Magazine article Musical Times

Devotional Aids

Magazine article Musical Times

Devotional Aids

Article excerpt

Perspectives on Peter Maxwell Davies Edited by Richard McGregor [with essays by David Roberts, Peter Owens, Michael Burden, Joel Lester, John Warnaby, Richard McGregor, Arnold Whittall] Ashgate (Aldershot, 2000, recte 2001); xiv, 180pp; 42.50. ISBN 1 84014 298 7.

For those - not excluding Peter Maxwell Davies - who first absorbed the elements of a contemporary musical vocabulary from the works of the twentieth-century Viennese masters, the postwar Americanisation ('Babbittisation'?) of an entire serial terminology may well seem both irrelevant and tautologically irritating. Despite its latter-day prevalence as the basis of state-of-the-art analysis, this is a language that even now remains `largely incomprehensible to anyone untrained in the higher reaches of contemporary mathematics' - a context in which `conventionally trained musicians are laymen themselves' (John Rockwell, `The northeastern academic establishment & the romance of science' in All American music). Interestingly, All American music dates from 1983, making it almost exactly contemporary with the first (and earliest written) chapter of Perspectives on Peter Maxwell Davies, which, as its editor readily admits, `is, by any measure, overdue'.

Generally speaking, the kind of microanalysis suggested by this transatlantic approach stops short of investigating the macro purpose of it all - or any aspect of rhythm tout court. Yet with the time for note-counting (the 1-12 notes of the chromatic scale now recast to read from 0-11) and relabelling long gone, it is in Davies's case the defining character of method, of his particular transformational procedures, that eventually came to dominate the (by then) subsidiary nature of the material itself. Whether drawn from a fragment of plainsong or a note row (`pitch-class set'), this initiating material was soon to relinquish any thematic function it might once have automatically claimed in favour of the `partitioning and permutation' of rows [sets] and their consequent re-forming into the pitch squares that would eventually generate vast reservoirs of macro-options. However, the relationships contained by these options were not necessarily to assume an audible function, but `would seem both to satisfy Davies's desire that each note should be "governed by an inner logic", and to give free reign to his creative fantasy' (and, from time to time, creatively to cheat his own system). It was only much later (1989) that he was not only able but even eager publicly to announce that `the magic square, its mechanics and its derivations are, for the first time [in Strathclyde concerto no.31, exposed very clearly on the surface of the music.' In other words, in hitherto supressed melodic sequence.

It is evidently assumed that potential readers of this book will have a chronological work list to hand; there is at any rate none here. And since a piecemeal imparting of information is one of the major hazards of compiling any symposium, it is a pity that an absence of subheadings, not to mention dates and forces involved, creates quite unnecessary confusion throughout. To take but one example: aficionados will of course not need to be told of the relationship between the Sixth Symphony and the unidentified Time and the raven (which merits mention four times on p.85), or that `the [Sixth] symphony's link with Time and the Raven strengthens its international credentials.' A chapter on Davies's indebtedness to his own earlier scores is more specific in referring (on p.91) to `the concert overtures, Time and the Raven, or Maxwell's Reel, with Northern Lights'- which could leave the reader to ask whether the latter is one piece, as printed here, or two separate ones, as shown in the index? …

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