Literate music revisited

I’ve just been reading Robert Fink’s January blogpost for Musicology Now, the latest in a chain of erudite posts spinning out from this Mark Oppenheimer article from last September’s New Republic. The stepping stone between the two is John Halle’s article for Jacobin.

To be honest, I’m struggling a little with Fink here. He takes issue with Halle’s defence of Western art music, which he summarizes roughly as that it is not only “a different style of music, but [also] a completely different medium than popular music, characterized by its literate infrastructure and a unique extensional concept of form”. This kind of thinking, Fink argues, leads us towards a teleological essentialism that “reproduces the logic of the ‘one-drop’ rule” and is thus useless as a defence.

Fink writes: “if classical music is equated, as in Halle’s argument, with the entire literate musical tradition of the West, then, after some decades of looking, I can find no special musicological correlation between classical music and some essential quality of having goal-direction.” But I’m not sure why literate composition should be equated with goal-directedness, and goal-directedness alone. Certainly that’s one thing you can do as a composer once you start writing things down, but it’s not the only one. Fink’s complaint seems to stem from Halle’s comment that

These are works of “pure” music which cohere, not by a text with its own self-contained expressive content and narrative logic, but by a logic entirely based on the abstract relationships inherent in the pitches and rhythms. They are composed within abstract forms, large-scale plans dictating their unfolding in time of which at least an intuitive awareness is required for them to be fully appreciated by audiences.

… but I don’t read that as necessarily a description of musical teleology. Ferneyhough’s Les froissements d’ailes de Gabriel unfolds in time, and an awareness of that happening is necessary to its full appreciation, but it certainly isn’t a goal-directed sort of time. Neither is that of Messiaen, or Cage, or Feldman. Yet all of these composers, I would argue, needed to write things down in order to achieve what they wanted to do. (Which in each case was actually to undermine our natural propensity to think in terms of goals etc.)

It seems to me that there is an array of things that you can do within a literate musical tradition that are hard to accomplish outside of it (and vice versa of course). And these contribute to its continuing cultural value. While we should be wary of teleological essentialism, isn’t there a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? Or are we obliged to talk about music in its global totality, even when we actually want to talk about a relatively well-defined (if fuzzy) subset of it?

Paul Morley goes all Kyle Reese on the future of the orchestra


“Come with me if you want to live”: Paul Morley delivers his keynote to the ABO Conference

I owe Paul Morley an apology. Ten years ago (pretty much to the day; weird) I read Words and Music, threw it across the room in annoyance and wrote a few scathing words about it on this blog. Nine years ago (even closer to the day; weirder), I took another swing, muttering something about 6th-form literary gimmicks as I did so.

Well, I was younger then, and in my 20s, so what did I know. But I have, recently, been won over by Morley’s switch of allegiance from pop to classical music.

First there was a review of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival that was head and shoulders the most engaged and involving review of the festival that I can recall seeing.

Then there was his turn as part of a panel on the future of the orchestra at the closing weekend of The Rest Is Noise, which, in an awkward double act with Igor Toronyi-Lalic, drew audience gasps and easily made for the liveliest part of the weekend.

And now he has today delivered the keynote speech at the Association of British Orchestras’ annual conference. Here are some choice quotes:

that endless supply of glorious music from the history of music … an extraordinary interlinked sequence of themes, forms and dramas …

It is pop music that is now about its past, about anniversaries and retrospection, and more and more about its revered dead or nearly dead icons, and from where I listen and think, it is classical music, whether from the 18th century or last week, that seems to be more about challenge, mystery, metamorphosis and the essence of what it is to be human.  At a time when what it is to be human is threatened by the emergence and speedy mutation of machines and the provisional emergence of an unfathomable machine consciousness, it seems increasingly important, if just for old time’s sake, that the human isn’t completely lost.

