Musical Training and Background
At 7, I was too young to start the individual instrument lessons in my primary school so I joined the orchestra as the sole recorder player. The following year I signed up to play a woodwind instrument: first choice flute, second choice clarinet. Every woodwind candidate was given a fife for a month. Those who mastered the fife the most quickly were given a clarinet, the slower learners were given a flute. Group lessons in the clarinet were not easy, but I was an eager member of not only the orchestra but also the wind band.
I sang, whenever asked. One teacher set up a small singing group and we were regularly taken out of class to practise. We attended every inter-school music competition, with lots of fun and not one trophy. We spent months learning songs of World War II in preparation for the anniversary of VE Day. It was my extra confident singing in school assemblies that contributed towards my leading role in the school nativity play in my final year, with around 5 solos. At the Leavers' Show, I sang Andrew Lloyd Webber's Memory with such emotion that one of my former teachers came to check that I was all right.
Secondary School was a happy continuation of primary school music, with one significant difference. I was now one of 1,600 pupils and one of 250 new pupils who all felt lost. With an older brother already in the choir, I joined too. I took my clarinet to Junior Orchestra. I was in the department every week for my individual lessons too, so it became something of a sanctuary.
During my first year, I auditioned to become Sister Sarah in the school production of Guys 'n' Dolls. I was 11 and thought I would get it because I knew all the words! As it turned out, the cast was already in view before auditions began and there were two lovely ladies of 17/18 picked out for the romantic lead, sharing Sister Sarah. My audition was therefore a disappointment. I was asked to read a few of Adelaide's lines and have a go at Take Back Your Mink. Knowing that I had not got my wish, I lost any remaining inhibitions and threw myself into the part, in a youthful imitation of the film version's Adelaide. In after years, the Head of Drama, when hearing first years complain that there was no point auditioning because they would never get the parts, told the story of my casting. Ok, it was only as understudy. But I got one night and one matinee and worked my socks off.
There would be no more musicals. The year group that had carried that performance were the last bloom in the previous generation. When they had gone, my new peer group were not capable of acting and singing. They wanted to do karaoke to their favourite songs and lacked the necessary discipline. So I returned to the routine of choir, orchestra and clarinet lessons. We visited Liverpool Philharmonic Hall as a choir. I thought that concert fair, although I enjoyed the camaraderie of the green room far more.
It was a significant step to take Music as a subject at GCSE. It was only possible because the criteria had changed. Two instruments had been needed. Now, only one. I signed up.
The first year was disruptive because one of my music teachers had no choice but to leave. I did not know why. I just felt the cool atmosphere and tried to make her farewell demonstrative of how much she had been appreciated. Her replacement was young, not so stern, and willing. We played clarinet and piano before school. Work went well. My compositional coursework was The Polaris Piano Suite and a string quartet, which we recorded live for submission.
Concerts and shows were regular events. Around this time I also entered the local music competition, at the request of my clarinet teacher. There were 4 of us in the woodwind heat - 2 flautists and 2 clarinettists. The winning flautist was selected because she was so good for such a young age. The winning clarinettist was selected because she was older and needed the encouragement. My friend and I, both losing for opposite reasons, called it a day. We had far more fun singing in the local old folk's home.
By the time I reached A Level, the head of music had left under similarly odd circumstances. His replacement was very pleasant and capable of meeting the little ones where they were in terms of keen karaoke to popular songs. He introduced a gospel quartet into our rehearsals, with class practice and school practice, culminating in a multi-school concert in Liverpool Philharmonic Hall.
The ordinary choir and orchestras continued and I pushed towards Grade 8 clarinet. The A Level class was asked to visit all the local primary schools and get the whole school to hear us perform and to sing with us. It was a challenge, under the experienced and cynical eyes of tired primary school teachers to have such amateurs muddling through. I was by now so much a part of the music department that visitors assumed I was a member of staff. However, reality came in the form of exams. At AS Level, my composition portfolio did not do as well as my teacher had hoped. My lovely TV-style music did not show every compositional skill in the book:
So she took samples of my work to the examiner to ask for advice. He gave some frank comments, which I took on board. My A Level composition portfolio consisted of orchestral film score for The Paper Crown - a tale of the Wars of the Roses - and a fully arranged ensemble piece for a musical version of The Little Princess. I got 100% and wondered if this meant that I was improving.
