Sunday, 1 January 2012

Well, Well, Howard

Well, here's to 2012! It's going to be an interesting year (gulp?)

BBC Radio 3 opened it by broadcasting a new piece by one of my favourite contemporary composers, the ever-fresh Howard Skempton (b.1947). Written for church bells and demonstrating the art of change ringing (ringing tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns), the piece, called Five Rings Triples, was performed live by bell-ringers in Kingston upon Thames. It's the first of 20 new works, each lasting 12 minutes, written for a London Olympics project called New Music 20X12. The Olympics organisers are making a lot of bell ringing, as this article from today's Telegraph shows. 

In change ringing, melody isn't the thing. It concentrates instead on the permutation of patterns of notes - which is precisely what Howard's beguiling new piece does. The pleasure for the listener came from listening to the permutations, which always touched on certain fixed notes at particular stages of each presentation of the 16-note pattern (most obviously, always the same note at the end) - and, of course, from the enchanting sound of church bells ringing! Howard Skempton explains what he was up to here and the piece is available online for the next seven days. 

One sharp-witted musicologist (Wikipedia tells us) described Howard's music as "the emancipation of the consonance", in contrast to Schoenberg's self-proclaimed "emancipation of the dissonance". If you want an idea of how consonant his music can be, please try his orchestral masterpiece Lento (the very piece the musicologist was referring too). I think it's one of the most hypnotic and magical pieces of all contemporary music and must have heard it thirty or forty times without tiring of it. Lento is a slow, sublime procession of major and minor chords. These harmonies are made gorgeous by the luminous scoring, which is beautifully transparent yet rich. I often find myself humming along to the main melody. It feels timeless and every time I hear it and it ends and I get that disappointed feeling that it's all over again, I wish it actually was timeless! If you can imagine lying on grass and losing yourself in mystical thought while watching clouds floating by on a sunny late-Spring afternoon, then you might get some idea of how I react to this piece of music. Three of his loveable piano pieces, Saltaire Melody, Sweet Chariot and, a great favourite of mine, the oddly touching Well, Well, Cornelius, are performed here.

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