Steffen Schleiermacher tells us that his knowledge of British culture derives in its entirety from TV crime dramas of the Midsomer Murders/Inspector Lynley variety, which presumably explains why these are the stupidest booklet-notes I’ve ever read. ‘The British?’ he asks. ‘Are they the people who after a day at the bookmakers, do not retire to their homes but to the nearest pub? Once there, they gorge on salt and vinegar crisps and during a game of darts, get drunk on many a pint?’ Cricket, village greens, tea, weather, gardening – Schleiermacher’s insights into our 21st-century national psyche, each badly translated, continues apace. Now call me John Bull, but when it comes to dredging up such stereotypes, Germans are on uniquely shaky ground, unless there’s something about their famous sense of humour I’ve missed. When he asserts, though, that British music remains aloof from developments in central European composition, Schleiermacher is on sturdier terrain, and only an outsider could – rubbish booklet-notes forgiven and brilliant playing to the fore – tell us so much about our musical DNA.
Let’s further that ‘crisp’ analogy. Schleiermacher focuses on four composers who have stood determinedly outside the ready-salted mainstream. They’re all pals: Finnissy’s Tango is dedicated to Skempton, who dedicates four miniatures to Finnissy; Laurence Crane’s Chorale is for Howard Skempton; a second Finnissy Tango is dedicated to Crane, who writes a Birthday Piece for Michael Finnissy. Only Richard Emsley has nothing dedicated to him.
So, poetic justice aplenty as it emerges that Emsley is the aesthetic pivot around which ‘British!’ swings. Because the real monkey-puzzle here has nothing to do with potato snacks, or Midsomer Murders in a post-John Nettles era, but why non-mainstream British music deals up zillions of notes or hardly any at all; how come Finnissy’s ‘complexity’ and Skempton’s ‘simplicity’ have more in common than either man has with, say, Oliver Knussen. Emsley jolts form out of alignment with content. Surface busy-ness is placed in tension with forms that evolve only gradually. That’s scale not form, to quote Morton Feldman, whose Triadic Memories Skempton mined for the tightly meandering structure of Notti stellate a vagli, with its recurring, crinkle-cut melodic fragments.
What it is to be a ‘British’ composer following not the usual narratives but using Feldman, Cage, Satie, Ives et al to rethink basic notational principles. Perhaps a more appropriate title might have been ‘British?’.