On paper – Kick It: A Social History of the Drum Kit by Matt Brennan


Kick It: A Social History of the Drum Kit
by Matt Brennan
Oxford University Press 2020 (371 Pages, ISBN: #978-0-19-068387-0)

Reviewed by John Earls

Matt Brennan starts his magnificent social history of the drum kit by citing one of the many frequently made ‘jokes’ about drummers based on the stereotype of them being unintelligent (in fact all chapters start with ‘jokes’ concerning drummer stereotypes). He then demonstrates how the supposed stupidity of drummers is rooted in the history of racial stereotypes (primitive-savage drummer) and goes on to explain how the drum kit is “not only a product of musical ingenuity at the turn of the [twentieth] century, but also an outcome of massive historical changes in human migration, trade and engineering, beginning with the forced migration of the transatlantic slave trade”.

This is an ‘academic’ book (Brennan is Reader in Popular Music at the University of Glasgow) and the book is rigorous and detailed in its research and analysis. But it’s an incredibly rich story that Brennan makes sure never gets dry in the telling. It’s a riveting account of the importance of drums and drummers in music’s history (and future), deftly done through a largely chronological narrative cleverly structured in chapters focused on six ‘drummer’ themes: clever, noisy, studious, creative, working and indispensable.

We see the development of so-called ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ music with drums and drummers confined to an inferior status both between and within musical genres, and are then taken on a journey through the development of jazz, rock, and hip hop that challenges and upends many perceptions and myths.

The book also covers the role of drums and percussion in classical music which has its own ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ story. The French composer Hector Berlioz, for example, published a guide for composers that divided percussion into two categories: a first order of instruments with recognisable pitch (e.g. timpani, bells, glockenspiel) and a lower order of “noises designed for special effect” (e.g. bass drum, snare drum, cymbals) which, as Brennan points out, would form the core components of the drum kit.

Of course, composers would later write works for dedicated percussion ensembles including Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation, John Cage’s Quartet for Percussion, and Steve Reich’s milestone piece Drumming.

The role of jazz is central to this story, including the evolution of styles, development of equipment, and status of drummers. Gene Krupa, the ‘King of Swing’ and ‘World’s Highest Paid Drummer’ as a 1939 Slingerland catalogue has it, is identified as playing a key role in all these aspects.

Many jazz greats are also woven into the narrative, with Max Roach and Kenny Clarke rightfully explored.

The chapter on ‘Working Drummers’ is particularly good, capturing drumming as a “distinct form of musical labour” and showing not only how the economic and cultural value assigned to a drummer’s work has changed over time, but “how the seat behind the drum kit became a gendered workplace”. Brennan examines the tragic story of Karen Carpenter and suggests that it can be used as a kind of parable to illuminate a bigger picture of the sexist social conditions faced by women drummers. The same ‘social history’ approach helps explain why nineteenth-century American drum manufacturers tended to be overwhelmingly white.

The book is also good on the raw deal that drummers often get in respect of musical authorship using Clyde Stubblefield, who played in James Brown’s band, and his role in Funky Drummer as a case study.

Two ‘star’ drummers often perceived in the ‘wild animals of rock’ mythology are John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) and Keith Moon (The Who) and Brennan writes brilliantly about their styles and roles in their respective bands, but also movingly about issues concerning lack of self-esteem.

By contrast, the role of modest rock drummer is exemplified by Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones) who whilst undoubtedly extremely knowledgeable and skilful at his craft is more interested in praising the artistry of others – “there are a million kids who can play like me”.

Brennan neatly challenges this in a nice piece about the Stones Sympathy for the Devil and its opening groove and shows how comments by Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger reveal how “Jagger’s ignorance comes across on several levels”. (By the way, Mike Edison’s Sympathy for the Drummer – Why Charlie Watts Matters is another excellent book, but it’s a rollicking read of a very different type).

The final chapter explores the relationship between drums, drummers, technology and the rise of the machines. It’s a fascinating take on the “back and forth influence between acoustic kit drummers and beatmakers” such as J Dilla. Incidentally, the relationship between drummers and technology is not just about electronic devices. One of the best examples explored earlier in the book is the ingenuity of drummers and equipment manufacturers in respect of the bass drum pedal.

This is a wonderful book and Brennan has done a great service to drummers and all lovers of music. As he says himself “we are all drummers now.”

