|Joined up Brian?|
Was Brian interested in coherence? And, if he was not, should his incoherence be explained as a philosophy or as plain incompetence? These questions are prompted by Malcolm MacDonald’s talk introducing the new CD of sumphonies 11 and 13.
He speaks of Brian’s ‘paradoxical tendency to self-subversion—the building up of great structures which are continually knocked out of true by unexpected, contradictory, unassimilable elements.’ He doesn’t think we should hear these contrasts as harmonised or transcended, and of Hans Keller’s definition of the symphony as the large-scale integration of contrasts he says, ‘The longer I live with Brian’s music the less sure I am that he had any compelling interest in ‘integration’ in this sense.
There are, perhaps, deep structural levels in his works where the contrasts come from and their motivation is explained. But primarily we’re meant to experience the music as an account of the way things are.’ MacDonald illustrates the way things are by a series of juxtapositions—that life is ‘dangerous and comical, full of sorrow, pleasure, pomp and indignity, comedy and remorse.’ But if the way things are is reflected by music of unreconciled contradictions it would seem to be a view of life in which such juxtapositions were meaningless. It is easy enough to see how such a view might have pointed Brian in the direction of his personal motto ‘Nothing matters!’ But if it is faithfully reflected in a symphony it is hard to see how anything can stop the personal motto ‘Nothing matters!’ turning into the musical motto ‘Anything goes!’
I think we had much better leave the philosophic explanation of the way things are on one side. For what way are things exactly? It is a highly subjective idea. The listener who does not share the view that life is a series of meaningless juxtapositions is merely left with meaningless music. And so is the listener who does share this view. It is hard to tell whether Macdonald’s explanation is making sense of the music or if the music is making sense of his explanation.
It does seem disturbing, though, that those ‘deep structural levels’ which might integrate the music’s contradictions are only a vague ‘perhaps’ and that it is the contradiction we are ‘primarily… meant to hear’. MacDonald did not seem to take so one-sided a view in his essential book on the symphonies. There he lays due stress on the contrasts—‘But the contrasting elements are made to throw light on one another they exist not for themselves, but as (sometimes momentary) embodiment of a dynamic process of sustained thought, helping to create the overall momentum and character of each work.’ (I:12) If we are now to give up the idea of integration—to regard these ‘deep structural levels’ as practically speaking non-existent—the implications are pretty bleak.
The retreat seems to me, at any rate, a cogent explanation of why Brian’s music suffers the neglect that it does. Such a music of contradiction would just deny the basic facts of listening psychology. A listener will always try to make sense of what he listens to and—given something called a symphony—to make the deepest sense he can. If no deeper sense is to be made of Brian’s unmediated juxtapositions than a reflection of the way things are the listener may well conclude that he is listening to non-sense. Three side-drums and a battery of percussion just add noise to the insult.
It seems to me that Brian’s music needs rescuing from this description. We might appeal to experience. At least, I suspect I am not alone in feeling brow-beaten on a first hearing—sometimes even on dozen hearings—by all those ‘unassimilable elements’ MacDonald speaks of. And yet I continue to listen. Deep down there is a something—something, perhaps, more intuitive than a ‘deep structural level’—that keeps me listening. But can this something be a deeper level we are not primarily meant to experience? If this magic pull in Brian’s music is really there how can we stop it modifying, reconciling, making sense of the stark contradictions?
It is tempting to identify this deeper unifying ‘pull’ with the detailed motivic working that goes on behind the scenes—the kind of technical coherence that Truscott describes in his analysis of The Gothic. But he admits that these workings are so subtle that Brian ‘appears to be using constantly new material in every new passage that comes along.’ (HB’s Gothic symphony, p42) Yes, a ‘deep structural level’ may be giving coherence to the incoherence of’ the ‘constantly new’—but why was Brian so willing to give the impression of incoherence? Why did he make such distant transformations that the ear can only detect them with the utmost difficulty? The tendency is only different in degree from what Macdonald describes as Brian’s use of similarities in the andante of Symphony 2—‘for here, as in The Gothic, Brian is able to use similar themes to suggests relationships without exact parallels.’ (I:64)
We could think of such similarities as transformations so distant that the intervening working has dropped out altogether. As with those ‘constantly new’ materials in The Gothic we do not have the feeling of being led along a direct linear path of development. Once the implied working between themes A and B—working that would have explained the sense of similarity—has dropped out A is no longer felt as engendering B. B has an equal and independent validity and this independence has a profound effect on the sense of motion in the music. It is no longer about progress or culmination—Truscott speaks of the arbitrary nature of Brian’s ‘sudden, false, triumphant endings’ and, indeed, of a basic tendency of Brian’s music towards disintegration (ibid p11). Once themes A and B are felt to have a non-linear independence their similarity obliges us to imagine a common parent for them—a deeper musical idea which is not actually sounded in the notes themselves and whose form is intuited but could never be precisely specified.
It is almost as if the unity of the music wells up from a different direction to that of the bars progressing regularly from left to right on the page of the score—a direction which cuts across that forward motion. We could, I suppose, call this direction from below, from its associations with the subconscious or from the more primitive nature of those implied themes which become intuitively visible between the cracks of Brian’s similarities. Brian seems to find acoustic images for this new orientation—or disorientation—in his discontinuities, in those sudden visions of the far away like the appearance of the off-stage trumpet in the finale of Symphony 5, which MacDonald calls ‘another of Brian’s ‘revelatory’ moments, qualifying the foreground activity by showing a mystery behind them.’ (I:86)
All this, perhaps, adds up to no more than an impression—appropriate for the mere listening non-musician that I am. I may have ducked the issue by writing in generalities, as Truscott puts it. But I feel that similarities—or that ‘allusive’ nature of Brian’s music as MacDonald calls it—do have a further important implication. At one and the same time they embody the principals of coherence and incoherence—they give an effect of disjunction at the same time as they point to a primal unity.
It seems, therefore, impossible to separate out Brian’s music into a primary impression of contradiction and a deeper level which may or may not explain it. The disruption of the surface does not so much leave us with a sense of the contradictory way things are, as enable us to look directly down into the roots of things. Here, perhaps, I am talking about the Brian who could only write by inspiration or who, every night he left off work on The Gothic, would superstitiously close his sketches with sealing wax.
NL151 / ©2001 by Nicholas Hillyard
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