have encountered Barrett's work, Ivan Hewett gives an indication of what a
Taruskinresponse to Barrettmight be like. In a Musical Timesarticle (1994),
then in a book (2003), Hewett anatomises a music which 'tries to achieve
what Samuel Beckett (Barrett's intellectual mentor) achieves in literature;
namely to stripaway all the comforting illusions of existence, and reveal that,
when thus reduced to its "essence", the human personality is nothing more
than an impotent echoing hollowness."' Nothing very dignified about that,
and Hewett piles on the negatives with the image that Barrett'smusic 'fights
against an inevitable downward trajectory towards extinction by vain little
acts of memory and splenetic self-assertion' - alluding, no doubt, to the brief
glimpses of Schubertin Vanityand of Beethoven in Tract.
Hewett accepts that 'there is a political dimension to Barrett's music,
which seems to be as much an attack on "bourgeois" complacency as it is a
comment on a more general human condition.' There are affinities here with
Roger Scruton's celebration of bourgeois aesthetic values,'3 and the associated argument that the principalproblem with a Barrett-style 'attack' is its
apparentrejection of 'Utopian' ideals. Writing about Helmut Lachenmann's
opera,Das Miidchenmit denSchwefelhiolern,
Hewett declaresthat 'the Utopian
hopes of this aestheticized Marxismare so tremulous, so full of mute pathos,
that they often seem more like hopelessness - when they don't tip over into
outright nihilism, as they do in the case of Barrett, whose music seems a

THE

II.Published in the BBC


BarbicanHall programme
for ii February2005.
12. Ivan Hewett: Music:
healingthe rift (New York &
London: Continuum, 2003),
p.i65. Unless otherwise
indicated, furtherquotations
are from the same page. See
also Hewett: 'Fail worse; fail
better', in TheMusical Times
(March1994), PP.148-53.
i3. See especially 'True
authority:Janacek,
Schoenberg and us', in
Revivingthe muse:essays
on musicaftermodernism,ed.
Peter Davison (Brinkworth,
Wilts.: Claridge Press, 2001),
pp.7-30.

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perfect illustration of the Psalmist's line: "Hope long deferred maketh the
heart sick"' (p.I67).

i4. 'Contemporary German

composers', in Tempo231
(January2005), p.67.
15. See RichardToop's notes
with EtceteraCD KTCII67
(I993).

i6. JulianJohnson: Who


needsclassicalmusic?:
cultural choice and critical

value (Oxford & New York:


Oxford University Press,
2002), p.90.

Hewett may be right to argue that Lachenmann 'risks alienating listeners


for whom his music seems to disdainthe poetic or aesthetic'. Yet it is precisely
because such risks are worth taking that Hewett's attempt to associate the
opera with 'aestheticized Marxism'and 'outright nihilism' do not convince.
My own conclusion, that this is 'an opera of majesticallyarcticbleakness, calculated to challenge and shame the era of commodity worship and global
warming','4 aims to avoid confusing bleakness with nihilism, which would
strictly speaking not concern itself at all with constructive reactions to the
'fantasy-transcendence' of Hans Christian Andersen's declaration that the
little match-girl and her grandmother 'were with God', something which
Lachenmannmanages to expose in all its 'damaging emptiness'.
Similarly,when Barrettuses the title of a painting by Roberto Matta, 'ne
songe plus a fuir' ('dream no more of fleeing'), which can be felt 'to depict
a dark, troubled atmosphere within which anthropomorphic figures are
immersed in attitudes of desperation, imprisonment and oppression, surely
influenced by the often brutal recent history of the artist's home country
(Chile)',5 he can hardly be accused of indifference to matters affecting the
role of art in the modern world. Rather, it is very much the opposite case of
a kind of utopian idealism which is generated by convictions about the need
for artists to respond without compromise to fundamentalmatters affecting
politics and society. Only if 'nihilism' is interpreted in a post-Nietzschean
way as embodying 'utopian' aspirationsto change the world (by implication:
for the better) is the label worth using. So Julian Johnson's ringing declaration - 'art is fundamentally utopian: it embodies the human hope that the
world and we who inhabitit might be remade. As such it is criticalof the here
and now even as it redeems it"'6- is surely echoed in Barrett'sthinking when
he writes of NO that 'this music is composed "against"the orchestra rather
than "for" it, although at the same time it is intended to be composed "for"
the meaningful participationof musically-engaged people in a large group,
which, whether this particularmusic even begins to achieve its objectives or
not, is what an orchestrashould surely be.' Idealistic optimism could scarcely
be more palpable than when Barrettsays (in an unpublished interview) that
'I'm trying to make the kind of music I would want to hear were I in the audience, and I don't regard myself as somehow on a higher plane of existence
than the people listening': and his rejection of cynicism is unambiguously
evident in the claim that 'I'm much more optimistic about humanity than
many people who write happy music.'
Barrett has no hang-ups about giving listeners accounts of his compositions which describe the sequence of events in the kind of broad gestural
and textural terms - 'sound forms' - that most listeners without the benefit
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Resistance and reflection: Richard Barrett in the 2zst century

