The Progressive Conservative

At the recommendation of our viola professor Marka Gustavsson, I just finished reading Ian McEwan’s 1998 novel Amsterdam, which she urged on me because the main character is a composer. It’s a brief book and an enjoyable read, but what impressed me most was the insightful realism with which McEwan describes, at considerable length, the composer’s thought process. Here’s his description of the composer, the Englishman Clive Linley, early in the book:

For Clive Linley the matter was simple. He regarded himself as Vaughan Williams’s heir, and considered terms like “conservative” irrelevant, a mistaken borrowing from the political vocabulary. Besides, during the seventies, when he was starting to be noticed, atonal and aleatoric music, tone rows, electronics, the disintegration of pitch into sound, in fact the whole modernist project, had become an orthodoxy taught in the colleges. Surely its advocates, rather than he himself, were the reactionaries. In 1975 he published a hundred-page book which, like all good manifestos, was both attack and apologia. The old guard of modernism had imprisoned music in the academy, where it was jealously professionalized, isolated, and rendered sterile, its vital covenant with a general public arrogantly broken… In the small minds of the zealots, Clive insisted, any form of success, however limited, any public appreciation whatsoever, was a sure sign of aesthetic compromise and failure. When the definitive histories of twentieth-century music in the West came to be written, the triumphs would be seen to belong to blues, jazz, rock, and the continually evolving traditions of folk music. These forms amply demonstrated that melody, harmony, and rhythm were not incompatible with innovation. In art music, only the first half of the century would figure significantly, and then only certain composers, among whom Clive did not number the later Schoenberg and his “like.”

So much for the attack. The apologia borrowed and distorted the well-worn device from Ecclesiastes. It was time to recapture music from the commissars, and it was time to reassert music’s essential communicativeness, for it was forged, in Europe, in a humanistic tradition that had always acknowledged the enigma of human nature; it was time to accept that a public performance was “a secular communion,” and it was time to recognize the primacy of rhythm and pitch and the elemental nature of melody. For this to happen without merely repeating the music of the past, we had to evolve a contemporary definition of beauty…. [emphasis mine]

I am surprised to see how much the opinions of this fictional disciple of Vaughan Williams overlap with my own. I have written myself about the primacy of rhythm and pitch, along with my own apologia for being something of a melodist. Of course I grew up making a sharp distinction between conservative and avant-garde, a distinction that has become harder and harder to define with the passing decades, perhaps to the point of total irrelevance. Even today, though, I would bristle at being called “conservative,” though I fully recognize that some of my ensemble works, those in which, for the sake of performer limitations, I have to restrain my microtonality and ferocious polyrhythms – since I am a pitch-and-rhythm composer – probably seem conservative within the definitions of most working composers. In this respect I feel myself an heir to Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, two composers who endlessly championed progressive musical ideas, but who also sometimes wrote tuneful, texturally commonplace works under commission. In fact, I once submitted my Transcendental Sonnets for a choral competition, and while I didn’t win, the director sent me a complimentary letter calling the piece reminiscent of choral works by Herbert Howells, Hubert Parry, and other great British conservatives, and said he would look into programming it. I was happy to get a compliment from any direction. And I certainly agree with Clive Linley that academia has trapped music in a barren modernist purgatory, though I don’t think I quite agree with him on the most profitable escape route. (And needless to say, I strongly demur concerning the bankruptcy of late 20th-century postclassical, if not classical, music.) It’s funny, as I sit here working with 37 pitches to the octave and seven tempos running simultaneously, to see my opinions reflected back to me from a 1990s British musical arch-conservative.


  1. says

    Anyone who is “an heir to Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison” is fine by me. I wish there were more opportunities to hear them live, along with Harry Partch, here on the east coast. The Harrison concert I heard at Bard was a revelation. Any chance we can get a concert up there of you and your predecessors?

    KG replies: We’re trying to arrange a Relache concert of my The Planets at Bard for the fall. And maybe something else.

  2. Dan says

    I think that we’re living in an increasingly “pluralistic” or “fragmented” age (depending on whether you think it’s a good or bad thing). So it’s becoming more difficult to define what is modern or conservative, or even what characterizes the music and art of our time in any general way at all.

    A composer today can choose to work with any number of valid focal points, very few of which would be considered improper. And perhaps in a few more years, even those remaining prejudices will be gone. I’d be curious to hear somebody who, at an extreme, picked up where Rachmaninoff left off perhaps?

    Of course I’ve heard music that I PERSONALLY thought was abominable, trite, derivative, hateful. But 90% of the audience around me gave it a standing ovation. So what do I know? I’m obsessed with mid-70s spectral ideas, that were out of vogue before I even discovered them….

  3. says

    A little off-topic: I remember you once wrote you couldn’t deal with more than “x” pitches at once – I can’t remember the exact number, but these 37 you talk about now are certainly more. You’re getting near Partch’s 43 you used to find too many.

    KG replies: It’s true, I keep adding a few at a time.

  4. says

    McEwan writes so well about music. I highly recommend Saturday if you haven’t read it. This passage is saved on my hard drive in a folder called “Important Stuff.” Better in context of course but ahh well,

    “There are those rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they’ve ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself.”

  5. Anthony Cheung says

    I also found this passage (and the novel as a whole) quite enjoyable, and I wonder if McEwan consulted any musicians on the subject. Some of the most revealing lines got eclipsed by your ellipsis, so I quote them here for the benefit of your readers:

    “Clive gave a sardonic account of a publicly subsidized “concert” in a nearly deserted church hall, in which the legs of a piano were repeatedly struck with the broken neck of a violin for over an hour. An accompanying program note explained, with references to the Holocaust, why at this stage in European history no other forms of music were viable.”

    Thanks, Kyle. I enjoyed your take on “Vexations” in your last post.