The rest is...

Peter SeabourneTue 19th April 2016

'One must listen to one's own silence, not everyone else's noise.'

To talk of silences... Matisse observed, 'Whoever wishes to devote himself to painting should begin by cutting out his tongue.' But we have the incessant noise of a babbling, (social-)media-driven age; a noise verging on a scream. Everybody talks but few remember how to listen (at least not for more than a few seconds), and sadly that too often includes those in the music business. Hamlet would complain that there is not actually much left of 'the rest'. Along similar lines, Sibelius once said that the first thing a composer needs is silence. But where to find it now? 

My own path to and from silence has had two strands - stilling the noise within and confronting the noise without.

In the little goldfish bowl of contemporary music there have been many powerful, well entrenched and authoritative noise-makers - some already on their way to early canonisation - and no shortage of 'gospels', too. 'Any musician who has not experienced the necessity for the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch,' or 'I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler'.

How ironic that those who most railed against Romanticism so embodied that most Romantic of notions; the artist as superman. Serialism, yesterday's lost cause, is no longer with us, but I have personally sat around tables with today's irrefutable illuminators. It is a brave, and thus predominantly an unperformed, young composer who dares to insert his earplugs.

From an early age, and for reasons lost in the mists, I became fixed on becoming a composer. These words are carefully chosen, for I am not sure I remotely comprehended what it actually was 'to compose'. Yes, to assemble and sequence notes and to revel in their sounds, albeit in my juvenile, naïve way, but to compose? Beecham wryly noted of the English that they do not understand music; they only like the noise it makes. Growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, I experienced a series of thunderbolt revelations as each discovered masterwork hit my 'blank canvas'. But, the noise they made was wonderful!

Now, in my mid-50s, having taught children for a quarter of a century and seen a good deal of music education, I more fully appreciate how by the end of my teens I was full of delusions, empty of technique or voice, and, worse, much worse, already propped up on a little pedestal, sailing along the conveyor belt which the music business had ready and waiting for 'the next great young thing' like me. Student pieces were suddenly on London stages and in festivals; there were prizes in competitions; my name in the papers.

For the first time I started to hear the work of other living composers, both young contemporaries and more established voices. The novel multiplicity of these, each with its easily recognisable surface, was at the time quite bewitching - aleatoricism, machine-music, clusters, complexity, simplicity... 'Cataloguing' them was almost sufficient, and yet, simultaneously, there were already nagging doubts.

One day I asked a rather famous composer for lessons, taking along some of my scores. In just a few candid moments he revealed that I had precious little talent and still less technique, adding as an olive branch that I could leave a few melodies in his pigeon hole if I liked. Resentful, none were supplied! I did not stop writing then, but six or seven years later, with his words increasingly ringing in my ear. Ironically, not so long ago, I helped to commission a work from him and gently recalled our encounter! Despite a little embarrassment, I thanked him most sincerely. Such honesty should be more widely available to those running along conveyor belts.

So - I had stopped.

Concurrently, contemporary music's thin veneer of attractiveness also started to peel away. The 'cataloguing', it increasingly seemed, was almost the sum of the experience - one patented one's 'trademark' and thus acquired a listing. As long as there was 'no surrender', no retreat, you were in.

In my silence, freed of trying to create work myself, I was finally, unconsciously, acquiring the tools to listen and discriminate; to find my own framework. And the more I listened, the less I liked. Two-dimensions all nicely dressed up with theories, ego, a coterie of adoring adherents, and a good PR machine are still just two dimensions. (My inspiring, idiosyncratic Cambridge teacher, Robin Holloway, had long been shining his own interrogator's beam in the same direction.) There must be a search for other roots (and routes).

My hibernation, lasting some 12 years, proved a needed cleansing; an entering of that wonderful, necessary feeling of emptiness which Janáček always sought prior to composing. It was not just a matter of purging, though - I taught children! They neither share nor acknowledge woolly 'clichés', flimsy arty conceits, pretentious posturing, or bombastic iconoclasm - but they are often incisively perceptive. I learned to say deep things more simply - to show them the beauty I had myself discovered when young. 

In 2001 what had lain apparently silent, once again suddenly made some noise - a personal and coherent noise - a noise disregarding, unchained, wilfully itself. A noise that was, to use that ugly modern cliché, 'fit for purpose', at least for mine. I have no time for mysticism or religiosity, but when it 'arrived', for that was my experience, it seemed fully-formed, distinctive and complete - the pen moved itself - it made sense.

It is, to my mind, a great sadness that many aspiring composers have been deafened by the orthodox noise, and the orthodox noise-makers. Looking back at the acres of that officially 'non-useless 12-tone music', lying unloved, unplayed and unwanted by musicians or public, one sees just how difficult, yet how imperative, it is for a young composer to resist the 'needs of his epoch' - there is too much talent-fodder. One must listen to one's own silence, not everyone else's noise. Grieg said, 'Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights. I only wanted...to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home.' The home, as well as the temple, can contain the profound, and there one meets fewer preachers.

And having mentioned composers in Norway: a few years ago, the music flowing again, I was asked to contribute a short violin piece to a suite based on Munch paintings for a festival near Oslo. There were 14 other composers, all selected by the great Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud. I remember thinking, 'I will be laughed at: the old-fashioned, English sore thumb.' But as the concert progressed I discovered that Henning had artfully gathered 15 'sore thumbs'. So there were other voices like mine - all (sorry dear friends!) possibly irrelevant to the needs of their epoch, and yet communicating something personal, as yet unsaid, but not simplistically or self-consciously 'new'. 

With tinnitus and deafness encroaching perhaps my next compositional silence will be simultaneously both noisy and quiet.

Peter Seabourne

Peter Seabourne's work has been broadcast in Norway, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany and US. The Italian label Sheva Collection has issued five CDs of his pieces. Visit www.peterseabourne.com for more information and to peruse free-to-view scores.

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