of long-term technical education can take or leave for all music - modal,
tonal and post-tonal. Here is his commentary on NO.
NO can be divided into six main 'scenes'. The first consists of a six-times iterated soundform on brass, woodwinds and percussion which becomes more internally differentiated
as it expands in duration, with a high C sharp held by violin throughout."7 [...] The second
expands downward in register from the high violins to an 'impossibly' complex string
texture, which is then heard again, this time layer by layer, alternating with a sequence of
harmonically static 'choral' events as its timbres gradually mutate. The third scene (beginning with an irruption from the percussion) generalises this alternation into a fragmented
and interwoven form where the orchestra is divided into seven heterogeneous groups of
between four and 25 instruments. The fourth, longest and 'slowest', focuses on unfolding
further the melodic thread which began with the high violins of the opening. The fifth builds
up a canonic structure, which eventually collapses into the sixth, itself a continuation of the
series of outbursts in the first, this time disintegrating into a 'pointillism' of noises.

Despite the profusion of scare-quotes aimed to point up the ambiguity or


incompleteness of the allusions or definitions provided, this note identifies a
succession of audible characteristics - continuations, varied repetitions, connections, references back - primarily in terms of texture and tone colour, and
Barrett's assumptions about the listener's technical expertise don't advance
beyond a generic reference to canon. Moreover, he leaves listeners with the
option of contemplating how such a scheme works as a 'response' to the
situation mentioned at the start of the BBC note: that NO has something to
do with a view of the Iraq war as an act of terrorism perpetuated by 'the US
government and its allies'.
AT

THE SAMETIME, the dedication of NO to the English-born writer


Edward Bond, rather than, say, 'to the innocent victims of terrorism
in all its forms', suggests cultural as well as political perspectives that
extend beyond and behind the immediate issue of an unjust war begun in
2003. As Barrett puts it in the unpublished interview, 'I'm asking: what is a
socialist artist to do? and trying to frame that question in musical terms',
given that 'we can learn a lot from the political art of the early- and midtwentieth century, which tried to answer it and ended up wasting too much
time and energy on a concept of "relevance" inherited from the systems of
thought they wanted to escape from'. In the same interview, Barrett says of
NO that 'my objective is total imaginative freedom and total structural connectedness at the same time, that is, nothing happens which isn't part of the
overarching network of formal relationships, but at the same time a situation
17. The identification of
repetitionsis more significant
than that of Ct: no other
comment involving pitch
identity ensues.

is created in which "anything can happen".' Sensing the possible challenge


to perception of such a framing formula, Barrett then provides a question
'for the imaginative listener'. 'Does something like NO cohere at all? Does
it cohere too much and become a string of structural platitudes?' As if in
answer, he then discloses more technical generalities about the piece, in

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I8. Andrew Dell'Antonio:


'Introduction',in Beyond
structurallistening?.postmodernmodesof hearing,
ed. Andrew dell'Antonio
(Berkeley,Los Angeles &
London: University of
CaliforniaPress, 2004), p.ii.