… But the music we look towards for this human presence should not sound as though it has been made to serve machines, and complete their mission to turn reality into a tightly coordinated  sequence of pulses, rhythms, patterns, clichés, climaxes and abbreviations – or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, into an explosive utopian paradise where all our unruly needs our instantly catered for … 

… In the end, the greater point is not reaching a wider audience, because to do so means sacrificing every single thing that you do that means anything, but ensuring that music as something more than entertainment survives by ensuring that it still evolves, by marketing the music played by orchestras not as some sort of spa therapy, or teaching aid, or social welfare, but as something that contributes to our knowledge of music and therefore of what it is to be human, here in space, at this weird moment in time.

… For me, the future of the orchestra, even beyond the problems of funding, or structural replenishment, involves committing itself to the idea that what it is about maybe problematical, difficult, severe, even obscure, but that’s what it is, and it’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise.

I’m still not a fan of those overlong sentences, but I may need to reread Words and Music. Although I will have to buy a new copy, since I Oxfamed the last one. Who’s the winner there, eh?

Read the full text of Paul Morley’s speech here.

Secret Music: February

(Click for the background to the Secret Music listings.)

Saturday 1 February: Cafe OTO, Lauren Redhead, Gail Brande, ORE, 8pm | £8 adv, £10 door

Cumbria-based new music and sound art festival Full of Noises presents two nights of performances by artists from their 2013 programme. Day 2 sees performances from composer Lauren Redhead, who will be presenting a version of her piece Entoptic Landscapes, composed for FON alongside other short pieces; a solo trombone set from Gail Brand, who has been described as “the most exciting trombone player for years” by The Wire; and amplified tuba duo ORE, making music informed (but not limited) by their enthusiasm for drones, doom metal, improvisation and minimalism.

Sunday 2 February: Kings Place, Wespoke, 4pm | £9.50 online/£12.50 on the door

This concert brings together Laurent Estoppey (saxophone), Kerry Yong (keyboards), Serge Vuille (percussion) and Juliet Fraser (soprano) in an exploration of the cultural heritage of song.

The programme features premieres of Antoine Joly’s loving and critical medley, History of Swiss Song, and the fifth volume of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Popular Contexts, as well as Bernhard Lang’s DW16, Songbook, a work that explores difference and repetition in the form of five songs with lyrics by artists such as Bob Dylan and prog-rocker Peter Hammill.

Sunday 2 February: Islington Mill, Manchester, Psappha, 9pm | £8 (student £5)

Performance of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titaniccombining live music, live drawing, photography and 3D film.

Wednesday 5 February: The Forge, Chroma + Riot Ensemble, The Flatulence of the Gods“, 7.30pm | £12 (£10 conc)

Kicking off a new series of contemporary music at the Forge (a regular venue in last year’s Secret Music listings), Chroma and the Riot Ensemble present works by Scott Lygate, Amy Beth Kirsten, Chris Mayo, Martijn Padding and Riot Ensemble’s director Aaron Holloway-Nahum.

Monday 10 February: Cafe OTO, 8pm | £5 adv, £6 door

Screening of Viola Rusche and Hauke Harder’s documentary on Alvin Lucier, No Ideas But In Things.

Tuesday 11 to Saturday 15 February: The Vaults, Leake St, London SE1 8SW, WOLF PACK at Vault Festival, 9pm | £10, or £16 for two nights

Two separate shows, TEXT (11 and 14 Feb) and BODY (12, 13 and 15).

TEXT will include The Waves, a rarely performed Frederic Rzewski piece alongside new works by composers Jess Harvey and Tom Green, and new interpretations of songs by Kate Bush and Goldfrapp. The concert will also present works by John White, Malcolm Atkins, Karlheinz Stockhausen and two pieces based on the work of John Cage, one of which is a brand new work devised by the ensemble.

BODY will feature a dance collaboration in the premier of Did You See Me Dance? by Dave Collins and Sam Goodway alongside music by Toru Takemitsu, Edmund Joliffe, Steve Reich and Manuela Kerer, and interpretations of songs by Frank Zappa and Stevie Wonder.

