I spent the weekend of 7th-9th December 2018 at Benslow Music, Hitchin, Hertfordshire for what, over the last few years, has turned out for me to be an annual Tooveyisation or Hug-in with Andrew Toovey, or, what I signed up for, ‘Composing with Andrew Toovey’.
Each year, amongst other things, ‘homework’ consists of being presented with a CD and a score or two referencing music that I suppose Andrew thinks you might not have come across, different for each member of the group; the task is to listen, follow a score or two, and make a written assessment of what you experience in order to make a formal presentation to the group so that everybody benefits from the variety.
One of the questions Andrew poses is – what does the listening task do for you? Last year, I was excited by being introduced to a symphony from the 1920’s by the Dutch composer Matthijs Vermeulen. What did it do for me? It suggested the idea (still current!) that if you gave me a tame symphony orchestra that would be the kind of piece I fondly imagine I’d do for them!
This year I had CD & score of a short early (1937) choral piece by Olivier Messiaen: O Sacrum Convivium (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0__tgrjTkc) and a CD (without score) of a 38 minute violin & piano piece by Bryn Harrison called Receiving the Approaching Memory, a recording of which is at https://youtu.be/yf1tKcMsq7s … Intriguing & captivating title!
Having acquired the habit a very long time ago, I operate mentally with a completely automatic virtual question at the back of my mind which in every kind of situation, provided I’m on Top Form, goes: How Can I Connect This with That? I recommend the process! Whatever ‘this’ & ‘that’ happen to be… Presented with these two pieces, without having to think about it I began to wonder, other-than-consciously, in the deep dark pit of my brain, how a modern, let’s say ‘minimalist’, relatively lengthy piece of music for violin & piano could be connected with a fairly conventional, choral work lasting a tenth of the time.
O Sacrum Convivium has no time signature which pleases my home-spun approach to musical composition. If anything, I wonder if it could be ‘4½ over 4½’, or ‘3/8 + 3/4′, three quavers & three crotchets to a bar. Lovely close chords and a stunning climax more or less at Golden Section.
On the day, my Latin, certificated O-ly in 1954 and A-ly in1960, translated the text thus: Blessed sacrament Christ is involved in; we remember his passion and our being is full of thanks being mindful of his future glory [the climax]. We are in hostage to his blessing.
The only word that, supposing it was ever there, didn’t remain with me from Caesar’s Gallic Wars (…in tres partes divisa est... etc) was pignus which Andy’s swift Googling told me meant ‘pledge’ or ‘hostage’ so I might have done a mistranslation for my presentation – it should perhaps strictly be that he pledges us his blessing…
I suppose I chose ‘hostage’ because it expresses my feeling towards orthodox religion: so many are in thrall to what I regard technically as a crock of downright piffle. Minds, like sheep, have been led astray from a proper estimation of the truly religious (or spiritual) life by a ton of invented words about ‘praise’ & ‘glory’ & ‘passion’, ‘reverence’, ‘sacrifice’ & ‘prayer’.
Orthodox religion presents us with an optional trance – one that we do not have to choose to be in, one that is well capable of putting ‘buffers’ between all the hocus-pocus and human life as we live it: so-called ‘Christian’ politicians (like the one who is supposed to represent me) are quite happy to bomb the living daylight out of people they disagree with in the cause of a ‘holy war’, when the excellent Sermon on the Mount, along with all the great religions, suggests that a good policy is to ‘resist not evil’ and treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself.
In the same way as most music that comes from an orthodox religious source, O Sacrum Convivium puts us temporarily into a very well-composed trance; we can easily believe whatever it says and does and sounds like. It’s very moving in its musical effect on mind & body, but the words are still piffle, in my humble opinion – let us not be bewitched by the words, whilst still allowing ourselves to be capable of being very moved by the sound of the music. It strikes me that conventional words actually get in the way of any sense of awe that comes with the trance of spiritual Nothingness when you can manage to get into it.
The paradox is that, in spite of all the piffle, there’s Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Penderecki’s St Luke Passion, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius without which my life would be severely impoverished. What do they speak to? Whatever it is in me that responds with gusto to the concept of ‘Novissima hora est’ (Gerontius), finds the metaphor appropriate to every day, every hour & minute – we die to ourselves every moment and the sound of doing so is ‘like the rushing of the wind – the summer wind – among the lofty pines…’ At least that is what I aspire to in ordinary everyday life.
