The Green Man – A Parody

The Green Man

The hill rose green above the lake.
On it, as I looked, there sat
Upon its crest, holding a rake
A green-clad man, both short and fat.

The green beneath was neat at last.
The man atop smoked "green" in green.
A moment, ere the man had passed
It was a most relaxing scene.


This little piece of silly verse is a parody of Mary Coleridge's poem "The Bluebird", immortalised by Charles Villiers Stanford in his incredible musical setting. To hear it sung by the Swingle Singers, click here. 

* * * ALT NOTES FOR HEADSTUFF * * *

Greetings from sunny Berlin! I'm currently here singing with Tenso Europe Chamber Choir, and enjoying the sun, the famous Berlin falafel and boating on the river Spree!

I'm also delighted to be featured on headstuff.com's series "Alt Notes". Shell Dooley fired a few questions my way and I answered them as coherently and unpretentiously as I could manage. Let me know what you think. 

Link to the blog here.

Thanks for having me on your series, Shell. :)

#WTF

I am a feminist. That is to say, I like to consider myself a feminist. However, as a straight white male born in the Western world in a body I identify with, with all the privileges that come with that, it can be difficult sometimes. I don't mean that it's difficult to be a straight white man, or even really that it's difficult to be a feminist – although it's sometimes difficult to get people to understand why I'm a feminist. I mean that it can sometimes be difficult to remember to be a feminist. Sometimes it can be easy to forget just how privileged I am, simply because I was born male to white, Western parents. 

 

The programme for the National Concert Hall's celebration of 100 years of music since the Easter Rising, Composing the Island, was recently published, and I was delighted and proud to find myself included as one of 4 Irish composers with featured world premieres, and one of 91 living Irish composers to have a piece included in the programming. (This is purely because I sent a piece to Paul Hillier, Artistic Director of Chamber Choir Ireland, who found it suitable for the purposes of the concert.) I made the customary facebook post, told my mum, and went about the rest of my day feeling pretty chuffed. Sure, I had a look at the rest of the programme, but nothing much stuck out to me as wrong with it. 

So what is wrong with it?

Out of 4 world premieres, all 4 have been composed by men.
Out of 91 living Irish composers, only 17 are women.
Out of almost 200 pieces of music, only 23 are by women. 

I didn't even notice the staggering discrepancy until my good friend, the composer* Jane Deasy pointed it out. This is what I mean when I say that it's difficult sometimes. It's difficult, going about in a world where I'm not passively excluded or overlooked due to my gender or race, to remember that there is a vast chunk of our society who are excluded and overlooked. It's well and good for me to give myself a little pat on the back every time I programme a female composer in my own choral concerts**, but how can I justify it in the context of not even noticing that barely a quarter of the living composers represented this September will be women? 

 

The blame for this doesn't lie with any one person or body. So far as I am aware, each individual performer/performing group in Composing the Island was responsible for their own programming, possibly with NCH oversight. Of course, in concerts of older music it's more or less inevitable that men will be more prominently featured. The privilege we still enjoy today is thankfully greatly diminished when we consider the privilege enjoyed by white men 100 years ago. However, in concerts of contemporary music, it truly is unforgivable. But in the majority of cases, I highly doubt it's malicious. It's nobody's fault

And yet, it's everybody's fault.

I failed to notice the gender imbalance in the programming, simply because I didn't think to look for it. In the same way, those who put together this programme probably simply didn't think to include a significant number of women – like those who put together the Waking the Nation programme announced by the Abbey last year, like those who curate almost every artistic exhibition, series or programme. It is certainly not that there is a dearth of active female composers in Irish society. I don't have the statistics off the top of my head, but any idiot can glance at the Contemporary Music Centre Website and see that more than a quarter of living composers represented are women. All it would take to be more inclusive would be to think about it a little more. When I set up Dulciana with the goal of performing a significant amount of music composed for upper voices by women, I thought it would be relatively difficult to come up with more than a couple of concerts. A year and a half on and I've filled an entire notebook with potential programme ideas centred wholly around the music of individual women. My mind was blown at how easy it is to find the sheer volume of pieces of music written for this relatively niche grouping, that isn't performed simply because no one seems to look for it. In many cases, (as in the case of Imogen Holst) the music is still in copyright, but out of print, and there is no way to buy it. I could, (and I may) put on an entire hour of music composed or arranged by Imogen Holst for upper voices, and yet most of it is rarely if ever performed. Upon rehearsing it, it became obvious that the reason for the neglect could not possibly be the quality of the music. It matches the music of Gustav, and in some cases outshines it.

 

Imogen Holst is just one woman out of many whose voice wasn't given its due in her day, and is still being ignored. I won't even begin to go into the tragedy of Rebecca Clarke. It is bewildering to me that this sort of thing is ongoing in the 21st century. And yet, it is my fault too, because it took a woman to point it out to me, even when it was laid plainly in front of me. Feminism, I am learning, cannot be a passive attitude. It cannot be something we take out of the box when it suits us. Feminism must be a conscious daily decision, or it too will go passively un-noticed by the status quo. 