Programmed as part of the Vault Festival.

Thursday 13 February: Club inégales, 108 Gower Street, London, doors 7pm, music 8pm | £10 (£6 conc)

Peter Wiegold’s Club inégales begins its spring season with a concert of music by Howard Skempton.

Tuesday 18 February: City University, London, Richard Craig and Loré Lixenberg, 7pm | Free, but adv booking required

Flautist Richard Craig presents three premieres: two new solo works from his collaborations with Richard Barrett and Kristian Ireland and duo work (with with Loré Lixenberg) by John Croft for voice and bass flute.

Full programme:

Richard Barrett – Vale (world premiere)
John Croft – Deux Meditations d’une Furie (world premiere)
Brian Ferneyhough – Mnemosyne
Loré Lixenberg – Work tba
Kristian Ireland – Luminous (world premiere)

Friday 21 to Sunday 23 February: Bristol New Music, various venues, times, etc.

First event of a new consortium devoted to bringing the best new music to Bristol. The weekend-long festival combines modern classical, jazz and visual arts. Rambler-oriented highlights include Quatuor Bozzini on SaturdayEllen Fullman, also on Saturday (seriously, if you’re anywhere close, don’t miss this); Bristol Ensemble on Sunday; and musikFabrik, also on Sunday.

Friday 28 February: International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, Psappha, 6pm | £10 (student £8)

A new multimedia production of Anthony Burgess’s musical setting of The Waste Land, performed by Psappha and incorporating rarely seen treasures from the Burgess Estate. Narrated by Jonathan Best, with soprano Rebecca Lea, directed by Elaine Tyler-Hall.

Friday 28 February: Cafe OTO, Apartment House, Jérôme Noetinger, 8pm | £7 adv, £8 door

Swiss composer and sound artist Antoine Chessex returns to Cafe OTO with a new composition for Apartment House, augmented by French electroacoustic musician Jérôme Noetinger. The concert begins with a performance from the duo of Steve Noble (percussion) and Yoni Silver (bass clarinet).

Dead again

Is classical music dead or dying? Just 24 hours after the broadcast of Gabriel Prokofiev’s documentary Who Killed Classical Music, Slate‘s Mark Vanhoenacker, apparently coincidentally, returned to this hoary old question. Personally, I don’t know. I don’t have data. However, I am sceptical about how you’d go about measuring the death of something as chameleon as an art form. But let’s for the sake of argument say its health could be better.*

And now let’s be honest about why. If classical music is dying, it is not because the music has got weirder, more dissonant, less accessible. It is a choice we have made as a society. It’s a political decision.

“You assured me it was tired and shagged out after a long squawk.”

Look: the relative vitality of classical music is always measured (such as it can be) in terms of bums on seats. Or, put another way, money. In these neo-liberal times, whether we’re talking about healthcare or sending cancer sufferers back to work, no other metric counts. Vanhoenacker states it explicitly:

Live classical music is less commercially viable than ever. Attendance per concert has fallen, according to Robert Flanagan, an emeritus professor at Stanford. But “even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.” Live orchestral music is essentially a charity case.

There are significant and unavoidable structural reasons why classical music is expensive. Putting on an orchestral concert requires 70–100 highly skilled professionals on stage, plus all their supporting staff (many of whom also have specialist skills). That’s not cheap.

Worse, an orchestral concert is an ephemeral experience. It’s not like a novel, which you can keep printing, or a painting, which has scarcity value that plays well at auction. Two hours and it’s gone, never to return. So there’s a very small window in which income can be made. Even in the best case scenario you are limited by how many people you can squeeze into a concert hall. You can’t even do what theatres do and make a little back selling the script on the way out, because most people can’t read a score like they can read a play.