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union (and a former drummer). He tweets at @john_earls

For more information and to purchase, visit the Oxford University Press website

Igor Stravinsky – three personal favourites on the 50th anniversary of his death

by Ben Hogwood

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky was a true revolutionary, and at Arcana we are looking forward to exploring the music behind that revolutionary voice later on in his anniversary year.

For now, here are three personal favourites of mine. The first is the ballet Petrushka, written in 1911 when Stravinsky was emerging from the influence of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. This was the piece that switched me on to the composer’s colourful and descriptive sound world, highlighting his thoroughly original harmonic thinking:

The second is a much later ballet, Agon, written in America in 1957. By this time Stravinsky had explored a number of different styles, and was beginning to push the boundaries of tonality along with a new, more austere form of orchestration. In spite of that, there is an appealing warmth to the sparse textures of this, his final ballet:

Finally, a true favourite – the Symphony of Psalms. I was fortunate enough to play the cello in a performance of this and I can honestly say it was one of the most enjoyable 25 minutes of my musical life. The first chord is quite unlike anything I had heard before, but as the piece progresses Stravinsky’s use of the choir and orchestra is highly unusual for anything written in 1930, culminating in a wonderful, meditative Laudate Dominum that could easily go on for eternity. This performance conducted by Pierre Boulez is one of the best:

Stay with Arcana for some exciting explorations of Stravinsky later in 2021, but for now raise a toast to a wholly original voice.

In Concert: Berliner Philharmoniker – The Golden Twenties concerts 2-4 conducted by Marie Jacquot, Thomas Søndergård & Christian Thielemann

With an almost complete absence of live music in Europe currently, online concerts are a relative godsend – provided you are willing to stare at the same screen you might have used for work earlier in the day. With this in mind, Arcana took the opportunity to visit the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall, with the purpose of watching the orchestra’s Golden Twenties festival.

This celebration of one of the most vibrant artistic periods in Berlin’s history centred on the instrumental music of Kurt Weill (above), with imaginative repertoire choices putting his music into a helpful and contrasting context. His teacher Busoni featured briefly, along with Hindemith, Eisler and Richard Strauss.

More of Strauss later, but having reviewed the first concert – with a fine Berlin premiere performance of Weill’s First Symphony – Arcana watched the symphonic sequel with the Karajan Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker, energetically directed by Marie Jacquot (below).

Their programme included two fine Weill pieces but began with the Suite no.3 for orchestra by Hanns Eisler. For a composer whose songs feature relatively often in recital, Eisler’s orchestral music is scarcely heard. This is a shame because it is packed with good tunes and more than a dash of humour – which Suite no.3 enjoyed. This brisk, and in some cases brusque piece, had an appealing and gritty determination, with elements of the baroque toccata in its forward momentum. The instrumentation is that of a band rather than an orchestra, with guitar and snare drums taking prominent roles, which also appeals – and the playful rondo worked well, even though it could have had more of a smile on its face. There was excellent musicianship in this bittersweet account, topped by the muted trumpet of a soft-hearted intermezzo.

Weill’s Violin Concerto was next, a substantial work written for soloist and wind orchestra – but with no strings, an innovative set-up predating Stravinsky’s own work for piano and winds. The baleful clarinets in the opening statement reflected the composer’s feelings on the passing of his teacher, Feruccio Busoni. As the movement got into gear the movement was more mechanical, driven on by soloist Kolja Blacher (above), with considerable tension at the end of the first movement. A more playful second movement nocturne ensued, with pinpoint xylophone contributions, before an authoritative cadenza and an affecting Serenata with a high line. Blacher was particularly impressive here, technically secure throughout and broadly expressive. The finale had a strong sense of purpose, again superbly marshalled by Jacquot. A poignant pause ensued but was followed by a headlong rush into the closing pages, the soloist at the wheel, and the orchestra superb in their pithy contributions.

Weill’s Second Symphony followed the interval, a substantial piece which actually received its premiere in Amsterdam in 1934. With a tighter grip on the musical material than the first, it features an economical use of the orchestra. Here there were lovely solos from the woodwind but with a good deal of forward momentum and bite to the strings. Ensemble was tautly defined throughout, and there was a nice element of humour in the unexpectedly jaunty theme for the Largo second movement. Impassioned cello and flute solos led to an intense apex of feeling in the middle. Jacquot, whose conducting was clear and sprightly throughout, urged the players on in a tightly controlled third movement, with bustling rhythms and a longer, meaningful trumpet solo before a quick rush to finish a really excellent concert.