I referred to Meister Eckhart, medieval mystic, who had the right idea. At home, in my library, checking back over the Benslow weekend I located a quotation from CFKelley (Meister Eckhart on Divine Knowledge): ‘…It is quite clear to Eckhart that a realization of pure contemplation is not reserved only to the final posthumous condition of the soul in the ‘beatific vision’, but is a present possibility. God can be known in the same perfection and blessedness can be in the same mode in this Me [now] as in the life to come…’ Contemplate the stars in the night sky, says Meister Eckhart, that’s all there is to do; fully realise that there is something-or-other much greater than self. That’s a ‘holy’ life-enhancing trance.
I take the view that all life is a trance that lasts from birth to death. The life-trance is broken up into goodness knows how many minor trances. We live a long meta-trance which encompasses countless minor trances. I hope I managed to bring this idea to life for Andrew’s little Benslow group by relating directly to the then and there: I suggested that when we look & listen to Andrew we’re in an ‘Andrew trance’, that, during the course of our discussions, apart from the overall listening trance, we’d been in many trances dredged up from our individual past – every memory we have constitutes a trance that becomes current when we think about it. There’s being-a-child trance, a growing-up trance, an old-age trance, different for each of us. I referred to the kinds of trances I had observed in the fellow members of the group. David is often in a playing-the-lute trance or a doing-Dowland trance; Huw is often in a mending-old-instruments trance or a creating-new-instruments trance; Andrew goes into a separate-rooms-for-separate-activities trance while Renate has a chain of trances that takes her from a making-works-of-art trance to a writing-poetry trance to the trances of playing-the-bassoon and composing; Andy goes into a struggling-to-get-his-ideas-out trance. And, all that time, I was in a chin-wagging trance and nobody was going to stop me – a similar trance to the one I fancy Andrew himself is in when he’s teaching!
What’s the point of analysing things thus? Well, there are life-debilitating trances as well as life-enhancing trances. I catalogue a life-debilitating trance more or less as an ‘oh-bloody-hell-here-we-go-again’ trance with which I’m all too familiar. The advice would be to stop every now and again during the course of ordinary living to ask yourself whether the trance you are in is one that’s appropriate to the task in hand – if not, one can develop the habit of switching to one more likely to result in, let’s say, a successful outcome – substituting a life-enhancing trance for a life-debilitating one that wasn’t getting you anywhere.
For several minutes before I started talking generally about trances, I had begun playing the CD of Bryn Harrison’s Receiving the Approaching Memory in order to establish its truly spiritual trance-like quality. I left it running while I continued, pausing every so often to draw attention to the fact that whilst it was cast in five separate tracks, after each brief pause, the loose textures and mesmerising repetition of phrases confounded expectation of a fresh start or new theme by simply more or less continuing from where violin & piano left off in the previous track. When I got over the mild shock, I found this as seriously amusing as the opening of Schnittke’s first symphony where silence occurs when the conductor raises a baton only, when it comes down, for the orchestra to continue to make the same tuning up sound as they were making before he arrived.
I pointed out that the CD sleeve containing Bryn Harrison’s piece of trance-delight offered no explanation for its title thus respecting the role of listeners as interpreters, leaving it to them to invent their own sleeve notes which most of this essay is intended to be – what I would have written as a programme note and then rubbed out. On the other hand it satisfies me greatly to have come to the conclusions I have arrived at off my own bat – I usually completely ignore sleeve notes, guide-books and instruction manuals anyway.
The enigmatic title raises a number of questions. What is an ‘approaching memory’ when ‘memories’ are usually thought of as things you’ve already had? Who is to do the ‘receiving’? Are the players, through the music, demonstrating ‘receiving’? Or is the music something to do with suggesting to listeners that they might consider preparing themselves for ‘receiving’ future Memory, presupposing that being possible? Is there such a thing as Memory in the abstract? Or are we talking about the active nature of ‘remembering’, collecting together ‘things-remembered’ in order to help us receive in a more resourceful way future remembering trances?