And that comes to the third problem. Classical music appreciation takes effort. Listeners require leisure time and expendable resources. (And therefore a work-life balance that gives them these things.) They also benefit from education. Instrumental tuition at school is the major gateway to art music appreciation later in life. And that makes sense, because unless you have some idea of what it’s like to hold an instrument in your hand and interpret music that somebody else has written, the activity of an orchestra can look pretty bizarre and inscrutable. But again, primary and secondary music education costs money. An economy that provides workers with the expendable time and income to pursue an interest in the arts costs money.

And the fact is, we have, as a society, decided to stop spending that money. We could have all these things; and for a time, under certain terms, maybe we did. But we’ve decided they’re not worth it, and we’d rather spend that money on wars, tax cuts, financial services and other things. Or at least, we’ve acquiesced when the governments we elect decide to spend our money in this way. (If anyone harks back to a supposed golden age for classical music in, maybe the 18th or 19th centuries, it’s worth pointing out that we chose different ways to spend our money then, such as massive social inequalities, poor sanitation, slavery, etc. It’s always a choice, at least for those in power.)

And why do we acquiesce? Because we’ve been inculcated with the idea that art music is not worthy of our support. Because it is too esoteric, too unpopular, too ‘irrelevant’. The narrative of Prokofiev’s documentary was crudely put, but it wasn’t original. It will be familiar to anyone who has studied a little bit of music history in the last thirty or forty years: modernism was bad, it ruined everything, let’s listen to something that everybody will like.

I’m not ignoring the legitimate charges that have been made against art music in recent years, chief among which are its history of racism and misogyny (which remain ongoing habits for some). There aren’t easy answers here, and the questions should not be brushed under the carpet. But one thing is sure: if the power within classical music remains concentrated among a small elite – as it surely will if we keep talking about death and irrelevance – change of that kind is unlikely to happen.

The only way to effect change is to broaden participation. And to do that requires the sorts of investments I mention above. And to do that requires political desire. But if we talk ourselves down like this at every opportunity that desire will never emerge. The narrative of irrelevance will perpetuate itself. As Ben Harper observed eight years ago, and as Greg Sandow has been saying tirelessly since long before that, classical music’s worst enemies are often those who are supposedly promoting it.

*UPDATE: If you’re looking for a more complete smackdown of the Slate piece, Andy Doe has done the decent thing.

So, Who Did Kill Classical Music?

The detective may change, but the suspects (all those dreadful serialists) haven’t. This time, Gabriel Prokofiev is pointing the finger in a short documentary for Radio 4.

When details of this programme did the rounds of Twitter and Facebook last week there was quite a bit of facepalming and disbelief. Who approved clumsy and ahistorical statements such as ‘Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising “Serialism” where melodies were no longer allowed’; and ‘Ironically, in these countries [Russia and the Soviet bloc], the State continued to support classical music, whereas in more liberal regimes in Europe it retreated to the intellectual margins’? In the end, it was assumed the copy must have been written by an in-house scribe, not the programme makers themselves. Now, that doesn’t seem the case; both statements appeared in the show’s script.

Why, once again, this obsession with the transition from Schoenberg to total serialism? As though total serialism was something of immense cultural power, and not a niche event that lasted maybe a couple of years and sustained a handful of works. Le marteau was trotted out as the quintessential total serial work; except that the compositional procedures going on there are both more complex and more diffuse than true serialism. And that’s precisely it: the series was never really the point, it was what came after, the doors it unlocked.

Almost no statement was examined. Instead, we got a string of not terribly original arguments for why classical music was failing. (Itself an unexamined assertion.) A couple of examples stood out for me. In one passage the Daily Telegraph‘s Ivan Hewett states that sitting in silence to listen to music is quite a recent ‘cultural invention’, dating back only ‘two and a bit centuries’.

OK, three things. Firstly, if you’re measuring cultural change at a level at which ‘two and a bit centuries ago’ represents the ‘quite recent’, you’re being a little too geological about this.

Secondly, we’re talking about music. A realm entirely made up of ‘cultural inventions’. Why are these bad things?

Thirdly: ‘two and a bit centuries ago’ would also do for the piano; are we about to toss that out too?

