Soapbox Opinion - Number 3: Philip Lawrence


Composer Philip Lawrence gets on his soapbox and gives a quite surreal blast from his spleen about our approach in the brass band movement to the works of hard working, underated and underpaid composers.

Phil LawrenceI chatted with 4BR recently with an idea for my Soapbox debate; in fact, huge debate of the cerebral kind - nothing to do with rules or regulations, adjudicators, contests or their organisers or their organisation. "So what's left to debate?" I hear you ask!

One small aspect; the music, and specifically, the criticism of new music!

The heat has died down somewhat re: (and I'm sorry to bring this one up again) the comments made by John Clark on the Nationals test by Michael Ball. But, John Clark is not to carry this can alone; here are a few titles that have invoked great spews of venom from the movement over the past few years: Prague, Blitz, Odin, Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Mowriana and even Contest Music. The list can go on and on.

I'm liable to say some things along the way that might upset people, but that is my nature. However I don't say these things just to upset - they are firm beliefs that I hold - and therefore knowing that not everyone is like me, these beliefs will clash. So, here we go with an analogy.

I hate pink - yuk! yak! Can I tell you why I hate pink (the colour not the pop diva)? Or, can I constructively debate why I think pink is horrible?

I take it on board that perhaps as a boy, I was conditioned to dislike pink as only girls and Barbie's wore it, and boys did not? So have I hit the nail on the head straight away? Will I find another 25 million in this country that hate pink? If I do, I'm still in the minority I'm afraid, as does being in the minority make my hate for pink wrong? No, I'm lumbered with my hatred for pink, even if I'm the only one.

What about if my hatred for pink was derived from a sound knowledge base? i.e. art colour and light construction, where I could prove (say, from a respected standing point in the art/colour community) that pink is a colour of little use as its basic composition of red and white are now of ill conceived synthetic 21st Century proportions - including, pink is now used for other than skin tones and flowers.

Today's pink is nothing like its counterpart of 800 years ago when pink was really pink when mixed with blood, water, red and white ochre for skin tones and flowers alone. OK, I'm really making this up now, but I'm trying to qualify with an intelligent (you might not think) line to hold up my somewhat wayward theory about pink. But I hate pink! Forest Green would have been a much harder point to argue!

Now, I'm going to tackle a subject where I feel more qualified to stand and spout, but where do I draw the line in terms of who might win such a subjective argument if it can be won?

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" or "One mans beer is another man's poison". Well, respect is one characteristic I hold where I would at least be prepared to listen to the pink supporters if one of them were Claude Monet, and the other, Leonardo Da-Vinci, as their ‘think pink' department is more knowledgeable than mine, so I might get to see their point of view on pink out of respect!

However, let's shelve the basic pink analogy and get back to music. There are many great minds that I respect in music, but from a thinking point of view and not compositional, if I had to pick three, it would be, Bernstein, Mahler and Stravinsky.

We know much about Bernstein and his lectures and teachings, and he opened his mind and theories on music to the World via TV, film, lectures and public rehearsal. Mahler conducted for a living and composed in his holidays and had real profound thoughts on religion and nature which manifested itself through music and one's soul, resulting in interpretations of Wagner's operas that have never been surpassed.

Finally, Stravinsky, the man of musical fashion who led the world in his own time, a composer who almost changed his compositional styles as quickly as his underpants! If these guys told me that all composers were wearing pink (i.e. comparison to a musical theory) this season, I'd raid the nearest out-sized Barbie shop!

Now I think I've prepared the ground on which I'm prepared to stand, so let's get on!

Music is subjective, and one has the right to say you either like it or you don't. So long that is, as you still realise that either way your likes or dislikes hold no real qualified subjective theories by merely saying "You don't like it". Slanging semantics of the well-constructed kind don't qualify either, i.e. in Geoffrey Norris read in the newspaper language.

All the arts are subjective, but some have become an everyday experience, and have become, I think, a commodity, as in buying an experience. In some arts we are exposed  on a regular basis we feel qualified to judge - or do we? Take film. We all watch film. Try this one next time you go to the cinema and you're not happy with the experience/product.