Due to Coronavirus a few adjustments had to be made to the third concert. Replacing Sir Donald Runnicles as the conductor was Thomas Søndergård (above), making his Berliner Philharmoniker debut – which as a result meant the substitution of works from Schreker, Berg and d’Albert with works by Sibelius and Prokofiev.

The scheduled Kurt Weill performance, the suite arranged by Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg from The Rise and Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny, just about kept us in 1920s Berlin. Prior to that we heard the suite from Prokofiev’s opera The Love For Three Oranges, completed in 1919. Prokofiev’s music of this period is all about energy, dissonance and wit, and Søndergård was great to watch as he brought these qualities to the fore in music we seldom hear live nowadays. There was a satisfying heft to the orchestral sound, and while the performance could have gone even further with its sardonic wit, the turbulent finale was very well done, as was a keenly felt slow movement with richly textured strings.

Søndergård specialises in the music of Sibelius, and the Sixth Symphony is one of the Berliners’ most-performed symphonies from his output. This account had sumptuous sound and control as its principal merits, a compelling beginning cutting to an exceptionally fluid faster movement. Similarly the second movement, with a wavelike profile, had wonderful sound, while the scherzo was notable for its clear as spring textures. In the finale the conductor’s use of silence proved key, as did Sibelius’ notes themselves of course. Conducted with passion, this was a satisfying account with a reverent ending.

By this time the ear was yearning for the festival’s main character, Kurt Weill – and the smaller band used for The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny gave us the highlights of the concert. Weill does not tend to feature in Søndergård’s repertoire, so one wonders how long he had to learn it – but he was inside the score with obvious enjoyment, allowing the players to express themselves and encouraging them to play with the tempo stylishly. Trombone and alto sax were excellent in the Moderato assai section, while the interlocking brass in the Molto vivace made a beautiful sound. The final Largo held most of the emotional cards, however, with a driven march bringing us home convincingly.

Christian Thielemann took charge of the fourth concert, a nicely weighted combination of the familiar and the unlikely. Thielemann does much for the Hindemith cause, and the composer’s Neues vom Tage overture was a bracing opener in concert form, laced with humour and packed with melodic interest.

Busoni was an inspired choice, a composer who remains difficult to pin down and who still sounds on the edge of modernity. His Tanzwalz, a colourful tribute to Johann Strauss II, has persuasive rhythms, spicy added notes and rich orchestral textures, which the orchestra thoroughly enjoyed. Thielemann’s conducting enhanced the rhythmic profile and the dance elements of the piece – as it did in the complementary Künstlerleben that followed. The violins really sang in the Busoni, as did the cellos towards the start of the Johann Strauss.

Richard Strauss followed, Camilla Nylund replacing Diana Damrau for a set of typically songs. These were well chosen, ranging from the fervent singing of Ständchen to the walking pace of the serene Wiegenlied, where the orchestra added nicely pointed counterpoint to Nylund’s expressive vibrato. Allerseelen was passionately sung, as was Morgen, with the necessary restraint and a beautiful duet between singer and solo violinist, unfortunately not credited.

We had a choral curiosity from Strauss to finish, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s second ever performance of Die Tageszeiten, published as the composer’s Op.76 in 1928. Written for male chorus and orchestra, this comparatively late work sets four sections of the day, as described by poet and regular Strauss collaborator Joseph Eichendorff in his Wanderlieder.

The men of the Rundfunkchor Berlin used the Philharmonie imaginatively, distanced across the stalls above the orchestra, who sat at much closer proximity thanks to their regular testing regime. The piece began with a call to arms, full of spring vigour, before the warm sunbeams breathed calm on the slower Afternoon Rest, which became increasingly chromatic. The wind was a more obvious presence in Evening, depicted by rollng timpani and restless orchestral figures, while Night made a beatific start, with some lovely singing from the men. The density increased but was tapered by a rather lovely unaccompanied chorale near the end, subsiding to a serene finish which was conducted with affection and satisfaction by Thielemann

While Coronavirus inevitably affected the content and artistic direction of The Golden Twenties, it still proved an interesting and stimulating festival, and it was especially satisfying to to see Kurt Weill’s instrumental music getting more of the recognition it surely deserves.

