Of music

When I left university with a First Class music degree, I had endured many complications through rejecting the current course of Classical music. My total aversion to composition based on dissonance and discord meant that I was at odds with the current trends my love of harmony was deemed backward. I coped with this in the knowledge that “ordinary” people know better and I determined to write for them.

The time since my graduation is little more than a decade. Perhaps my perception was wrong then. Or perhaps things have changed rapidly. But the “ordinary” people cannot be relied on to preserve a more warm and pleasant taste in music. Time and time again, my scores are sent back for review because the production company’s client says my music is wrong. Sometimes this is a red herring - a client playing a mini power game, whereby it needs to find a fault before sign-off. But it is too common to be just that. The music is rejected if there are harmonic changes that develop over 8 bars, the music is rejected if there is a melody more than 4 notes, the music is rejected if it attempts to reinforce changes in the visuals, the music is rejected if there is not a continuous droning rhythm in the background. This is therefore not a matter of style but of musicality. In order to satisfy clients (who in turn are applying their musical judgment on behalf of their customers) the background music must attempt to say nothing. It should be a forceful sound, it should be confident, and it must be meaningless.

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This is beyond challenging for a composer - not because it is impossible to satisfy such a brief (banal though it is) but because to do so would mean setting aside all the skills of the composer. Just this week I received an invitation to trial a new software programme of an AI Composer’s Assistant. I would put in the parameters and the machine would “write” a track. Of course, there is no reason for any musical knowledge if that is all that is involved. And I am sure that the computer would write something with the appropriate treadmill effect to please the average listener today.

Once upon a time, the Salvation Army could stand outside a strip club and attract people by their harmony in song. Perhaps it was merely their propaganda, but they claimed some left the club because the music on the street was better. It requires no endorsement of the Army or the saving properties of music to observe that this could not happen now. People do not hear things in the same way. Where there is still appreciation for melodies and harmonies it is usually because the music has been known for a long time.

While this is a problem commercially, it does not affect the truth about music.

From my scribbling book

From my scribbling book

I have enjoyed setting and memorising as many metrical Psalms as possible in the last year. There is no better way to get the words into your head. And, having the words there, you can contemplate on them when your hands are busy and your mind is idle. The song is there to be sung. It is true. The melody helps you learn. With a few exceptions, I am composing new melodies for each Psalm to aid in memorisation. Then, when time permits, I scribble down a version in a blunting pencil.

As a Christian musician I do not want prizes, I do not want fame, I do not want praise. For the sake of bread and butter, it is necessary to display skill and to try to be paid. But these Psalms are what matter. My scribbling book could be lost and yet I would still know them. Wherever I am, I can praise the Lord in words He accepts. There is no higher purpose for a musician’s skill, nothing which makes us feel so inadequate to the task. And striving thus for his glory, the fickle whims of clients are seen in their true perspective.

The Bible and the Composer

One of the matters I sought to refute in Beauty and Joy: The Christian Nature of Music is the idea that the best art made by Christians is art with content drawn from the Bible.

Paul Westermeyer advocates - or rather assumes - this:

If you emphasise Christ’s humanity at the expense of his divinity, you might choose music that affirms our humanity - music that relates to us who are beings with bodies. If you follow this logic, the music may be rhythmic and perhaps even sensuous. Or may be the highest possible art.

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The Siren Song of Music

Carl Davis & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

Thursday 12th July 2012, 7.30pm

Programme:

  • SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet

  • CARL DAVIS (b.1936) The Rainbow

  • LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Allegretto from Symphony No.7

  • CARL DAVIS Amazons, Sophy and Dr Harrison from Cranford Suite

  • JOAQUÍN RODRIGO (1901-1999), arr. Carl Davis Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez

  • PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Black Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake Finale from Swan Lake

  • JOHN LENNON (1940-1980) & PAUL McCARTNEY (b.1942) Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane

  • JAMES HORNER (b.1953) Titanic Suite

  • ALEXANDER FARIS (b.1921) / CARL DAVIS / PETER SALEM Upstairs Downstairs / Call the Midwife

  • MONTY NORMAN (b.1928) / DAVID ARNOLD (b.1962) James Bond Theme / Casino Royale

  • SAMUEL BARBER (1910-1981) Adagio for Strings

  • VARIOUS Fantasy on Liverpool Themes world premiere

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Show - don't tell (The Wind and the Lion)

Christians in art say that they make films as they do in order to communicate the Gospel message. So they usually have a strongly "Christian" perspective in terms of characters, setting, even story. And because it has been regarded as a sine qua non of Christian film that there should be an absence of the real, dirty, sinful world (violence, language, sex, drugs, smoking, dancing ...) this has made sure that many Christian films are sanitised bubbles.

Watching The Wind and the Lion last night brought home an alternative view.

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Dmitri Tiomkin and Maurice Jarre: Musical Terrorists?

On the way back from a family holiday, we spent 7 hours moving a few miles down the motorway. The police had decided to blow up a van in a suspected terrorist incident. It turned out that the owner of the van was not a terrorist but an antique dealer who had parked the van and gone about his lawful business. Either way, we had a very tedious journey and we had almost run out of music and audiobooks. What we had left was a 4 CD box set of the music of Dmitri Tiomkin.

If anything, Dmitri made a bad situation worse. After getting halfway through the first CD, we resorted to sitting in happy silence, counting the cars and watching people stretch their legs on the motorway. Anything but listen to it anymore.

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