New music, like whisky, needs time to mature

James McCarthyThu 5th October 2017

'Great music doesn’t reveal itself to us all in one go, it slowly seeps into our souls'

Five years ago I was commissioned by Hertfordshire Chorus to write a new choral work about Alan Turing. The finished piece, Codebreaker, was premiered at the Barbican in London in 2014. It was performed there again the following year. It was recorded last year (with the BBC Concert Orchestra joining the fun), and will be performed again on Saturday in St Albans Cathedral. It was also performed several times in America earlier this year by two choirs (Nashville in Harmony and Once Voice, Charlotte), members of which have flown over to the UK to take part in the upcoming concert.

This number of performances for a big new choral work is unusual. Indeed, this level of engagement by performers with a new piece of any kind of music is, sadly, far too rare an occurrence. Why do I say ‘sadly’? Many of the great masterpieces that we listeners hold most dear received either disastrous or ill-attended, or even just plain careless and mediocre premieres. Bruckner’s Third Symphony, just to pick one example, the premiere of which was conducted by the composer himself. According to accounts, the musicians approached the music with supreme indifference, Bruckner wasn’t quite up to the job of wielding the baton (one witness noted 'It was a pitiful and scandalous spectacle to see how the young players in the orchestra made fun of the old man's incompetent conducting’), and as the performance progressed large sections of the audience simply stood up and walked out. The piece was then mauled by the critics.

So, what saved Bruckner’s Third Symphony from oblivion? Two things: first, different performers who were able to commit to the composer’s musical vision and engage with the music in an open-hearted way, and, crucially, further performances.

The overwhelming majority of new music being written for choirs and orchestras today will only ever be performed once. I believe that this is simply not enough. For new music to get into the hearts of musicians and audiences alike it needs to be performed and heard several times. Imagine a Hollywood film being produced in which only the first takes for each scene were used. Or, imagine if Apple had stopped producing mobile phones after they had made the original iPhone in 2007, saying ‘well, we’ve done phones – what’s next?’

I’m not for one moment implying that having a piece of music premiered isn’t a wonderful thing, indeed it is one of the most mind-bendingly wonderful things that can happen to any composer. But what I’ve learned by hearing Hertfordshire Chorus return to Codebreaker again and again, is that there is far more to this music, there is far more in this music, than even I knew was there.

It’s like whisky. You distill it, making it as perfect as you can; this is the premiere. Then you pour it into a cask that has probably previously been used for the storage of sherry and leave it in a warehouse for 10 years; these are the further performances. The result of this immersion, this ‘aging’, for both the whisky and the music is an increased richness, complexity and nuance. Good music takes time to mature, takes time for all of us, whether we be the performer, the listener or even the composer, to realise what it actually is, what its essence is, and what secrets it has to tell us about itself.

It is a tribute to orchestras and choirs like Hertfordshire Chorus that they show such enduring commitment to new music. And there are institutions that are actively trying to promote second and third performances of neglected works. The PRS Foundation’s ‘Resonate’ scheme, which is a fund to support repeat performances of new orchestral repertoire, is just one example.

Yet, I wonder how many great works we have lost just in the last 50 years because the music hasn’t been allowed to take root and blossom beyond its premiere performance? Music is a constant mystery to us all, which is one of the reasons why we are so attracted to it. Great music doesn’t reveal itself to us all in one go, it slowly seeps into our souls. And it can only do so through repeated listening, through repeated performance, and through recording.

The premiere recording of Codebreaker by Hertfordshire Chorus, BBC Concert Orchestra, soprano Julia Doyle and conductor David Temple is released by Signum Classics on October 6

There will be a performance of Codebreaker alongside Will Todd’s Ode to a Nightingale at St Albans Cathedral on October 7 at 7.30pm. For ticket information, please visit: https://www.stalbanscathedral.org/whatson/music/codebreaker

James McCarthy

James is a composer, and Online Content Editor, Gramophone, Songlines and Jazzwise

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