Concert 2

Eisler Suite for Orchestra no.3 Op.26 ‘Kuhle Wampe’
Weill Violin Concerto Op.12
Weill Symphony no.2

Konja Blacher (violin), Scholars of the Karajan Academy / Marie Jacquot

Concert 3

Prokofiev The Love for Three Oranges Suite Op.33bis
Sibelius Symphony no.6 in D minor Op.104
Weill The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny: Suite (arr. Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg)

Berliner Philharmoniker / Thomas Søndergård

Concert 4

Hindemith Neues vom Tage (News of the Day), Overture from the Opera with Concert Ending
Busoni Tanz-Walzer Op.53
Johann Strauss II Künstlerleben Op.316
Richard Strauss Ständchen Op.17/2; Freundliche Vision Op.48/1, Wiegenlied Op.41/1, Allerseelen Op.10/8, Zueignung Op.10/1, Morgen Op.27/4
Richard Strauss Die Tageszeiten Op.76

Camilla Nylund (soprano), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Berliner Philharmoniker / Thomas Søndergård

Talking Heads: Augusta Read Thomas

Augusta Read Thomas (picture (c) Anthony Barlich)

On an autumnal day, Arcana has time with composer Augusta Read Thomas, known affectionately as ‘Gusty’ to her friends. The nickname is more than appropriate, since Gusty is speaking to us from her Chicago home. In a year that has been testing at best, she has taken the time to talk through her new album The Auditions, released by Nimbus in October. The collection proves an ideal introduction to her music, including as it does pieces for brass quintet, carillons and a ballet score for ensemble, The Auditions – of which more later.

Our interview subject is bubbly, engaging and intensely focused – rather like her music. The bubbly aspect is in part related to the recently announced result of the US presidential election. “The year has been so out of body, as we both know in lots of ways, but I’m so happy about Biden and Harris. Then we hear about Pfizer and the vaccines, and as such I feel better. In Chicago we’ve been having record temperatures, and it’s been 75 degrees, like a July day! It has been perfectly sunny, day after day after day, the best November weather I can remember in 30 years, which is definitely a bonus. Right now it’s insanely beautiful outside!”

Is her work as a composer affected by the weather? “Yes, I think so – not so directly as writing dark music on a rainy day, but I do feel that the sun is really a giver of energy. I mean that globally, over a lifetime, not a day-to-day thing. There is energy from the sun that I feel. I don’t know how it translates into the music, but it is a real feeling in my body. For instance, sometimes in my little apartment there is a slant of sun that comes through and I’ll move my chair to sit in it. It feels so beautiful to be having that sunlight and then the slant is moving, so you move the chair a little bit. Then it goes beyond the window, but I will gravitate to sunlight!” The Auditions release encounters different forms of light as you journey through it. “Absolutely. I think that nature is really a great teacher. If you’re going to write a piece of music, you should just look at a tree, and it will tell you a lot. Look at the snowflakes and all the differences in their swirls, then a flower, or a garden – or even DNA, the way that cells reproduce; the ocean. I’ve been telling my students this for decades – look outside, there’s a great teacher right there in the window. It’s really true. If you were to go to my website and just read titles of my works on the alphabetical index, a lot of them are to do with the sun, the moon, nature or spirituality. It is the perfume of my whole catalogue. This CD has evocations of light, or ripple effects like those in the ocean. It is like the caprice of birds, and their beauty – the difference between hummingbirds, flying from the north all the way to the south, and the majesty of the swans.”

We move on to discuss the ballet itself. The Auditions is the idea of moving from this other spiritual space, which is the arcs nos. 1,3, 5 and 7 of the auditions, and then these very earthy, playful jazzy bits. It is like going from the cosmos down to the earth and then back up in the ending. You definitely feel the rise in those arcs. The ballet is modelled on the instrumentation used by Copland’s Appalachian Spring. “It was the 75th anniversary of Appalachian Spring”, she confirms, “and the commission was for an anniversary ballet, with the Martha Graham Dance Company set and costumes, which was amazing. Her choreography for Appalachian Spring was very stylized and of its time – a period piece which was wonderful and absolutely fabulous. Then there was an intermission and then The Auditions. I had to use more or less the same instrumentation, and I added the percussion, a trombone, and a saxophone, so that when you got to my piece it was like smelling a different kind of like world right away. The dance company has many bookings for the show with the two together, but of course they all got postponed. They are touring the show though.”