I went to my local university on the strength of the music department's course guide. It boasted a fantastic number of options and the possibility to abandon subordinate skills like clarinet in preference to composition and more composition. I was very keen and this was in no way hurt by my being awarded a generous Alumni Scholarship, covering all my course fees for three years of study and leaving me with enough spending money to feel rich. Two more awards were given, on the basis of my continuing to excel academically. But that success belied that fact that all was not well.
I liked composition. I would compose in my free time. I had written TV themes, film scenes, songs and little instrumental pieces. They had all taken an age because I had to use pen and paper, or recorded into my keyboard. But the effort had been worthwhile and my own choice. I enjoyed the delight in the eyes of others when they heard my music, like the Christmas concert at the end of secondary school when my music teacher and the R.E. teacher had played my composition to a full hall. My favourite composition by this time was my Visions in Water:
Composition began at university with a session run by the Society for the Promotion of New Music. We were given 45 minutes to compose a string quartet prior to its live performance in front of our (still unknown) peer group. It took some courage to ask to use a piano. That session introduced me to the idea that musical ideas are "hard to come by" and that compositions can be "constructed" using telephone numbers for intervals. I thought that was about the most stupid thing I had ever heard and wanted to write a devastatingly beautiful piece of music to show them how wrong they were. But panic set in and what I produced was mediocre. I was scared. The composition tutor who had run that session played my first piano work a few weeks later in front of the whole class - he played it at double the notated speed. I interrupted to inform him of the mistake. But rather than perform it sympathetically, he continued to murder it until the final bar, as a lesson of what can happen if you notate on the computer.
I hoped for more understanding from my other composition tutor. He seemed more approachable and presented himself as a Church of England member. His music certainly was horrible. But he seemed nice in himself, so as a class we tried to overlook his compositions. He was very insistent on tutorial time and I attended my first tutorial with a completed draft of our first assignment. He had instructed us to write 8 chords, with increasing dissonance, and by taking one note from each, to produce a lot of "melodies", which we should then weave into a piece. I thought that was daft and that by writing a piece in its entirety (with a few nods to demonstrate the skill required), I might be permitted to write my own pieces. I based my piece around sleep, so that the increasing dissonance could be explicable, as someone went deeper into a dream. It was a monumental mistake because the tutor was a disciple of Jung and believed in the interpretation of dreams. He immediately pronounced my dreams too "nice". We soon got to know each other well enough that he could insult me and I was too cowed to reply. My music was "too innocent". I was "too naive". When I skipped university for one week to attend, by invitation, a Christian film festival in America, he suddenly changed gear. How could I be such a fool as to think faith had anything to do with art? My explanation was simply that I am a Calvinist and his face and his words both expressed the same, "No? I thought you were extinct?"
After 9 weeks of tutorials, I was thoroughly controlled. He told me to change A to B one week and next week said that A had been better and he didn't know why I had done B. He destroyed my own ability to judge, my confidence to know and my joy in composition. The piece was a chimerical mess and I had no clue how to finish it. Then he told me I had done such poor work it would barely pass. It was all part of his game. Here is the pointless composition in question. It lacks direction and purpose. It does not communicate. It is not even interesting as a noise. In contrast to my youthful but blooming school-age compositions, this is dead.
When I entered the second year of study, I continued composition and this tutor was my only supervisor. He was more positive: this year he would make me join the avant-garde. I was easy prey but I bizarrely thought that could get the better of him. For the choral assignment, I set a lovely soft poem that could stand no dissonance or brittle treatment. And he liked it. My word painting was good. My word setting was fine. Encouragement? Then he started to play his game. Perhaps some instrumental music between? Perhaps a change here and there? He whittled away until the original song was destroyed. Only my duet was left, the second assignment. I was writing a work for harp and violin, with full pedal notation for the harp. He hated it. He really hated it. So I kept going. It was the musical equivalent of driving blind, because I was by now so lacking in confidence and intuition, my skills that had been "natural" had evaporated under his mistreatment, so my only guide for good music was that he objected to it. He insisted on having drafts in between tutorials and he returned them via post.