At another point, Hewett bemoans certain ‘enormously rarefied’ areas of contemporary music, which:

bolstered by this cult of the silent, reverent concert hall, has encouraged the growth of a certain kind of very elaborate, hyper-refined, hyper-intellectualised form of contemporary music which is inevitably of interest to a really tiny cult, a sort of priesthood in a way.

Asked for his solution to this problem, he replies:

Maybe the path forward that will lead to a renewal of art music is to do with taking music into newly created spaces. And perhaps initiatives like [Nonclassical] and others will only come of age when they start to create their own repertoire that is made for that space.

And here is where a bit of reflection, and perhaps the intervention of a BBC editor, might have been useful. Because what is a concert hall if not a purpose-built space that, by Hewett’s own argument, has encouraged the creation of a certain kind of repertoire? I’m not arguing that new music should be confined to a concert hall ghetto. Far from it. I’ve had extraordinary musical experiences both within and without such spaces. I’m absolutely in favour of intelligent plurality. But to imagine that substituting one set of curated, purpose-built, repertory-bolstered spaces for another is going to lead to any sort of meaningful renewal is just wooly thinking.

The problem is that I don’t think Hewett, or maybe even Prokofiev, see it like that: change, qua change, is good. Because the status quo is bad. Both sides of that equation deserve much more serious analysis in a programme like this. Would the BBC let something on another subject slip through this casually argued?

Towards the end of the programme we arrive at Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music. The composer Tansy Davies admits that she doesn’t know who most of the portraits on the wall are. Prokofiev describes the room as ‘an impressive, historic, monument to classical music’, in which they are ‘surrounded by these great, historical figures of classical music’. ‘That tradition is a heavy thing, and a wonderful thing’, replies Davies.

Except that, well… It’s quite easy to look up who these portraits are (Google Duke’s Hall Portraits). And they’re not, by generally accepted yardsticks, the ‘great historical figures of classical music’. They are – as is common in the halls of many long-established educational institutions in this country – portraits of former students, teachers and directors. So here’s the pianist and academy director Frederick Bowen Jewson, aged nine; here’s Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, a long-serving principal from 1888–1924; here’s a child portrait of Reverend Canon Professor Sir Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley, first elected President of the Royal Musical Association. Important figures in their time, but not exactly Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. Duke’s Hall – and fair enough – isn’t so much a monument to classical music as it as a monument to the RAM.

This is a small slip, but 20 minutes in it sounds symptomatic of a programme that is keen to seek support for its own agenda wherever it can find it. Prokofiev’s interviewing technique is to feed leading questions, and then agree with the answers that come back. What material he did use from his contributors did little to divert that course.

In the wake of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music last year, I’m no longer surprised to see the BBC commissioning music documentaries like this, but I do wonder whether anyone at Radio 3 was listening in.

Who Killed Classical Music is currently on iPlayer, and will be re-broadcast in the UK on Radio 4 on Saturday at 3.30pm.


L-R: Webern, Stockhausen, Berg, Schoenberg, Boulez

What has happened to the Barbican’s Total Immersion?

Intermezzo describes the Barbican’s 2014-15 season, recently announced, as ‘boring‘ – and from a new music perspective and with a heavy heart it’s hard to disagree.

Here’s a pdf of the season brochure. Browsing through the list of premieres, I’m not finding much to get the blood pumping. John Tavener’s last major work, Flood of Beauty is on 28th September, and there’s a new Kevin Volans piece from the BBC Singers four days before that. An orchestration of Thomas Larcher’s A Padmore Cycle? Meh. A couple of Brett Dean pieces. The UK premiere of Shchedrin’s opera Levsha could be interesting, but we’re talking pretty few and far between here. You have to wait until next February for Kagel’s Three études for large orchestra with the BBC SO, and (a probable highlight) Lachenmann’s Tableau with Rattle and the Berlin Phil.