The list of composers commissioned by the Martha Graham Dance Company is a roll call of some of the 20th century’s finest. “Martha Graham really had a tradition of working with living composers”, she says, “and some great works exist in repertoire because of it. I feel really fortunate to have been receiving this commission. I spent a year on the piece – it’s so detailed, nuanced and sculpted in terms of the form. I worked really closely with the choreographer. In parentheses, there’s a broadcast going out to New York on Sunday night. One of them is going up on my website today, so a lot of people will be able to actually see what the dancing was like. I love it, and wish I could send it over!”

That must be a boon in these times where performances have been scarce or even non-existent. “Absolutely”, she agrees. “One of the other pieces on the disc is Plea For Peace, and there is a version where the solo is played by flute, trumpet and violin. That version just aired on 55 television stations all over the country! That’s a big deal in America, to have things out on the television, but in a pandemic it’s just golden.”

Read Thomas studied with two figureheads of 20th century classical music, Oliver Knussen and Pierre Boulez. “I believe that Oliver Knussen is an ‘A’ list composer”, she says affectionately. “I would put Chopin and Debussy and Ravel on that list, all the greats. I want to say that as loud as possible and I also think, amazingly, he was a great conductor and teacher – he was unbelievable. All of that stems from the central core of being a great musician. Very few people are both – you have some conductors who compose OK, and then you have some composers who conduct, but he was both.”

She fondly remembers their meeting. “When I was in second year college in America, I would have been 21-22 say, he heard a bunch of my music. He invited me to be a fellow at Tanglewood, which in America is a very big deal. So, I was at least ten years younger than the other fellows. We would go through my scores and we would sing the lines, and he taught me a lot about nuance and form and when he was very detailed. Then he brought me back for a second year at Tanglewood, because normally you’re only allowed to go once, and then a third year. I learned a lot from him, and then we continued our friendship. I commissioned his piece Requiem: Songs For Sue, and I brought him to the Chicago Symphony. I have a beautiful score he wrote to me and we would share CDs of people’s music. He did my Helios Choros with the Cleveland Orchestra and also the National Symphony, and he brought my piece In My Sky At Twilight to the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the London Sinfonietta. He just supported me over all those years, and in my little modest way I tried to support him too. We could speak on the phone for a long time about pieces of music. It was a friendship, but I do consider my teacher because in the time I had with him, he taught me a lot but I learned a lot from his music. I studied his music and I teach it too. He was just a great artist.”

Having been fortunate to see Knussen in concert at the Proms, with his visionary programming, it was clear how music was a sharing experience for him. “Totally”, she agrees. “Towards the end of his life, when he did the Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy, he called me up and said, ‘You’ve got to hear this!’ It had all the extra players and stuff, so of course I listened and then I listened again. And then after a step I listened again to that Prom. At the end he did the Piano Concerto by Phil Cashian. For many summers I taught at Tanglewood, and he was a frequent guest. A great, great person.”

Of Boulez, Read Thomas is similarly enthusiastic. “The Chicago Symphony invited me to be their composer in residence, and that came about because Boulez and Barenboim reportedly liked my music. I was young, and it was in the mid-1990s. I was 32 or something like that. Just before that I was commissioned to write a piece, called Words Of The Sea. It’s a four movement piece for orchestra, and it’s easy to find the audio of it. I sent in my manuscript on huge pieces of paper and rolled it, and Xeroxed it, rolled it into the tube and sent it off. I got a call saying they had sent it to Boulez with about twelve other pieces. Then about a month later they called up and said ‘Out of a pile of 12 he’s only going to play one…but it’s yours!’”

Boulez conducted the world premiere of Words Of The Sea, and the two met over the manuscript. “It was a great premiere”, she recalls, “and then that night we had this dinner party with the orchestra, and he turned to me and said he would like to commission another piece. So I did a piece called Orbital Beacons. He was so generous, like he bothered to look at my piece and program it, and it was around this that they invited me to be a composer in residence. He nominated me for a prize for the Siemens Foundation, which I won. It is a generous prize! Then he did the premiere of In My Sky At Twilight, and recorded it as well as taking it to Lucerne. There were lots of different projects.”