First, fully digest the film and its short comings such as, bad acting and unintelligible dialogue delivery, duff wandering script, biennale costume, stupid camera angles, over long pregnant pauses unsupported by music, boom microphones in shot, out of sync focus sounds or music that was composed and played on a Bontempi organ by a chimp wearing ski-mitts, and, the colour washed out and scratched like second hand super 8 stock.
Then, return to the box office and say you didn't like it and you want your money back, and see what happens. The box office man might say, "We've had 15,000 people through here this week to see this film and you are the first one to complain."  Are you then to say, well, this is the basis of my dislike/complaint; "Bad acting, duff script, stupid camera angles, over long pauses unsupported by music, out of sync fx sounds or Foley, music that was composed and played on a Bontempi organ by a chimp wearing ski-mitts, and the colour washed out and scratched like a super 8 film" Or, are you going to say, "Just didn't like it". Which do you think is going to get your money back? Of course, there is always the chance that it was filmed like that in the first place, so you will have to be careful ("The Producers, Crossroads, Acorn Antiques").

We are a non-complaining society these days, and our service industries are becoming less used to the idea of a complaining customer, but how many just don't complain because we do not feel qualified to? Many! Well, can we all be experts at something; it needs to be universal, like toilet paper testing? Or, I know! We all eat; we must all be experts on eating, agreed???

Unless of course, you have been taken to a curry house for the first time.

Let us also presume you are from Iceland/Norway/Finland as the novice guest. The meal is chosen for you, and you hate it, but your expert partner thinks it's the biz! Was the curry really OK, or off, or was it not the meal for our Scandinavian guest at all, and how does he know which was which? I can tell you, I've seen a Norwegian try to eat a Vindaloo, and he wasn't in a position very long to be subjective about it at all. There could have been anything perfectly horrid in it and he wouldn't have known for those first 35 seconds of chomping, followed by 4 seconds of exiting!!

Thank God composers aren't like curry houses.  I've had almost identical Madras dishes in Wolverhampton and Munich, but what I might compose for band and what Michael Ball will write will be as different as chalk and cheese, or would it, as they'd both have notes in! The brains or recipes for making music are different, but will have similar ideas on constructing the music as taught from old, unlike a recipe for Madras, which is pretty exact world wide and accepted as such. There is no set recipe now for how music sounds in the 21st Century, or is there, providing we subscribe to the theory that there is Bach, Stravinsky, John Williams and Boulez in every composition written. Just try and prove it, or find it? It can be done.

So pink Madras's aside, in a nutshell, unless you can truly qualify and quantify your criticism in a similar way that two composers might argue merits and shortcomings of each other's works, what do you do? Why not keep it to, "it's not for me", which is totally, totally, understandable, but if you not only say, "it's not for me", and decide to add, it's crap, rubbish, sounds like someone kicking a bag of mice in a car horn factory, then you've gone down the Saturday afternoon match road of a humorist description, i.e. trying to get a laugh while sounding knowledgeable. Now, why do we have this mentality? I'll tell you why - football! (What?)

Music is not a sport, and to be honest, I still have trouble with the concept of music being used as a football being manipulated amongst teams (bands) to see who can muster the most skill to get it into the goal (adjudicators favourable brain department). Everyone knows about football - it's the national game, and every Tom, Dick, Harry and Sven feels qualified in their local to judge the state of the national team or their local team using their own colourful language. But very often how deep does that knowledge go?

Even I, born in Liverpool, and in Anfield, (had trumpet lessons in Lothair Rd behind the Kop on Saturday afternoons, and that's as near as I got, as I never went to a match) can comment the next day on Beckham's conversion just because of where I was born, and with a small amount of knowledge picked up from the TV/Radio I can be an expert in my pub for five minutes of interactive banter. Should the subject expand about points, or goal aggregate I can pop off home for my tea smartish, or, give an elaborate account with some rubbish about how I saw Ian St John as a lad score 21 goals in two weeks at home!

Subjects unlikely to start fisty-cuffs in the local are: Bach's 24 Preludes and Fugues, genetic engineering, rocket science (the actual subject that is), and Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist movement. There could be some input of one kind or another but are these subjects too intelligent for local pub discussion, or am I? I'm saying, they aren't universally inspiring amongst the masses, and incidentally, my contribution in chat would only be on the 24 Preludes and Fugues alone!

