Text for Saarbrücken, October 2006


On my work

"The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery." – Francis Bacon

"Art is made to disturb. Science reassures. There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain." – Georges Braque

I studied the piano from the age of eight or nine and immediately had the desire to create my own music as well as to play that of others. My serious compositional work started when I was fourteen, influenced by the more serious symphonies by Sibelius (the 4th, 6th and 7th). But after three months I discovered atonal music through hearing Schoenberg's "Five Pieces for Orchestra (Op.16)" and the corresponding works by Webern (Op.10) and Berg (Op.6); Stockhausen's "Kontakte", Zimmermann's "Canto di Speranza" and several works by Maxwell Davies. This led me, in summer 1972, to write my "Three Pieces for Piano", followed by other works for piano or for various ensembles, and to compose electronic pieces using radio short-waves. I absorbed all the best serious contemporary music available in Britain and was very lucky in having the opportunity to hear it, on the radio, in concert or on record. This would not be so easy for a young man now. In 1974 I wrote my first composition for orchestra.

Still at this time I was lucky enough to be introduced to several British composers and to receive helpful guidance and advice, to hear their remarks and views. One, whose work I especially admired (and continue to admire) told me, "we have got beyond repetition", and this seemed to me eminently sensible. I had already formulated this idea myself, but it was encouraging to hear it stated so categorically. It seemed right that, together with all the other developments which had led to the complex and excitingly unpredictable sound worlds of new music, simply repeating what you have just said was a stale and unreasonable thing to do. Besides that, I intensely disliked the kind of (often English) music which would open with a phrase and then immediately restate it, as if loathe to trust the listener to absorb it a first time. Indeed a music which very gradually transforms from one state to another, in which the seams are unnoticed, seemed to me to be an ideal alternative to the use of repetition and its redundancy.

The need to find ways of producing coherently the sounds I wanted to hear, often containing cascades of notes always changing, countered by still sounds gradually altering, led me to set about using means of transformation as a basis for my work in the late 1970s and mid 1980s. I am indebted to the experience of encountering Peter Maxwell Davies's techniques (I twice studied with him at the summer school in Dartington in 1976 and '77) which were influential at this time as well.

Of course, a true music of pure transformation could be achieved either electronically or with various techniques which I chose not to employ, leaving as they would far more distance between the composer and the details of the resultant sound from moment to moment. I produced several works which had the idea of transformation as their central principle, notably "North" (a thirty-minute work for large orchestra (1977)), "In another room", "Kväll", "Försvinna" (a Swedish verb meaning "to disappear") and "Downstream". There were several uncompleted works, including one called "Thaw", another title which clearly relates to a process of transformation. By 1984 I had realised all the possibilities given by this procedure and completed the first stage of an investigation which I then took further by countering and opposing many of the presuppositions. This led to the more dynamic and explosive music of the next period.

In 1988 I broke away from, broke out of, and broke up material in a new way in a work entitled "Broken". The subsequent years brought music which is often wild and dramatic, sometimes aggressive, while countering the "cascades of notes always changing" which are a constant characteristic of my work with static, often tense, still passages. My music was called "bleak", which I took to be a great compliment, although it is for me as much concerned with joy, exuberance and the ecstatic, as with anger, violence or desolation. The gestures were emphatic, like the wide brush strokes in a painting by Howard Hodgkin, and also, like his work, full of sharp colours. To continue a visual analogy, my earlier music has the pale light shades of the buildings in Helsinki or St Petersburg, whereas the subsequent works take on colours which relate to places south of the Alps. Perhaps it is relevant that I lived in Finland and then Italy during these periods.

In the 1990s I wrote the ensemble works "Verstörung", "Oboe Quintet", "La violenza delle idee" and "Delirium", and the orchestral works "Maailma" and "Pascal, pensée 206". I continued constantly to question any presuppositions and arrived at methods that could include new areas of harmonic and rhythmic language.

In the years between 1999 and 2005 I wrote the ensemble works "Delos", "String Quartet" and "Final Dance", in which dance-like rhythmic certainties are present; "Night" and "Piano Trio", where the contrast of consonance and dissonance is developed in a new way; and "Sonata in two movements" and "Landschaft mit Glockenturm II", in which colour and formal contrast are unprecedented. The largest-scale work of this period is "Voices", which sets a spoken text with layers of solo and orchestral music.


New approaches are constantly called for, I believe, and this involves continuing to review the certainties in all the music thus far. For example, it has for a long time struck me as a paradox that we talked of a music with little or no direct repetition and yet required – no, insisted – that the music will be best understood by repeated listening. My aim is to question with a view to allowing myself the freedom to embrace every possibility.

The use of repetition, aspects of which are becoming more prominent in my work, is born out of musical criteria which have to do with the quality of the result I require. Often it is not immediately clear whether the music contains literal repetition or not. Sometimes a passage might be a deformed or damaged version of that which went before. A particular kind of perspective can be gained when presenting a certain sound world in which many elements are constant, and constantly there before you, and yet the inner details are extremely diverse and complex. Musicians might be wildly playing a whole complexity of notes but it appears after some time as if one sound world is paramount, and the musicians are engaged in a fantastic struggle to keep the whirling plates in the air. The musical elements are not necessarily literally repeated - in fact the sound is sometimes all the more powerful when there is no literal repetition but the material is so similar in certain of its characteristics that one thinks one has experienced it, or at least something very similar, before.