Read Thomas’ stories are given with great affection and gratitude. “What I liked about him, and also Knussen, is that they would play my tempos. They were both so precise. I remember with Boulez there was one little thing with In My Sky At Twilight, and he said, ‘I think you have the oboe as mezzo forte there, I think it should be mezzo piano.’ I looked, and said, ‘I think you’re right. So the whole group is sitting there and I remember he had this little box with his pens, so he went into his pen box and opened it, looked around and then he took out the red little red pencil. Then he went on to the score and crossed it out and changed it to mezzo piano. It was very precise, and all about getting it right. The players loved him. They played perfectly and with such artistry. It was a teeny change but it was reflective of the fact that my scores are so detailed.” Knussen’s operating method were not too dissimilar. “Olly was also very precise. I remember when we did In My Sky At Twilight at the South Bank Centre, I said to him, ‘Ollie, it feels too slow – can we keep it going so many bars?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Let me think about it.’ Then, at the show, he did it slower! He came up to me afterward, and said ‘I did it slower! You see, it really works!’ He went with the musicality, and the harmonic rhythm of things.”

Moving back to The Auditions, we discuss the programming of the CD release itself. Was it tricky to get in the right order? “You’re absolutely right. I sat with the engineer and we tried it in lots of different ways. We decided to start with the brass quintet because it’s such a good performance, and it’s very hard! They make it sound easy, but it’s tricky – and it just blasts out of the machine. I’ve been listening to jazz my whole life, so while I am a classical composer, I speak a lot about jazz and my process is very full of improvisations and so forth. What I like about that is starting with be-bop. When you put it in a brass quintet, it’s like, ‘What’s going on?’ You know, there’s no other brass quintet that sounds like that piece, there are no folksong arrangements or church chorales. It’s pure protein in terms of material, a bite size thing that shows lots of different sides of me. The chords are jazz chords, but end up sounding like Stravinsky or Messiaen in this context, like Bebop meets Ravel.”

The next piece presents a contrast. “We thought after the intensity of that to go for the intimacy of Plea For Peace. It’s a beautiful recording, made by Chicago Symphony Orchestra members. You go into this other world, and for the contrast that seemed to be a good place to put that reflection.”

“It’s Ripple Effects next!” she says excitedly. This is a piece for 72 bells, and Renske Vrolijk’s wonderful picture above should be examined when listening to the piece, where each player is clambering over one another to get all the notes played in the final chord. “Some of those bells wouldn’t fit in my room!” she laughs. “One of the interesting things about this piece is that most carillon players play solo. They climb all the way up the tower and they sit there alone, they don’t see their audience, and by the time they get down whoever heard them as walked away. It’s very lonely, and there’s not much repertoire that’s not for solo carillon. Also, a lot of the repertoire is arrangements of a chorale or a song or something. What was really interesting to me was that the first version brought all those people together. The humanity made it very special for that instrument. The two player version is on this recording. It’s tricky, they’re going non-stop with their feet and hands. It multiplies in a way, it sounds like an orchestra in the way it goes, because of the way the bells ring. It’s such an interesting sound world, and again, like the brass quintet, there is no piece that sounds like that – it’s very singular in the carillon repertoire.”

While these pieces are for very different instrumental forces, Read Thomas notes the importance of a connecting thread. “I try to imbue all my pieces with the ‘Gusty’ personality, so if you hear a piece of mine you’re not going to say, ‘Oh well, that sounded like warmed-over minimalism, or retro movie music, or spectralism layer three. There are no categories, it’s just my music. With Plea For Peace, what’s interesting about that piece is it’s just a crescendo, but when you use a text, like post-Hiroshima, or an ancient poet, or a political figure, it narrows. When you make it just a vocalise, the piece means the same in South Korea as it does in North Korea, and as it does in Africa, Azerbaijan or Kansas. That was a big decision, to make it a vocalise, but I think it cuts so much deeper. It feels risky to do it, but in the deepest human way it is like a cry from the heart. While that piece is very total, I still think of it as very singular.”

