Distressed Surfaces: Morgan Hayes and 21st-Century Expressionism

Article excerpt

THERE'S A CASE FOR SAYING that, for British music, the 20th century ended on 8 January 1998, with the death of Michael Tippett, six days after his 93rd birthday. After Benjamin Britten's death at 63 in 1976, Tippett had sustained a special prominence, and even if - reflecting the enhanced diversity of British musical life since Britten's time - Tippett had never quite managed to match the figurehead status of Elgar before 1934, Vaughan Williams before 1958, and Britten himself before 1976, the closeness of his demise to the end, not just of a century but of a millennium, served to underscore the perception that an entire era had drawn to a close.

Vaughan Williams was 52 at the time of Elgar 's death, Britten was 44 when VW died, and Tippett was already 72 in 1976. Looking back at musical journals in 1998-99, one might hazard the guess that the favoured candidate for succession to the status of figurehead and prime exemplar of a productive British 'mainstream' was James MacMillan - just 39 in that year. For one authority, the situation looked like this: 'if Sir Harrison Birtwistle has proved to be the towering compositional presence in British music of the 1990s, and Thomas Adès its most glamorous arrival, then James MacMillan has surely been its most highly profiled and popular discovery'. As Nicholas Williams saw it, 'each of these composers, in different ways, combines vigorous and original ideas within a richly distinctive musical language. Yet only MacMillan has done so consistently within the confines of that range of audience perceptions denoted by the buzzword of accessibility'.1

Williams did not pursue the point that Birtwistle and Adès, in turn, owed their relative prominence and distinction to being closer to, or even actually part of, the mainstream than avant-garde representatives of 'new complexity' like Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnissy, or more experimental, sometimes minimalist composers like Gavin Bryars or Howard Skempton. And in 1999 perhaps the main point was that MacMillan was not so much more 'accessible' than, say, John Tavener or Mark- Anthony Turnage, but was so while working most productively with more of the conventions of classical aesthetics and techniques, as Tippett himself had done. Williams's inclusion of Adès in his comments also brought out the obvious distinction between the 'senior' Birtwistle (b.i934)and the 'junior' Adès (b.1971). Meanwhile, another writer was giving Adès the dubious accolade of producing an 'uncontroversial example of "good composition'" back in 1994, when his Chamber Symphony was programmed alongside Helmut Lachenmann's more pungently progressive ... pvei Gefühle - Musik mit Leonardo (1992).2

Understandably enough, Ian Pace's study of the radical German did not explore any possible British connections. But later in 1998 Pace gave the first performances of three numbers from Five distressed surfaces by a composer two years younger than Adès, Morgan Hayes - music closer to that of Hayes's one-time mentor Michael Finnissy than to Adès, Tansy Davies (also born in 1973) or any other British near-contemporary. To assert in this context that Hayes's music has some affinity with the aesthetic quality known as expressionism, and that Distressed surfaces presents that affinity in its earliest form is not, however, to imply that this quality derives solely from Finnissy. The association between expressionistic aesthetics and modernist compositional techniques stemming from the radical developments in Vienna around the years 1908-14 has proved to be so seminal that it has even played a part in the evolution of British music since the 1950s, and despite the fact that Britten and Tippett had little interest in it.

The contrast between music which avoided expressionistic qualities and music which eagerly embraced them became clearer during the 1960s. British or British-based composers before that time like Humphrey Searle, Elisabeth Lutyens and Roberto Gerhard, who had used the techniques and, to some extent, the post-1920 styles of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, laid the foundations for a more radical, less specifically English or British style than Vaughan Williams, Walton or Britten embodied. …