relation both to a 'serial' pitch substructure and to a symmetrical tempostructure - of which one hears the result rather than the processes themselves. This audible realisation is a function of 'clear formal subdivisions'
which are 'a symptom of the work's expressive identity, with what could be
seen as an increasingly desperate attemptto give a voice, and thus a structural
syntax, to an inarticulate sense of urgency. The music isn't trying to find
peace, or closure, or resolution, it's trying to find an expression of nonacceptance, of refusal. Hence those structuralconvulsions.'
The point here is that those 'structural convulsions', and the expressive
factors which create them, are audible, while the 'structural syntax' is not.
But Barrettis hardly the first composer whose music takes audiences 'beyond
structurallistening', accessing a world in which 'incoherence, discontinuity,
situatedness, alienation, and subjectivity' are 'features of the listening experience - but perhaps', as Andrew dell'Antonio suggests, 'these features can
be seen as "structural"after all?'"8Another of Barrett's recently completed
compositions, intended as part of the on-going resistanceand vision project,
the nine-minute Lost (2004) for piano, also offers a structure in which the
results of a dialogue between basic systematics and expressive spontaneity
can be heard. Barrett'sinitial comment that 'one way of describing this music
might be as a labyrinth with transparentwalls' focuses the dialectical elements, and the challenge to the listener: 'its structural interconnections are
indeed quite convoluted and its sound-texture diaphanous, but this latter
quality isn't necessarily as much help in "finding one's way" as it might appear to be.' Diaphanousness is most explicit in material resulting from 'a
systematic generative procedure where the pitches of a quasi-serialsequence
in the left hand form the "fundamentals"for a constant permutation in the
right hand of the first eight even-numbered "natural"harmonics, to produce
a stream of mostly wide and more or less consonant dyads'.
Those dyads take their place within a wide range of contrasting textural
'states', ranging from staccato monophony to smoothly intricatepolyphony,
and from relatively stable successions of 'rational' rhythmic patterns to
hyper-elaborate, 'irrational'projections against the basic = 66 tempo. But
it's the convolution which enables the labyrinth to exercise its proper function of anxiety-creating disorientation in the traveller/listener: 'this centre
however has become "lost"within a proliferating network of interpolations,
extrapolations, interruptions and so on, while at the same time defining the
particular"introverted"quality of the whole piece'- a quality most palpable
in its predominantly but not exclusively soft dynamic levels. Ex. i shows the
final three systems of Lost, in which the conclusive dyadic 'progression'
from rhythmic complexity to simplicity takes place.
Although Barrett's music tends to avoid explicit allusions to the comfortingly familiar sign language of generic, rhetorical archetypes with long
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Resistance and reflection: Richard Barrett in the 2zst century

Ex.I: Richard Barrett:Lost, ending

(Reproducedby kindpermissionof United MusicPublishersLtd)

histories, the various literary and pictorial associations he acknowledges help


to establishthe kind of paradoxicalexpressive aura found by Robin Freeman
in Earth for trombone and percussion (1987-88): 'full of humour, in spite of
its evident pathos, infectiously black and utterly typical of its composer'.'9
Expressing admiration in such terms might lead on to claims that Barrettis

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one of the few contemporarycomposers to keep faith with Adorno's requirements for a new music that is not 'ageing', a music which avoids 'an affirmative sound' and creates 'something actually distressing and confused', resisting 'stabilization'and expressing ratherthan suppressing the 'anxiety that
gave shape to its great founding works'. Adorno also claimed, in 1955,that
'what is needed is for expression to win back the density of experience, as was
already tried during the expressionist period, though without being satisfied
with parading the cult of inhumanity under the guise of the cult of humanity.' For Adorno, the only authentic artworksworthy of the world after the
Holocaust 'are those that in their inner organization measure themselves by
the fullest experience of horror'.2
HEARING
19. Robin Freeman:
'RichardBarrett,
compositeurmaudit
manque',in Tempo190
(September '994), P-43.
It is also possible that a
view of narrativein terms
of fundamentaldramatic
archetypeswould provide
an effective context for the
interpretationof meaning
in NO andLost. See
Byron Almen: 'Narrative
archetypes:a critique, theory
and method of narrative
analysis', inJournalof Music
Theory47/I (Spring 2003
[publishedSpring 2005]),
pp.I-39.
20. This paragraphrefers to
my discussion in 'Problems
of reference:celebrating
2004', in TheMusical Times
(Autumn 2004), pp.25-39.
See Adorno's 'The aging of
the new music' in Essays on
music,ed. RichardLeppert
(Berkeley,Los Angeles
& London: University
of CaliforniaPress, 2002),
pp.i8i-202.
21. Opera(February2003),
p.2I5.
22. PatriciaHern,
commentaryin Edward
Bond:Lear (Methuen:
London 1994), p.xi. Further
page referencesin text.