The Auditions roll-call continues with Two Thoughts About The Piano, with Read Thomas effusive about her soloist. “Daniel Pesca was fabulous. His technical skills are outrageous, but he’s an artist, he sculpts the form as crescendos, and also the repeated notes are hard. He really did a great job. I appreciate his touch.” That is followed by Selene, arranged for percussion quartet and winds. “This is an arrangement that Cliff Colnot made”, says Read Thomas. “He took the string parts and put them in the winds, but the percussion parts are identical. I do think it works, there are certain things like when you get those bass clarinet and bassoons, it’s such a cool colour. I think it’s a very successful arrangement; the credit for it should go to him for the wind parts.”

From vivid experience, Read Thomas’s music consistently creates a picture in the listener’s mind. “One of the things that’s also really interesting to me in my practice and life, is how much, for example, Johann Sebastian Bach can fit into two minutes. If you take one movement of The Well Tempered Clavier, one of the Preludes and one of the Fugues – it’s two minutes, but there is a whole universe there. It starts and there’s just not a note out of place. I’ve really taken that to heart in my music, like the first movement of the Brass Quintet – four minutes is it, that’s all you need to paint the picture. We are matching the material to the duration, and to look at Bach’s Goldberg Variations, some of those movements are less than a minute, but there’s a whole universe there. I guess if I had to summarise, generally I’m a poet and not a novelist. I write shorter pieces with every word in place, every dash, every thought, and every line break to use a poetry metaphor, every adjective too. It’s only four minutes but that really interests me. This CD in a way brings out the poet side.”

The same tenets apply with music of longer duration. “The Auditions is a longer piece, but it still breaks down into much shorter sections”, she explain. “It is a kind of pure, protein poetry. You have to edit and sculpt move the comma, so to speak. I really believe that form conserves energy, and I say that to my students all the time. It’s three words but they’re very important. If you have the material and form that are allied, a four minute piece – like Plea For Peace – projects out to a universal statement that is 20 minutes, but you say it in a very short time. That kind of craft, for lack of a better word, I learned from Oliver Knussen. He was a miniaturist also, and so was Boulez. My main model would be Bach but those other two were the same.”

Our conversation pans out to consider the past year and all its challenges. Has it been difficult a a composer? “I will answer that in two layers, if you don’t mind”, she says thoughtfully. “The first layer is that I’m very mindful that we have a lot of people on this planet without shelter, water, healthcare and food, and so on. Also, in my opinion, the systemic racism is outrageous and should have been set right centuries ago. I would like to say loud and clear, that black lives matter. There is a whole social conscience side, and it is important to state that before I say number two, because they are very much interlinked. I think that when we look back in 10 years of what was created in COVID, there is going to be a burst of creativity, which is great. For me, typically, I travel every week. For 200 days a year I’m just zooming around all the time, and I’ve been doing that for 25 years. Then, all of a sudden, I stopped, and when I was cancelling travel and hotels I was thinking, ‘how did I do this?!’ To be honest with you I have been writing, non-stop, and have had enormous focus. It has been a huge boon. I’ve also continued with online teaching, so it has been really busy. I can’t wait to share what I’ve just made with people.” It is reassuring to hear a positive benefit to the imposed isolation, but not surprising when you consider the creativity such adversity can often inspire. “It is, but for me it’s not the adversity, because I’m really trying to help in whatever way I can. For 30 years I wish there was more than 24 hours in a day, and I typically work like 16 hours a day because I like to. I like to get at least eight or nine hours’ composing and then maybe five hours of teaching and then citizenship work. I think after this, with the whole work / home / travel thing, I think a lot will change for big corporations, and for artists. We realise now that certain things really can be done.”

Finally, I have to ask about the origins of Gusty’s nickname. She smiles warmly. “I have been called that since I was a little girl, because we had ten kids in the family and I was the tenth. Since I’ve been about two it was always my name. Then, as my life developed, then it seemed better for the public to have my formal name, which was fine given name at birth. So we just ended up using that. By coincidence the initials are A-R-T. It just fell into place!”