After that, things pick up a little – there’s Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland on 8 March; James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion on 5 April, which you can take or leave, but it is at least big and new; and works by young composers (as yet unnamed) from Alan Gilbert and the NY Phil on 18 April. The various Boulez at 90 events, which include an Ensemble Intercontemporain concert on 28 April (2015, remember) liven things up a bit as well.

But the biggest worry has to be the Barbican’s flagship new music series, Total Immersion. The present season’s trio of all-dayers have/will be focused on The Rite of Spring, Thea Musgrave, and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Bear in mind that this is a series described on the Barbican’s website as ‘a chance for you to hear the very best of new and recent music’. No disrespect to Thea Musgrave, but this description is something of a stretch across those three events.

And while there isn’t anything quite so backward looking in this year’s line-up of TIs, the series is increasingly looking like it has run out of ideas. So we have – in memoriam – a day devoted to John Tavener that features all his best known works, but forgoes the opportunity to anything properly weird like the Celtic Requiem or Ultimos ritos; a day of percussion! (exclamation mark in original); and a day of Boulez, because he’ll be 90. Now, I have absolutely no problem celebrating Boulez’s 90th birthday in 2015. But the world won’t be short of opportunities to programme his music that year. Events like Total Immersion are rare and precious; handing one over to the general birthday saturation that will surely already be taking place just smacks of a lack of imagination.

This is the third year in a row in which TI has looked to have run out of steam, and it hasn’t been around for that long. Is there really no one at the BBC SO able to look around the new music landscape and come up with a single composer who isn’t either dead or 80+ who might be worth a days’ programming?

A year in blogging

Wow. 2013 turned out to be a big one for the blog. Here’s a run-down.

January: I got all snarky with Daniel Asia over a silly Huffington Post article that he wrote. Turned into one of my most widely read posts of all time. Lesson learnt: pick more fights?

I also started my secret music series, highlighting the best UK new music concerts that might slip under the radar of the usual promotional machine. I didn’t manage it every month (sorry if you had concerts in September or October …), but I hope it helped a little bit.

March: I made my first radio appearance, hosting a one-off show on Resonance FM in support of The London Ear contemporary music festival.

May: I let slip some rough ideas for a book. My idea – a survey of new music since 1989 – turned out to be quite popular.

August: The Rambler turned 10!

September: I curated my first ever concert. Along the way I also put together a few additions to my 10 for ’10 series of young composer interviews: Gregory Emfietzis, Ben Isaacs, Charlie Sdraulig.

October: That book idea took a giant leap towards reality, thanks to University of California Press.

Updated plans announced for the British Music Collection


Encouraging news today from Sound and Music regarding their plans for the British Music Collection, what was the (now defunct) BMIC’s archive of 30,000 scores and recordings by contemporary and 20th-century British composers.

The collection sort of disappeared from view for a little while when Sound and Music was formed in 2009, until plans were confirmed in 2011 to house the entire library at the University of Huddersfield. The plans announced today refer again to the creation of a new facility at Huddersfield (costing £1.5million – and also providing room for the archive of the Rugby League) where these scores and recordings will be held.

Announced too are plans to connect the collection to the Google Cultural Institute, as well as the development of a new acquisitions policy. But perhaps the most exciting details are the resurrection of the New Voices scheme, an important publishing leg-up for emerging composers that in its previous incarnation gave support to the likes of Helen Grime, Matthew Shlomowitz and James Weeks. Thirty new and emerging composers will join the revived scheme in April 2014.

Added to this is a ‘Digital Discoveries‘ project, which aims to issue previously unreleased recordings from the British Music Collection. Eight volumes were announced last month, featuring music by Tansy Davies, Graham Fitkin, Katharine Norman, Sam Hayden and many more; the tone of the press release suggests this may be an ongoing project – if so, hooray!

Read the rest of today’s announcement here.

Simon Howard, 1960–2013

At the start of this week, I learnt of the tragic, untimely death of the poet Simon Howard.