PATHOS (and black humour) rather than nihilism in Barrett

is to allow for the possibility that he matches (if only in part) these
stringent requirements. This is not to argue that music less radically
'new' than allowed for by Adorno cannot legitimately engage with the horrors of Auschwitz, 9/11, the Iraq War or the 2004 tsunami. But the critical

consensus seems to be that the result will be legitimate only if the musical
idiom involved is not, to quote Hugh Canning's comments on Nicholas
Maw's opera Sophie'schoice(2002), 'too cosy and comfortable for the subject'.2"Critical discomfort with Sophie'schoicewas as much the result of unease about the use of Styron's novelistic attemptto confront 'the fullest experience of horror' - Canning viewed the novel as 'a fairly sordid (even misogynist) bonkbuster' - as of the style and duration of Maw's opera. But did
the music totally fail to evoke the spirit of Beckett or Bond - that is, of
tragedy, with a cruel, savage, bitter ratherthan enobling aura, or make it impossible for audiences to respond as they are expected to in Bond's 'epic/
rationaltheatre' - with 'a movement from angry recognition of the injustices
and irrationalities still brutalising society, towards a belief in man's ability
painfully to push aside the dead weight of a decadent system and live
rationally,with dignity and humanity, in a socialist world'?22
Where Sophie'schoiceis closer to the operatic world of Puccini or Britten
than to Nono or Lachenmann is in its refusal of stylisation and instruction.
In Bond, by contrast, 'idea, expression, reaction:the patternis didactic. Bond
requires the theatre to teach truths which he feels cannot be taught through
the traditional institutions of state, school and church, since these are crippled and corruptedby capitalismand the bourgeoisie, defenders of the status
quo'. And what goes for theatre applies, as Bond sees it, to art in general. 'Art
[...] is not to be seen as an ornamental and essentially frivolous retreat from
the soul-destroying business of living, nor as an elaborate, self-justifying
distraction for aesthetes and intellectuals, nor as a complacent celebration of
contemporary civilisation' (Hern, p.xii): and - despite the dogmatic tone of
THE MUSICAL

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Resistance and reflection: Richard Barrett in the 2zst century

such assertions- for Bond himself this appearsnot to entail a dour, sermonising, kill-joy aesthetic stance. 'Art is always optimistic and rational - in this
way: it makes the present relationshipbetween people easier to understand,
by destroying cloaks of sentimentality,hypocrisy and myth, and it makes the
potential rationality of these relationships more certain. It does this partly
through its choice of subject - but the important thing is the integrity of its
objectivity' (Hern, p.xii).
Those comments occur in a programme note for one of Bond's collaborationswith Hans Werner Henze, Wecometo theriver(1976), an opera whose
music - for those who remember it - might seem to have risked the ephemeral aestheticisation of political, revolutionary aspirations - the failings
Hewett finds in Lachenmann. The ease with which Henze's opera was
digested and forgotten by non-socialist establishmentsmight nevertheless be
ascribedto a degree of naivety in the sheer directnesswith which its ideology
was exposed. Another recent allusion to political naivety can be found in
Christopher Fox's claims about Tippett's A childof ourtime:
the work may have been inspired by the escalating antisemitism of the mid-i93os but
Tippett's libretto refuses to confront this as a political problem, choosing instead to render
it in terms of Jungian individualism. Lacking an intrinsic need for collective expression A
child of our time has to invoke the legacy of the quite different struggle of Afro-American
people to supply the missing ingredient.23

All this is questionable. Tippett's work was indeed 'inspired' by pre-war


antisemitism: yet its subject was not the political consequences of that
particularform of ideologically-motivated violence, but the futility of answering violence with violence, and the need to understand the individual
(but socially-rooted) psychological motivations for such socially significant
acts as Herschel Grynzpan's. If the St Matthew Passion 'works' through
placing the crucifixion of Christ in the frame of Christianity's subsequent
'reception' and ritualised interpretation of that event, Tippett's naivety
might have been aesthetic rather than political - to behave as if the events
aroundwhich his work was to be based should be accorded comparablesignificance to the events recounted in St Matthew's Gospel. Fox asserts that
commentators on music should be willing 'to analyse the political significance of composers' musical decisions' and also aspire 'to read works as
ideological constructions within their historical context'. It's probable, however, that the second task is a good deal easier to perform effectively than the
first.
No contemporary composer has made more transparentreference of the
Bach Passion model than John Adams. This has been used to explain the ab-

Fox: review
23. Christopher
historyof
of TheCambridge

sence of Nixon in China-like naturalism in The death of Klinghoffer (1989-

twentieth-century
music,in
TheMusical Times(Spring

91), a work in which 'reflection dominates, in the sense both of meditation

2005),

p.95.