One tutorial, I arrived with my critiqued score that I had received in the post. I knew the questions he would ask. I knew he expected me to justify every single thing I had done. So rather than surrender to the red pen of "corrections" I told him exactly why I had done everything to which he had objected.
"Isn't it incredible? I had this and now you have it." He was referring to my score. I gave half a glance. "It's called the post service." I carried on explaining my composition.
"Is this yours?" He held up a pen he had found on the piano, anything to stop my flow. "No." I carried on. He did not know what to make of this pupil now I was standing tall and confident and refusing to be bullied. He just watched, bewildered.
By next tutorial, he was angry. When I explained my work, he blew up. That was the last tutorial I endured. And I did not take composition for my third year.
I focused instead on film composition and enjoyed that enormously. I graduated with First Class BA (Hons.), one of two given by a rather stingy music department who had a policy that no one could achieve 90% unless they were Mozart.
It had not gone according to plan. I was supposed to leave university with skills, contacts and opportunities. Instead, I was demoralised and lacking in confidence to play, sing or compose.
My higher education had destroyed what I had taken with me and left me with many questions.
Was my composition tutor right, that there was no connection between music and faith?
Why do they all want you to play modern crappy pieces that make no sense?
Why was I banned from playing Classical music for my solos?
How can you compose good music when no one will respect music according to its pleasant sound?
So many questions and no answers.
And that is why I started to write.
I penned "Jubal's Children" as an exploration of music from a Christian point of view. I avoided any reference to my university experience and tried to present the other side. The manuscript toured a number of publishers. Evangelical Press was quite keen, but they didn't care for my promotion of singing Psalms in public worship, and for that reason they refused to publish. Day One said the same. They invited me to expunge the promotion of Psalms on the promise of publication. I refused. I was advised to contact IVP, but they said that I should go to the Americans, who "prefer to read that sort of a book".
I did not have the answers yet. And neither had I found any encouragement. I set "Jubal's Children" aside and focused on picking up scoring commissions. I had started a business with my brother, making DVDs on castles, and I scored our first film. It was something because at least the audience loved it. Another castle DVD followed. This time I included a song and it reached the finals in a film score competition. That was almost like approval. Almost.
I returned to writing. I still wanted to be a polite contributor to the world of music and put my point of view across with criticising anyone else's. I wrote Beauty and Joy: The Christian Nature of Music. And the response floored me. I thought I had solved a big problem in understanding music, but my contact with readers showed that they didn't see that there was a problem, so my solution was very nice but ever so unnecessary. By this time, the effect of writing the book had been that I had lost my fear in composition and started to regain technique. I was not the same as the little school girl, with so much hubris, but that was not necessarily a bad thing. I was composing again.
Music Mania: How the Victorians joined the cult of Classical Music and why England has never been the same since is the book I needed to read when I was at university. It is a new history of music set into the changes of culture through the transformation of religion. It shows how the musician came to be regarded as a prophet in society and how he got sufficient power to do whatever he wanted, how he became drunk on his own godhead and lost the ability to write. It was a correction for my own mind and cleared the dust that had been kicked in my eyes.
There are no more awards. No grand successes. In many ways, I have opted out of the system that could approve of me, and that is fine. I made a 2015 foray to St. Andrews because my music had been selected for performance by Voces 8, but largely (I suspect) because they had few entries and truly (as I was told) to make the famous singers perform as SATB for fun. I was alongside a student whose music was not finished, a lecturer who had taken up composition a year before, and an A Level student who was being hot-housed to compose "right". She had already conformed to all that they desired her to be and it was she - not I - who was commissioned to write a new piece for the Voice Festival the following year.
The system cannot stand any criticism. All my professors thought themselves to be mavericks, but none of them were. They were in sinecures, promoting the death of music. I could not join them but that did not automatically mean I knew what to do or where to stand.
As time goes on and I worry less about music, I have started to explore the wider picture of society and culture. No Earthly Good: The Christian in Culture was a first attempt to deal with Romanticism and I am currently writing an extended work that examines heresy, revivalism and fiction. I cannot regret this road, for it is only by looking back that I can see how alluring the system of humanistic music is. It is only through my failures and rejections that I have been forced to think rather than be approved and accept the applause of men.
- Abigail J. Fox
Wednesday 28th March 2018