Talking with other artists – a commonplace book

Posted on March 29th, 2024 by


To a young composer  26 03 24

Now the reason I wanted to mention dear George to you is his idea about composing – and there was no one who THOUGHT harder about music than he! The first time that I met, he talked about Wordsworth. More to the point, he talked about Wordsworth’s couch. George had identified the couch on which Wordsworth lay and composed ‘Daffodils’ ; he knew this because, as soon as he walked into Wordsworth’s ‘Dove Cottage’ in Cumbria, he saw the couch and immediately intuited that he and the poet worked in similar ways.
“Look,” he said “he would lie on this leather couch and then, in the middle of his dreaming, working the poetry out, he would rise from the couch, go over to his desk and write.”
“For oft, when on my couch I lie /In vacant or in pensive mood, /They flash upon that inward eye /Which is the bliss of solitude /And then my heart with pleasure fills, ‘And dances with the daffodils.” (Poems 1807-‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’-William Wordsworth Lines 19-24)
George knew this, because that is how he liked to compose. In fact, Wordsworth had successfully described the very act of composing, somewhere between a ‘vacant’ or a ‘pensive mood. ‘Talking about the composition of his ‘Caprice Variations’, he described lying on his couch, dreaming the music, working it out, his eyes closed. When he was sure that each variation was worked out, entirely in his head, without an ink-stroke in sight; then and only then, would he leap up, Archimedes vaulting out of his bath, ‘Eureka !!’.  rush to his desk and write it down.
I was always grateful for that – and hope that you might understand why I have send you the thought. Looking forward to seeing what happens!!!

George Rochberg with Marius Sheppard Skaerved. Newton Sq. , PA, 2001


To Robert Saxton 29 03 24 (2 am)

Whenever I wonder what we are reaching for, I put my hand to the poetry shelf behind the table here, and pull down this. Chaucer’s birds have set the bar as high as it can go!
‘[…] for I was waked
With smale foules a gret hep
That had affrayed me out of my slep
Thorgh noyse and swetnesse of her song.
And, as me mette, they sate among
Upon my chambre roof wythoute,
Upon the tyles, overall aboute,
And songe, everych in hys wyse,
The most solemnpe servise
By note that ever man, y trowe
Had herd, for some of hem song loew,
Some high, and al of one accord.
To telle shortly, att oo word,
Was never herd so swete a steven
But hyt had been a thyng of heven-
So mery a soun, so swete entewnes,
That certesm for the town of Tewnes
I nolde but I had herd hem synge;
For al my chambre gan to rynge
Thurgh syngynge or her armonye:
For instrument nor melodye
was nowhere herd yet half so swete,
Nor of acord half so mete:
For there was noon of hem that feyned
To synge, for each of ghem peyned
To fynde out mery crafty notes.
They ne spared not her throtes.’
Chaucer – ‘The Book of the Duchess’ Lines 294-320
To – ‘fynde out mery crafty notes’ and spare not ‘her throtes.’ That’s what you and I do, ‘I trowe’.

The composer’s Hand. Robert Saxton demonstrates how he builds material in my notebook 2017

Waves (and Kites)

To Robert Saxton 25 03 24:

‘The Red Kite (Milvus Milvus)  is the most fantastic bird-if you walk/drive in the Chilterns, you will see these fantastic eagles with triangular tails. The population has been growing exponentially in the last 20 years, from almost none in my childhood, helped by protection and better farming practice. They are completely unafraid of people, so unlike Buzzards, you will often see them at close quarters. We might see one on Wednesday!
I have a feeling that […] is coming at the rhythm/shaping question from an interesting, but somewhat sequestered point of view: of course, my answer is conditioned by the fact that very little of your quartet is IN 6/8 (only 21 bars or so). So here goes:
In my years of playing and studying your music, what I have come to know, understand and love is an intensely natural quality, and one that has to do with observation and being. How to explain this. Partially I have Saint-Expury in mind: ‘Mon dessin ne représentait pas un chapeau. Il représentait un serpent boa qui digérait un éléphant.’ What do I mean by this – well, take wave forms – say waves in a storm: we can all think of how Turner, or Vernet, or Peder Balke, or Hokusai might depict the same wave (all different), however none of these would relate to the experiences of a  sailor, an albatross, a dolphin or a surfer in the same circumstance.
Some artists have come close to an ‘everything all at once’ depiction/representation (Leonardo obviously), and you. Robert Saxton is acutely aware that every form, every dynamic, every shape, every emotion is multi layered, polyphiloprogenitive, and multivalent. It will go up and come down at the same time, in the same way that a number might be increasing whilst the rate of increase is decreasing.
Or take conic sections: It was Hypatia of Alexandria who, in her commentary on Apollonius of Perga’s systematic work on their properties, noted the polyvalency of such, entirely based, of course on how the cone was viewed the hyperbola, the parabola, and the ellipse – and the most special ellipse – the circle.
I would draw an analogy here to Bach or de Machy le Sieur’s conceptions of ‘doubles’, as intersectional manifestations of the same Gestalt as the apparent original, not variations (which Italo Calvino toys with, in the semiotic/architectural realm in ‘Invisible Cities’. AND Bach very often writes 6/8 as an expanded 3/8 (see BWV1001) whilst allowing 3/16 to flower from and within it.  The one thing that should never happen in all of these circumstances, and music’s waves, gyres, vortices, Jigs, and Lagrange Points, is to try and pin it down. It has to grow, dance, live, die, brighten, darken, ebb and flow, all at once.
It’s just like sailing – if you watch a great helmsman at work (today that would be Nathan Outredge, Ben Ainslie, Tom Slingsby, in the past, it would have been Joshua Slocum or Frances Chichester, you can see that whenever they carve a line from tack to tack, it is a series of curves, moving through the bent space of the water, the arc-ing energies of gusts and squalls, the dynamics within the boat, and the the movements of the crew, from couterbalance to breath. And even stasis is movement:
‘-the swan’s down-feather, That stands upon the swell at full of tide, And neither way inclines.’ (Antony and Cleopatra 3.2.56-60)
He’ll come to it, and his instinct is right, but he needs to be a pluralist. When I first met dear Michael Tippett, when I was 18, he said to me: ‘Dear boy, you are a fundamentalist, thinking that only one thing can be right at any given time … come back to me when you are a pluralist, and then we will talk.’ I did, and we did, and it changed my life!’