Augusta Read Thomas’s new release The Auditions is available on Nimbus Records. To listen to clips and for purchasing options, visit the Wyastone website. The composer’s own website contains a great deal of information behind the music, with multimedia and details of future performances. To read more, click here

On paper – Humperdinck: A Life of the composer of Hänsel und Gretel by William Melton (Toccata Press)

Humperdinck: A Life of the Composer of Hänsel und Gretel by William Melton, with a Foreword by John Mauceri
Toccata Press [hardback, 456pp, b/w illustrations, ISBN 978-0-907689-92-8]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Several years ago the singer formerly known as Arnold Dorsey was asked how he had chosen his stage-name, to which he replied that it was his manager’s decision and he had simply gone along with it – having known nothing about the composer in question and remaining ignorant of his music through to the present. Certainly, he took nothing by him in his eight choices on Desert Island Discs in 2004. Hardly unexpected, beyond confirmation that, then as before, the real Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) was fair game on account of his diminished status.

A status that, even now, is hardly what it was during the quarter-century up to the composer’s death and which itself was owing almost entirely to Hänsel und Gretel – the ‘fairy tale opera’ whose wildfire success throughout the Western world transformed Humperdinck’s reputation, in his fortieth year, from provincial teacher and well regarded purveyor of cantatas and songs to the leading German composer of his generation. Such success might have transformed his professional and financial standing, but it also created an aesthetic image such as could only become more stereotyped as time passed. Such acclaim that he later achieved was inevitably viewed (and not merely by his detractors) within the context of that one work, ensuring that Humperdinck’s legacy was fixed in the public mind even had he ceased composing thereafter.

This is reflected not least by the dearth of writing about his music, so that William Melton’s remark about this being the first biography in English is no idle claim. With the centenary of Humperdinck’s death barely a year away, its issue could not have been more timely – were it less than a total success. Melton, whose research into and publication on the ‘lost generation’ of Romantic composers is considerable and ongoing, has left little to chance when bringing to light vital information which, while it may have been known to specialists, has lain dormant in archives on both sides of the Atlantic until the present. Its sifting and distillation enabled a deeper appreciation than seemed possible or, indeed, necessary – Humperdinck emerging as the pivotal figure in German music from the demise of Wagner to the emergence of Strauss.

Although he does not exclude musical examples or eschew analytical discussion, Melton’s is primarily a biographical study as surveys Humperdinck’s emergence – halting and thereafter effortful – from his Rhenish origins, via dogged studies then extensive journeying in France and Spain, to his unexpected involvement with the circle around Wagner; on whose Parsifal he left more than a passing impression. Staying on cordial terms with Cosima and Siegfried, his distancing from the ‘cult of Bayreuth’ says much for his unforced independence of spirit.
Melton is mindful not to divide Humperdinck’s career into a crude ‘before and after’ Hänsel scenario, even if those changes arguably inhibited his future development with the demands of teaching and other duties. Succeeding operas Dornröschen and Die Heirat wider Willen enjoyed no more than succès d’estime, with his wartime stage-works Die Marketenderin and Gaudeamus hampered from the outset by poor librettos. Most significant was Königskinder, evolving from an innovative yet impractical melodrama into a drama of no mean profundity, but initial success in New York and Europe was not sustained after the outbreak of war; its deeper subtleties even now insufficiently acknowledged. The composer thought it his greatest achievement, making the lack of a UK production for almost three decades more regrettable.

Throughout this study, Melton is an informed and reliable guide to those many incidents and intrigues that make Wilhelmine Germany so fascinating if dismaying an environment; over the course of which, Humperdinck’s life unfolds as though intent on shunning the limelight into which he had been thrust. His final decade makes for poignant reading as he battles the effects of a serious stroke, then endures the death of his wife along with various friends and colleagues. His last creative act was not musical but literary: an autobiographical fantasy, Die Zeitlose, where he finds himself transported back almost half a century to his hometown of Siegburg – experiencing with accrued wisdom the sights and persons of his formative years. His death soon after the onset of the Weimar Republic could not have seemed less relevant.

The book is rounded off by a full Catalogue of Works then an extensive Bibliography, with the numerous illustrations reproduced as part of the actual text rather than as separate plates. Three decades ago, Toccata Press put many in its debt with the first biography in English of George Enescu: if Humperdinck emerges as a less significant figure, this is hardly the fault of Melton who, in his brief yet pertinent Epilogue, describes the composer as ‘Not a Genius, but a Master’: the case for which is presented methodically and persuasively throughout his book.

Further information can be found here