and remembrance' and whose 'oracular and metaphysical' choruses have

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been explicitly compared with those in A childof ourtime. Perhapsbecause,


according to MichaelSteinberg, the work was begun 'when the United States
was lavishly supporting Saddam Hussein' and completed 'while we were
dropping "smartbombs" down Baghdadventilator shafts',24its degree of apparent sympathy with Arab, Palestinian causes has been read as antisemitic.
(For one later commentator, 'the opera's Palestinians appear to be noble
victims, its Jews seem to have stepped out of an episode of Seinfeld.'25)
Nevertheless, it was Adams who was turned to for an 'official' musical response to 9/ I - On the transmigration of souls (2002) - and David Schiff has

24. See booklet notes by


MichaelP. Steinbergwith
ElektraNonesuch CD
recording 7559-79281-2

(1992).
25. David Schiff: 'Memory
spaces', booklet notes
with recordingof On the
transmigration
of souls,
Nonesuch 7559-79816-2
(2004). On The death of

Klinghoffer,see also Richard


Taruskin:The Oxfordhistory
of western music, 5: the late
twentieth century (New York:

Oxford University Press,


2005), pp.522-23. Taruskin
believes that Steve Reich's
Different trains 'is almost

unique among artistic


memorialsto the Holocaust
in its successful avoidanceof
pomposity and false comfort'
(p.503).

written of Adams's success in 'redefining the relation of music to non-music


and of the concert hall to everyday life'. With the Ivesian example of 'creating imaginary utopian venues, usually by layering different sounds' in
mind, Adams's 'sound-over-sound texture connects [...] to the mass media',
and is therefore 'more successfully populist' than Ives, though 'without
sounding in any way like popular music'. Schiff's conclusion is that 'Adams
breaks down the divide between the high-bourgeois culture that created
orchestras like the New York Philharmonic (and the repertory they play) in
the nineteenth century and the mass culture that took its place in the twentieth. He has created a music that mirrors and exalts the public wisdom.'
Many awkward questions arise from such a judgement: how, and by
whom, is 'the public wisdom' to be definitively established, and who can determine the ways in which music 'mirrors'that 'wisdom'? Is Adams's ability
to identify with broad currents of feeling so different from Carl Orff's in
1930s Germany? One might also dispute the sweeping claim that mass culture replaced high-bourgeois culture in the 20th century, as well as debating
whether the work's 'careful, therapeutic course from the secular to the sacred, leading to a vision of redemption', and its answer to Ives's famously
unanswered question in the form of loud repetitions of words like 'love' and
'light' make (or were intended to make) quite the affirmative impact, in comparison with the moments of orchestral 'anguish', that Schiff's rhetoric requires them to make. In other words, for Schiff's interpretationto work, On
the transmigrationof souls must be seen as embodying a glib, Larkin-like
optimism ('what will survive of us is love'), and to embody, rather than
question, the kind of 'affirmation' whose abandonment is, for Barrett, the
key to art's ability to function as 'a token of thepossibilityof human dignity'.
Like Adams, Tippett might have met one of Bond's criteriafor politicallyviable art - 'optimism' - while being less sanguine about the other,
rationality. With Barrett, too, it is by no means clear that the wholesale rejection of metaphysics is involved, or any determined resistance to a 'vision'
extending beyond music in society into the realms of utopian transcendence,
even if at the same time he has some sympathy with the Nietzschean claim
that modern art should seek to solve 'the problem of transcendence' by
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TIMES

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2005

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Resistance and reflection: Richard Barrett in the 2zst century

abandoning certainty for ambiguity.26 For that matter, is transcendence a


problem that needs to be solved? As Julian Johnson argues,
music-as-artshapesour perceptionof the world, not by pretendingto speak of the real
world but by its constructionof imaginaryothers. It sheds light on our present reality
preciselyby being conspicuouslydifferentfrom it. [...] Art transformsrealityin orderto
keep alive the possibility that it might be otherwise, and thus art is an agent of social
critiqueandof individualtranscendence.27
It is indeed difficult to imagine how any composer who lives in the 'real'
world can indulge in facile optimism about the possibility of integration in,
or reconciliation with a society in which mass culture defines itself in opposition to 'high-bourgeois' values. Following Adorno, Raymond Geuss has
written that 'the basic sadness of Berg's music shows that he is not "reconciled"; his "resignation" is that of a person who makes utopian demands
on life and sees them eternally unsatisfied, but does not give them up.' At the
same time, however, as Geuss notes, art is 'by its very nature [...] affirmative.
The very fact that an internally coherent, aesthetically satisfying work has
been produced tends to promote reconciliation with the world.'28 Yet, just as
music has moved on from Berg, so claims about affirmation and reconcili-