If you are a female composer and would like Dulciana to programme your music, drop us a line on dulciana.vocal.ensemble@gmail.com with a link to where we can find your music, or check out our call for scores

Since writing this blog, I had an encounter with a barber – straight, white, male – who was complaining about the congestion in Dublin's city centre on June 25th. The congestion had been due to the Pride parade. "Why do they need pride?" he asked. "Sure they got gay marriage last year. You never see straight people asking for a pride parade." To my shame, I stayed silent, because I didn't want to rock the boat. I was only there to get my hair cut, and he wasn't cutting my hair. Passivity beats equality again. 

 

*As though the mere word "composer" could possibly begin to describe the phenomenally broad contribution Jane makes on a regular basis not only to contemporary Irish music, but also theatre.

 

**For those of you not in the know, I run a female voice vocal ensemble who are committed to an annual concert consisting exclusively of music, new and old, by female composers. Even with this, and including music by women as much as often as I think of it in our other concerts, our programming regrettably is skewed towards music by male composers.  

An Die Freude

In the wake of this week's referendum in the EU, words fail me. Though we are becoming politically divided in this great peace project of ours, I hope we can remain musically and artistically united. To paraphrase Bernstein, I hope we can "make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before" in the name of unity, equality, friendship, peace, freedom, democracy and tolerance: everything that the European Union means to me, and everything that the majority of British voters regrettably failed to see, when confronted with the appalling narrative presented to them by Boris Johnson and his ilk over the last two decades.  I hope that we, the European community, can move on from this tragic result and continue to make beautiful music and art and progress together.

 

 

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

or

It’s “interesting” but is it "good"*?

 

Something one often hears in the field of contemporary classical composition (and other art forms, I’m sure) is the label “interesting”.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been at concerts of contemporary classical music and afterwards heard the audience talking about how “interesting” such-and-such a piece was, always avoiding making an actual judgement call on whether they thought the piece was good or bad, or even whether or not they liked it. Generally speaking, I find with pieces of music of this type that appreciation of the music is dependant upon having read a programme note, or having had the composer explain his or her concept of the piece or process of composition. I often wonder if the audience members would have found the piece “interesting” if they had only been able to listen to it, and not know anything else about the piece other than what it sounds like. I often suspect that the answer would be no.

 

For a number of years, the trajectory of contemporary classical music has tended towards music composed by process – music generated by algorithms or programmes; music generated by chance; music generated on the spot according to pre-defined rules which the performer must follow. These processes are often very interesting, and often produce a very interesting sonic effect, but is it good music? Occasionally, an extra-musical element is thrust upon the audience to varying effect: concerts in complete darkness, or blindfolded, or where the performers are seated among the audience. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps some of this type of music would be better labelled theatre, or even philosophy, as the reason given is usually that the performers/composers are confronting or challenging the audience’s pre-conceived notions of what a performance is. This is all well and good, and is often done to great effect (as in Kirkos ensemble’s recent Blackout series) but I think that what composers, performers and audience members alike must continually ask themselves and each other is “concept aside, is the music good?”

 

In other cases, the audience and performers is presented with modern programmatic music. Very often, this is music that is compelling to the audience, enjoyable to perform, by all generally accepted conventions “good”. However, when the programmatic element is revealed, the piece is raised to another level altogether, wherein musical moments which were previously simply compelling take on a clarity and brilliance. I was lucky enough in 2014 to perform in such a work. As part of the Cork Choral Festival, Chamber Choir Ireland had commissioned a work from David Fennessy, the result of which was Letter to Michael for 16 voices. It’s a dense, intense work, full of semitone glissandi and overlapping layers of sound. We were all enjoying the rehearsal process, and then David came in and told us what his inspiration for the piece was:



“A few years ago I came across an extraordinary image by a woman named Emma Hauck (1878-1920). It was of a page of text written so densely in pencil that it was almost completely black and more or less illegible. Hauck was a patient in the psychiatric hospital of the University of Heidleberg and in the summer of 1909 wrote many similar pages in the form of letters to her husband Michael, begging him to come and collect her. The text consists simply of the phrase ‘Herzenschatzi Komm’ (Sweetheart come) written over and over again, many hundreds of times or simply ‘Komm’ (Come). It seems the letters were never sent and her pleas were left unheard.”**

 

With this programme note in our minds, the reason behind the texture of the piece suddenly became clear, and our performance of it necessarily gained an understanding and ability to communicate to the audience. This was an already good piece that only became better with explanation. There are countless other examples throughout music history of pieces of music that stand on their own two feet, but with the addition of a programme note are elevated to another level of engagement altogether.

Often, however, one comes across the opposite – pieces of music wherein an audience or ensemble without such a programme note would be left floundering in an obscure mess of abstract notes. Music that they may describe as “interesting”, but would hesitate to describe as “good”. Upon receiving the necessary wisdom from the composer, the piece will usually become “more interesting”, but rarely seems to become “more good”.

 

In many cases, I find that the concept is simply a veil to conceal an inherent weakness at the core of the composition itself. Composers who have failed to write compelling, engaging music have to hide their art behind a curtain and, like the Wizard of Oz, would be revealed to be severely lacking if only the audience had Toto to run in and pull back the curtain.



I suppose that this all leads to one really crucial question: is “interest” enough for a piece of music to be “good”? Should a piece of music be able to stand on its own two feet without extra-musical input, or is it OK for music to need to be propped up by something external? For me, the answer is no.

 

 

*I have purposefully not gone into the minefield of what actually could be considered “good” music, and whether it’s a subjective or an objective label.

 

**Taken from the Chamber Choir Ireland website.