PSS with Sir Michael Tippett 1995


Letters to a non-responsive old friend;

(15-12-23)It has been such a long time since we were in touch: and over this morning’s coffee, I realised that I had been having a long conversation with you for much of the night, so why not write a letter.  I do hope that you and yours are well, and hope you won’t mind a rambling letter. I suspect that the reason for our nocturnal to and fro was that I am, for now anyway, freed from the creative obligations and we also had a significant family milestone this week. I signed off a somewhat mad autumn of travelling, performing and filming (mainly in the USA), with a cluster of quartet and solo recordings in the past seven days (new, wonderful quartets for us by David Matthews) and on Tuesday, a glorious – I think – solo sonata, by Robert Saxton, who has been a close friend for many years, and wrote this in a strange dialogue with my drawing/painting (another story). It’s a wonderful, big and physically challenging piece, and was my companion on the road this autumn ( I performed it a number of times in the US, and in Cyprus, Croatia, and here). The effort to bring it off, especially in front of the microphone, has an interesting effect, and its still ringing in my fingers. […] So now it is time to stop for a few weeks, and catch up with projects that need consolidation. I have been making films on the instruments at the Ashmolean, Metropolitan Museum and the Library of Congress, and we are about halfway through editing those. Malene goes to Denmark for this week prior to Jul, so things are quiet, and I can work around the clock, which is my idea of a quiet time. Malene and I need to finish the book we have been writing together, which is close now. But one of the great things about my 8 weeks on the road this autumn, has been the reading. The Ovid Fasti , and Athaneus, have been a companion in my bag, along with Melville poetry, which I have become a little obsessive about, and an extraordinary history of the world from 20000-5000BCE by John Mithen, After the Ice, which Marius put my way.
Most of the solo and chamber recording that we do is in a wonderful hall in the middle of a field in the Chilterns, built by the Rothschilds in the 1880s and restored a few years ago (it is both silent, warm and inspiring – I don’t enjoy purpose-built studios). It’s about an hour’s walk along the Ridgeway from Tring Station, so one of the pleasures of recording, which I really love anyway, is the walk before and after the day’s work. I like to arrive early, to be there when my engineer sets up, and am always the last to leave. We recorded with the quartet in the morning (another new piece – effective but not really chamber music  -that’s another conversation) – and then I spent two hours on the Saxton Sonata. By the time that was done and we were packed up, it was about 7 pm, and pitch black outside. But I know the path very well, especially the first couple of miles, where the Ridgeway runs through the Beech, Oak, and Yew woods of Tring Park. It was pouring with rain, and as dark as I have ever experienced, but just marvellous. I always felt sorry that Leonard Bast had not enjoyed his nocturnal amble from Wimbledon Station, and wondered if he would have found this equally disappointing. But I was in a good place: a day spent with my dear friends in the quartet, with my lovely engineer, recording a piece a loved, and looking forward to spending the next day with Malene and Marius. Never was a drenched musician happier.
So now I should make some progress on this day. When I am at home, we go climbing (just a few minutes away) to start things off: so that’s the next stage. It clears my head, and works very well with violin practice. I hope that you are having a lovely day. Perhaps I might be able to buy you that cup of coffee, or even make you on? We have been promising that for over ten years now.’

Berkhampstead-Tring. Misty Morning. Lineside Fire. 10 12 13