Six MP3s for a Mad Critic

I just paid $35.10 for six mp3s, and I don’t know whether I feel like a chump or 21st-Century Man, but I wanted the experience. I went to Peter Maxwell Davies’ web site, written about in an article linked from Arts Journal, and downloaded six pieces, his Symphonies No. 5, 6, and 8, his Piano Concerto, his Strathclyde Concerto No. 9, and Worldes Blis, totalling about three and a half CDs’ worth of music. I enjoyed Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King when I was a kid, which introduced me to Julius Eastman as a singer, and my old vinyl of which has mysteriously gone the way of so many of my possessions, seeking its own way out in the world, no doubt. Since then, Davies had almost completely fallen off my radar, for reasons so trivial as to be embarrassing: a vague prejudice that great music doesn’t often come from England, and an equally vague sense that the people who champion Davies and those who champion the music I love don’t overlap much. But I’m always tempted to remove swaths of my ignorance when I can do so in bulk, cheaply, and with immediate gratification, and I was fascinated by the fact that so august a figure was offering his music direct to the public without intermediary. I have my Visa card number memorized, and I was there.

Unfortunately, when I want immediate gratification, I mean immeeeeeeeediate, and the WorldPay link you use to pay wasn’t working at first. It kind of soured the experience I wanted when I had to wait more than four seconds between entering my card number and hearing the first notes, but an hour later it worked. What you get for your virtual money is nice PDFs of the program notes (a quaintly termed “Owner’s Booklet”), a PDF invoice for your tax records in case you’re a professional blogger [pause to let that concept sink in], and the privilege of downloading, apparently repeatedly, mp3s of the works in question at various file sizes and quality levels. Frankly, I wasn’t too impressed by the price. These are mp3s, after all, and for about the same wampum I could have gotten two CDs with nice booklets and better sound quality (though I have to admit, transferred to CD and played on my system, these orchestra pieces sound pretty splendid, if a touch harsh in loud passages). But the speed appealed to the impatient four-year-old child in me, and the quantity to my Scorpio need to know everything about a subject at once if I’m going to bother knowing anything at all. Also, I wanted to see whether this was a possibility I might want to pursue for my own music. It seemed strangely personal, after all, to get my music straight from The Man Himself.

To my slight disappointment, Eight Songs for a Mad King wasn’t available – I suppose Nonesuch still owns the rights [UPDATE: no, rereleased on Unicorn]. Davies’s later music, though, certainly possesses qualities that make it listenable and interesting. There is a consistent lyricism of diatonic lines despite the generally (almost) atonal idiom, and a tendency to lead the ear by echoing motives so that it’s never difficult to keep one’s place in the piece. My misgivings are the same ones I have with Roger Sessions’s symphonies: the feeling of a facile, personal compositional language which risks becoming formulaic, as though the composer wakes up and says, “I think I’ll compose another piece in my style today.” While each work is full of variety, Davies always uses the brass the same growly way, always has some dancelike rhythmic passage for contrast, is always slowly building up towards some timpani-studded climax or receding regretfully from one. In other words, the musical ideas aren’t strongly differentiated from work to work, and I suspect that it would take many, many listenings before I could drop the needle (if that is not too passé an expression) and tell whether a passage comes from the Fifth, Sixth, or Eighth Symphonies. It isn’t a function of the music’s complexity, for the European serialists, for all their emphasis on theoretical consistency, never fell into this problem; one would never, knowing them, mistake Boulez’s Pli selon pli for Rituel, or Berio’s Corale for Points on the Curve to Find, Laborintus II, or Sinfonia. Still, it’s hardly the worst fault a composer can have.

Oddly enough, the one piece so far that transcends this critique is the earliest, the darkly Romantic Worldes Blis from 1969 (the others pieces are from the last decade or so). Davies was one of the first “postmodernists” (in Eight Songs for a Mad King too, if memory serves) to play off of historical styles in his music, and Worldes Blis begins with reference to Renaissance monody. The excellent and detailed Owner’s Booklet essay by Nicholas Rampley states that Davies’s pre-1970 works (he famously moved to one of the Orkney Islands that year) are “his most uncompromising and challenging,” and that his “spare means” in those years proved too much for many listeners. But to the contrary, I find the sensuous dwelling on sustained tones here memorable and individual, almost Feldman-like except for the undercurrent of ever-seething passion. Perhaps I’m mainly a fan of the early Davies – or more likely, I simply like spare means. The later symphonies I will try to develop a taste for. In the meantime, I am re-adding Davies to my critical repertoire, and congratulate him on an effective PR strategy.