Just at the turn of the century (1893) Mahler went to a concert to listen to a piece by Arnold Schoenberg, 14 years his junior. Eighteen bars went past before the audience started booing, (seems they really knew how to complain then) and old Gustav stood up to berate the hecklers. "Why can't you use your ears like men" he shouted (presumably in German); "This is bold, brave music- it is not like my music and I cannot profess to wholly understand it, but it comes from the same place as my music does, the soul, and you cannot berate music when it comes from one's soul"  - and you know, he's kind of right!

If one can understand where music is born - inside your being from a part of you which is hard to verbally express - it's a little bit more personal than making a set of book shelves for GCSE to give to your Grandmother. The work and mind set it takes to produce it, and the bravery to believe in it yourself as no one else might (in your life time), and the confidence to support it, in and after live performance! We composers need reasoning ears, not semantic based unqualified jibes.

The brass banding fraternity has very little music written for it, and what is written isn't exactly art in comparison with the 21st Century orchestral world scene. As far as I'm concerned, there are already backward paces in this year's Regional choice and none of Britain's leading concert/orchestral composers have offered anything of note to the movement over the last 10+ years (getting the message?).

Just imagine if Britten or Walton, Bax, Delius, Rubbra, Warlock, Bliss had composed for band. There are contemporaries of these that did compose for brass band like Bantock, Vaughn Williams, Ireland, Holst and Elgar - but how many times compared for orchestra? Of course in those days the movement gave less concert hall performances of a similar stature to their orchestral contemporaries, which was problem for composers. These days we have a more notorious problem to present to a willing composer for brass band: hostility and indifference, bias selection process, and a deaf ear for the new composer from unqualified critics!

Music is not a commodity in the way that one can return it if you don't like it. Although, I think it should be, as I've seen many a piece and arrangement in a band folder that should go back as either a bad arrangement, (as in unskillfully crafted), or original works that are compositional rusks for those with a over sensitive and digestive ear-hole! But how many of us can qualify this, and what kind of arguments are you going to get back from distribution and publisher who basically just post the thing?

Complaining about a works difficulty to perform as a test is not the same argument. Just because it's too hard to play doesn't make it rubbish (Richard Strauss - Don Juan for example). Those decisions are made by the faceless few, so, if you end up with a Coventry Carol Variations soprano part in front of you, blame the choosing panel not the composer, as the sop part could have been written for his mate, Maurice Andre.

We are now coming towards the end of this pink madras football theory of mine, and I'd love to hear what you have say in terms of, for and against my ideas; but before my ultimate wrap up, here is a short list of great works that got panned on their first night premier;

Beethoven 3 (1st movement in particular); Brahms 1; Russlan and Ludmilla Overture/opera; Walton's Belshazzar's Feast; Rite of Spring; Rachmaninov 1; La Boheme – Puccini; Force of Destiny – Verdi; Symphonie Fantastique - Berlioz, to name but a few!

Criticism is constant in all walks of life. I can tell when a cornet is being played badly. If it is a student playing, we are taught (and rightly so) to encourage and not put off the efforts put in. However, if we hear a professional playing badly we are also conditioned to criticise and berate for expecting better. They probably play 99% of the time better than you, but it's an opportunity to have a go and get your educated 10p's worth of adjudicators spout out to impress!

As grown human beings we don't like our failings to be brought into the bright light of public exposure, but we cannot be knowledgeable about everything, even football, DIY, fixing the car, PCs, F1, fishing or rugby, or, musical composition.

Let's use our ears a little bit more like Mahler suggested, be more sensitive about how music is compositionally brought about, and remember, if you don't like it that is only your opinion, and you may (and are welcome) stick to that basic fact. If you wish to dissect it compositionally as in analysis of form, harmonic structure, using correct analytical procedure, if you can, do so, but using semantics to describe how it sounds to your ears is only how you see it!

If you do want Art to be created more often in the future within our movement then be patient and let it happen, don't kick it because it doesn't sit well in your ears - it just puts off potential new composers to our movement. And, as I've said before, if you keep giving composers a hard time you can look forward to; "Beatles Medley No1" at the 2012 Regionals Section 3 or "Jolson's Favorites" for the Royal Albert Hall 2018.

Phil Lawrence

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