Apart from the title there are two things printed on the CD sleeve that perhaps help resolve the puzzle a little: the first to strike you, of course, is Mike Walker’s painting which could very well be a graphic score – violin & piano might have been improvising the sound of its convoluted entanglements. The music gives the impression that it could very well be the result of two people playing to the painting, pausing briefly each time they get to the bottom and returning to the top four times subtly varying what they were doing each time
The second is what I later found to be a well-known quotation from Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1911):-
Wherever anything lives,
a register in which time
is being inscribed…
After the weekend, searching for the quotation on the Web, I found the following useful commentary from The Image of Law by Alexandre Lefebvre:-
Evolution exemplifies internal difference. What is evolution in fact? It is life in time… Bergson: ‘wherever anything lives, there is, open somewhere, a register in which time is being inscribed…’ In other words, and this is not a banality, life occurs in time – it can be understood only by a concept of internal difference, that is, continuous change in time. In relation to life as internal difference (evolution). Bergson repeatedly insists that organisms are expressive not of states but of tendencies… In Creative Evolution, Bergson is primarily interested ‘not in the thing produced or evolved but the activity of evolution itself’ which is why organisms are expressive not of states or definitions but of movement and directions. Organisms are representative of directions – or tendencies – of life over time and the continuous alteration of life that accretes over time. ‘Organisms are therefore relatively stable, and counterfeit immobility so well that we treat each of them as a thing rather than as a progress, forgetting that the very permanence of their form is only the outline of a movement… Indeed, without considering internal difference, change in evolution could only be accidental and would occur only as a result of an extrinsic determination… With the concept of internal difference, however, Bergson is able to provoke a reading of evolution as both modification between organisms over time and also the internal variation of an organism…
Like the Autodidact in Sartre’s Nausea, I was more than content, felt justified in fact, to find that somebody else had written about the Bergson quotation in the same kind of way as I had applied my own thought-process, on first hearing, to Bryn Harrison’s piece; Receiving the Approaching Memory conveyed to me the same kind of things that Alexandre Lefebvre refers to!
There’s a looseness of texture, the piano seeming to be playing the same sequences over and over again but then you notice the constant variations, gradual simplifications and complexifications, round and round, with the violin bouncing off each phrase but much more freely, wispily even: a constant evolution – ‘…modification between organisms over time and also the internal variation of an organism…’
You might begin to wonder if the piano is the ‘register’ of time’s inscription, the long basic trance, while the violin gives us all the little trances, time’s tick-tock, or even a brief dose of memories coming from the future. Sometimes the piano’s phrases become more assertive and the violin has to conform or disappear – the suspension of time in order to receive the remembering of things to come.
When the piano is a little more assertive one might think of it as one of the persisting organisms – ourselves perhaps – which seem to be ‘…relatively stable…’, able to ‘counterfeit immobility’ – just as we do, imagining on a fine summer’s day that we will live forever – doing it ‘…so well that we treat … [ourselves] as a thing [being] rather than as a progress [becoming], forgetting that the very permanence of … [our] form is only the outline of a movement…’ doomed to evolve and move on without our active comprehension, forgetting (perhaps to maintain our sanity) that ‘life occurs in time’.
We are not the fixed states we like to think of ourselves as but merely tendencies, momentary trances, constantly changing, giving way to the Trance of Life. There is life as it is lived from day to day and then there’s the remembering of bits and pieces of the long past assembled randomly in parallel, violin & piano. Sometimes we choose to let past memories influence what we like to call ‘the present’ – violin sometimes marginally more definite, impacting on the play of the piano.
But, in the end, it’s all completely Absurd, in the technical sense – there is no ultimate purpose, it all just goes round and round in Sartrean existential meaninglessness,
one takes hold of events and establishes projects in order to be able to be in the right frame of mind for Receiving the Approaching Memory in a prepared and resourceful way so that one develops one’s very own set of meanings, a super-awareness of the trances one goes through which, in the end, is a matter of being able to assert ‘This is me here and now, being me here and now, in this valuable trance…’: if this were a solid belief, David might find it useful to say, ‘I’m being me in a playing-the-lute trance or a doing-Dowland trance’; it would be good for Huw to repeat solidly, ‘I’m in a mending-old-instruments trance…’; for Andrew to grasp at, ‘I’m now in a separate-rooms-for-separate-activities trance’; Renate to stake a positive claim for the chain of trances that takes her from a making-works-of-art trance to a writing-poetry trance to the trances of playing-the-bassoon and composing; Andy might want to swap his struggling-to-get-his-ideas-out trance for something like, ‘This is me being me here and now in a just-doing-it trance…’ I long ago got myself out of a dreadful ‘being-terribly-shy-trance’ in order to establish a future perfect ‘chin-wagging trance’ which I’ve got quite used to doing. Being able to receive approaching memories in a resourceful kind of way is a useful knack. It is a knack that gives life personal meaning.
Towards the end of Bryn Harrison’s piece the piano seems to resolve on to a phrase something like this:-
What did I get from this experience? The idea of the music representing a philosophical drift or trance that I feel very happy with – it spoke to me in a way that was very familiar and got me to describe it in a novel way. Technically, it reminded me that I would like to make compositions that divorce me from the organised regular crotchet & quaver & minim that sit obstinately set square on my staves – I’d like more twiddles & wispiness – at least as an experiment!
Never mind that!
Renate very wisely said that the way the repetitions in the music were constantly changing illustrated how future memories would always be different from those of the present. Even the way we imagine we remember past memories now is constantly evolving.