And yet literal repetition can be extraordinarily powerful as well. On one hand one has the drunkard who repeats the sentence he has just uttered because either he thinks you haven’t been listening, or because he has forgotten that he just said it; on the other hand we have the orator who knows precisely how a well-placed repetition can add unparalleled strength to a speech and convince a crowd of his point of view. In musical terms the use of subtle variation, however slight, is likely to have the more enriching effect, but we must never forget that great symphonies of the past had double bar lines indicating a repeat and that the composers expected huge chunks of a composition to be played twice. This was calculated precisely: the composers had taken into account the listeners’ response to the effect of hearing the music a second time, immediately after the first.

My aim is to question with a view to allowing myself the freedom to embrace every possibility.

I have moved away from any exclusivity, or at least dominance, of dissonance. Consonant sounds have always played an important role in my work, but I am widening the vocabulary still further. It is certainly not necessary to avoid the consonant, or even tonal implications, any more. The point was made: dissonance was emancipated. Schoenberg never liked the word "atonal": he intended "pan-tonal" – all the keys simultaneously. They were – are – there to be drawn on, and consonant sounds can, I find, be employed to great effect when the context demands them. (Of course other composers have come to conclusions not dissimilar to this, but I leave it to the listener to distinguish between the effectiveness of the different results.)


The problem that now concerns me is to regain for music the status, which it has all but lost, of an art form independent and resplendent in its own right. Not a description of anything other than itself, a work of music stands as does an abstract painting, defiant, alone and of itself. For this reason my works since the start of 2006 are all untitled. To quote Clyfford Still, "My paintings have no titles because I do not wish them to be considered illustrations or pictorial puzzles. If properly made visible they speak for themselves."

Contemporary music has been plagued by pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness and academic pomposity.

In observing the conventions that are so swiftly born and then fixed in place in both the visual and the musical arts it is instructive to bear in mind how quickly less imaginative artists become slaves of their leaders. It was Clyfford Still, together with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, who led the move both to abstraction and to the hugeness of scale. Precedents can always be found of course, as with all matters in the arts. In this case one can mention Monet, to take just one. But when we consider the second issue – hugeness of scale – it quickly became impossible among all the imitators to paint a small picture! Many critics of, say, atonal music would regard an overwhelming weight as having descended upon composers which exerted a pressure to follow a particular line. Those who do something only slightly out of line can even be seen as traitors.

Morton Feldman spoke of how he had contacted many colleagues to persuade them that "the last thing the world needs is another twenty-five minute piece". He then went on (no doubt influenced by the hugeness of scale in American painting) to create works of enormous duration, so much so that they defiantly went beyond the bounds of conventional concert-giving practice. Still and Rothko would certainly have approved of this stance.

Young composers clamour to squeeze their fifteen minute ensemble compositions into the approved concert series or festivals, in order not to say anything musical but to further their businessman-like careers. Quickly the original impulse, the urge to create something new and individual in music, is forgotten and the desire for what passes for fame and fortune overwhelms them, fame in its comfortable, tiny niche of mutual admirers who are all on first-name terms, and fortune in the miniature bounties and trophies which are the apologies for commission fees and so-called prizes.

As soon as a musical work is programmed one is pestered for an explanation and description of that which one has struggled to put into music, not words. Programme notes are degrading to the composer, patronising to the listener, irrelevant to the true appreciation of the work and food for the lazy critic. I would go on to say that for me titles now also fall into a similar category of perhaps damaging irrelevance. The purpose of the composer is to express the human in music. It is to realise an individual vision. It is to create. It is, as Jackson Pollock put it, "...all a big game of construction, some with a brush, some with a shovel, some choose a pen."


On teaching

The artist, writer or composer should consider the seriousness of his purpose and maintain his individuality distinct from institutionalised culture. Peace should be made with this society only on the artist's own terms. He who compromises in this regard has lost himself and become an employee without influence or power.

Consider the history of this painting:

"There are three different paintings on this one canvas.

"1. The first was painted in 1949 in San Francisco. It was a black field with two spots – yellow and blue – one above the other (visible on the back of the canvas) and with gray on the upper right corner.

"2. In 1950 in New York City the entire canvas was repainted black leaving a grey area in upper left and a small light point in upper center. This painting was exhibited in the one-man show, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1951.

"3. The present painting – mat black with red vertical motif near center and leaving a small gray area at top left – was executed in 1951 in New York City after its return to the [artist's] studio. This was the artist's expression of reclamation after what he felt to be its violation by its public exposure."