26. See MatthewRampley:


Niettsche,aestheticsand
modernity(Cambridge:
CambridgeUniversity Press,
2000), p.I22.

ation remain to be contested, especially for a composer like Barrett who


seems unable to find much consolation in the world of nature - still less to
find it, as Maxwell Davies does, even when nature as a force for consolation
is itself under threat.
IT HAPPENS, Maxwell Davies's Third Naxos Quartet, composed in
March and April 2003, shares with NO the external context of being
affected by the invasion of Iraq, an event of which the composer has
spoken with unrestrained bitterness. Thus, although his characteristically
conflicted music could without further cues be associated just as easily with
the disorientation of the serious artist in (mass-culture dominated) society or
the dangers of mistreating the natural environment, the composer's notes
direct listeners as explicitly as Barrett's to the Anglo-American perfidy. In
Davies's case the crux is a sermon of reproach to the indifferent, complaisant
AS

27. Johnson: Whoneeds


classicalmusic?,p.I28 (see
n.I4).

28. Raymond Geuss:


'Berg and Adorno', in
The Cambridgecompanionto
Berg, ed. Anthony Pople
(Cambridge:Cambridge
University Press, 1997),
PP.43,47.
29. See the composer'snotes
with Naxos CD 8.557937
(2005), and also Rodney
Lister:'Peter Maxwell
Davies's "Naxos" Quartets',
in Tempo232 (April 2005),
pp.2-i2.
30. Stephen Pruslin:'Second
TavernerFantasia',in Tempo
73 (Summer 1965), reprinted
in PeterMaxwell Davies:
studiesfrom twodecades
(London: Boosey & Hawkes,
1979), P.27.

majority, and he ends the work with a hidden setting of Michelangelo's lines:
'while damage and shame persist/it is my great fortune to neither see nor
hear/so please do not disturb me, and speak quietly.'29 Here, perhaps, we
have the kind of irony defined long ago by Stephen Pruslin when discussing
the appeal of Mahler to Maxwell Davies: an irony 'not in the sense of its
modern misuse as "cynicism" but in its original meaning of a sense of
contradiction which is implicitly tragic'.30 There is a similar spirit at the end
of the quartet's abrasive third movement, 'Three Inventions and a Hymn',
where the concluding hymn is marked 'stucchevole''nauseating'.
The sickening hymn is the kind of explicit generic deconstruction which

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31. Preface (2000) to UMP


Barrettcatalogue.

Barrettshuns. For him 'scouring the culturalpast for attractive,amusing and


above all "accessible" trouvailles'is to be complicit in the evaporation of
meaning ratherthan to reinforce and renew it. It can therefore be predicted
that his plans for the other parts of resistanceand vision, as a music-theatre
project, will not involve explicit parody, still less the 'populist' fusions of
Adams. Yet that does not mean that he necessarily has no time for a 'music
that mirrors and exalts the public wisdom', if 'wisdom' relates not so much
to a preference for low-art entertainment,or even to Adams-style 'fusion', as
to the long-cherished ideal of an innate and inherent 'humandignity'. Barrett
had Prometheusbound (as well as Mahler's Seventh Symphony) in mind
during the composition of NO, and the result is music in which a Bond-like,
ideologically-motivated optimism and rationality does not seek to escape
confrontation with their dark and disturbing opposites. But acknowledging
these perspectives is itself more rational than negative. As the Barrettperformer Carl Rosman has wisely observed, 'it may give rise to a statementthat
is all the more affirmative for refusing to accept blindly a conventional range
of illusions'.3'All in all, it's a good time to agree that, not only does Barrett
not serve imperialism,but his music is far from inaccessible to listeners, once
appropriatesignals are recognised. It is not, of course, as accessible to nonspecialist performers as much modal, tonal or other post-tonal music. But
in 'the age of digital reproduction', where the new new music is most at
home, even that is not a reason for calling down anathemas. We ignore it at
our peril.
Arnold Whittall'sbooksincludeMusical composition in the twentieth century
(OUP, z999) and Exploring twentieth-century
vation (CUP, 2003).

THE MUSICAL

music: tradition and inno-

TIMES

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Autumn 2005

69

70

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