I didn’t really know him. We were Facebook ‘friends’ and spent time on one or two of the same online forums. We corresponded occasionally. We never met, and I feel immensely sad that now we never will. I don’t even have a face. I knew Simon only through his intelligence, his immense musical sensitivity and his fierce anger at an unjust world.

I can only claim to know his poetry a little, like that of many of his peers in fact. On the odd occasions when I did reveal my utter ignorance and call out for assistance, Simon was exceedingly generous in providing reading lists, links, thoughts and guidance. Generosity is a word that many have used since his passing. I must have assumed that he would always be around for that sort of help, and that I would always be able to catch up eventually as a result. Many of his poems are archived on his blog Walking In the Ceiling; others have been published by (among others) Knives Forks and Spoons (including the brilliant Numbers), Oystercatcher Press and Red Ceilings Press.

Simon’s words rang beyond the small circles of the London poetry scene. His extraordinary affinity for music – he was one of the most well-listened people I think I have known, and certainly among non-musicians – attracted many composers to his poetry. Among those I know to have set or referenced his work in theirs are Richard Barrett, Philip Venables, Philipp Blume and Robert Dahm, but I’m sure there are more. There is talk of a possible tribute concert, and if more details arise I will post them here.

in vain, and the discourse of 21st-century music

What to make of what Sir Simon Rattle, in an unfailingly reprinted introduction to Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, calls the ‘first masterpiece of the 21st century’?

I’m not sure. It certainly is a ‘masterpiece’, if we want to continue using that word. That fact is gilt-embossed on every polished note. It’s certainly one of the first of the century, being composed in 2000.

But it’s certainly not flawless beyond criticism.

The hype that now surrounds every performance of in vain, aided by Alex Ross’s endorsement in the final pages of The Rest Is Noise, stoked by Rattle, and slurped up like water to a thirsty man by arts organisations like the Southbank, doesn’t do the work any favours. One of the hopes of our post-(post-)modern culture should be that we can move beyond this sort of language. Not only for elaborate French-philosophical reasons, but also because it kind of spoils things for audiences.

It was hard on Friday evening to listen to the London Sinfonietta’s performance of in vain on neutral terms. One expected at the end of its 70 minutes to be inducted into a cult, and that is a recipe for disappointment. It is immensely seductive, and its technical polish of a very high level. (The Sinfonietta’s performance was equally polished and unflagging throughout.) But at the same time, there is no grit, nothing truly inexplicable, challenging or ill-fitting. In all these respects it’s rather like the Shard, or a Disney film, or an iPhone. Flawless but hollow.

The good bits were very good. The two fades into darkness work especially well. The first is a great coup de théâtre, the second an even more impressive moment of drama. Here’s where I really felt Haas’s concept of an unwanted reprise succeeded. The lighting is not a gimmick, and it contributes something concrete and musical that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But it is not exactly Haas’s invention (as Liam Cagney observed a few days ago, Grisey was doing this sort of thing in the 70s).

The piece has its longeurs, particularly in the central section, and there are too many moments that, lighting aside, sound like first draft Grisey. Rattle claims in his note that there is very little music like this around but really, there is some. This post-Ligeti, post-spectral filigree is more lingua franca than exception, even if it’s not always done as nicely as this. And although I love Haas’s harmonic aesthetic of perpetual destabilisation/resolution I much prefer it done with more assertive lines and less ornament, as in Blumenstück or the orchestral natures mortes, both much stranger works. (But I accept that’s a personal taste thing.)

If it sounds like I’m griping, I am. If it sounds like I’m deliberately swimming against the tide of critical opinion then I guess I’m doing that too. (Although interestingly I didn’t talk to anyone over the weekend who wasn’t at least slightly underwhelmed.) However, the sometimes off-the-peg discourse around a piece like this, and what that says about our desire for 21st-century masterpieces, and what we think they should sound like, deserves closer examination.

(NB: For those wanting to read more, Jeffrey Means has posted an interesting write-up of the work’s challenges from a conductor’s perspective.)