– Clyfford Still San Francisco Museum of Modern Art catalogue 1976

In Darmstadt in 2006 I was asked to help lead a seminar for young composers. One had brought a recording of a very quiet piece which could either be played normally with the interesting result that the listeners had to strain and sometimes fail to hear it, or it could be played with all the instruments greatly amplified. In the latter version the sounds were heard completely differently and it became a different piece of music. This led me to raise the point that composers are usually far too concerned with having their work heard in a certain kind of hall by a certain size and type of audience. The reasons for this are all too often suspect and a matter not of art but of self-aggrandisement. Why not write a piece of music for a small group of listeners in a small room (the old notion of chamber music)? Indeed why not write a piece for only one listener? Why not write a piece for only one occasion? There are many other untouched possibilities. One can imagine works (not improvisations) which are made to be performed once and never again. A composition might be performed only in very restricted circumstances, by certain specified people and no others, for instance. I have written examples of both.

Perfect is the idea of the work of music which may never be performed, the painting which may not be viewed! The act of creation is the end!

Equally perfect, however, is the idea of the work that is heard or seen by an intelligent, receptive ear or eye. In what context should this occur? In the case of Clyfford Still, the artist controlled to the last detail where, when and how his work would be presented and, on his death in 1980, the 90% of his work which remained in his private collection and had not been sold or given to museums was sealed off from the public and has not been seen since. A new museum to be devoted to his work will be built in Denver to house this collection, again under strict control and with the instruction that there be no café, shop or other distraction. Compare this to the reprehensible treatment suffered by Akseli Gallen-Kallela at the hands of London's National Gallery. The gallery purchased not long ago a remarkable painting by the Finnish artist, showing a lake and island and dominated by subtle blue lines on the water. This is now available as postcard, teapot-stand, tee-shirt, tie, broach, mug, scarf, jigsaw, writing pad, umbrella, anything but toilet paper, in a betrayal of the poor man's work that is unbearable.

The trivialisation of the Artist and his work is at its worst in Britain and it is the task of intelligent men and women to oppose this state of affairs.

The composer, writer or artist has a duty if he is to be serious in his work to take a resolute, uncompromising stance in advocating his art and its importance and necessity. It is a contribution to mankind's endeavours to create and to his efforts to understand the world in which he lives, indeed possibly to better the world in which he lives. There is nothing picturesque, quaint, trivial, trite, entertaining, simple or predictable about a serious work of art. It is an attempt to deepen and strengthen our awareness, understanding, intelligence, imagination and sensibility.

"These are not paintings in the usual sense; they are life and death merging in a fearful union." – Clyfford Still

"It doesn't matter how the paint is put on, as long as something is said." "Every good painter paints what he is." "You can't learn techniques and then try to become a painter. Techniques are a result." – Jackson Pollock

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." – Samuel Beckett

Questioner: "Are you concerned about communication, whether you reach all the people?"
Still: "Not in the least. That is what a comic strip does."
Questioner: "Then you paint for yourself."
Still: "Yes."


On New Complexity

The writers on music descend like vultures and attempt to devour the still-living carcasses of innovative composers, stifling the appreciation of their creativity with labels. Talentless herds of students sniff the surrounding desert and snatch scraps which they regurgitate as imitation and parody.

New Complexity took from Boulez as Boulez took from Webern a starting point to develop ways of removing the straightjackets of melodic motif and rhythmic squareness. New Complexity exploded the conventions of notation and pushed the limits of performance possibilities by discovering the paradox that by writing in extreme detail one could give the player wild freedom. Thus a new dynamic was breathed into music which meant that fireworks sounding as if with improvisatory spontaneity could be created within a structure strictly in accordance with the composer's personal vision. At its best this leads to exuberant or dramatic excitement. At its worst it becomes the stale camouflage for composers who are uncertain of their musical minds and choose easily to obfuscate with dainty prettiness the paucity of their ideas.

On Minimalism

An extreme example of repetition from the twentieth century was of course so-called "Minimalism", a badly applied description of music made from very simple fragments of melody treated in a very repetitious way, as if all the "Alberti basses" that had been forgotten by composers since Schoenberg had escaped from their box in the museum and gone on some delirious trip. This had the effect of lulling people into a happy state of near-sleep and functioned as a kind of well-paid muzak. In short, it was not to be taken seriously and after a remarkably short time even John Adams himself announced that the style was dead, although I fear he was being over-optimistic.

The composers employing this style had an equally banal attitude to harmony. They unashamedly resuscitated old consonant clichés and imitated a primitive tonality. In Europe a brief flirtation with "Neo-romanticism" or "Neo-tonality" did something similar. None of this was serious: it was the deterioration of pop-art into popcorn.

However, a more serious investigation, not to be confused with that over-simplified and clichéd music, was provided by Feldman, whose music was "minimal" in the sense that Webern was minimal. Suddenly the word starts to take on an intelligent meaning in connection with music. Feldman also found a new way of confronting the question of consonance versus dissonance. Add to that the unpredictability of John Cage, who allowed music to detach itself from its own self-important rhetoric in a way not achieved before, and here is a mixture that appears to me to breathe some small measure of life into a stale musical world.

© James Clarke 2007