Concerto of Deliverance Album Comment
Ayn Rand's Challenge to Composers, by Eric Nolte
This article by Eric Nolte was written following an advance
auditioning of "Concerto of Deliverance", and is posted here with his
approval. [Thank you Eric!] Eric is an airline pilot, writer, concert pianist, and
composer. -------- Original Message --------
-------- Original Message --------
Three cheers for Monart Pon! Here is a man with the commitment to put his money where his mouth is! While I'm sure he has no great wealth, Monart has somehow mustered enough resources to be messing around at philanthropy, and has coughed up a sum big enough to commission a piece of music that runs an hour and nineteen minutes, by John Mills-Cockell, a composer whose work he has long loved. He has furthermore involved himself in the production of a CD to bring this collection of pieces to market. Pon's purpose here is to fulfill a truly wonderful goal: the commissioning of a work of music that would attempt to fill that august space created by Ayn Rand's evocative literary suggestion of a great work of music by her fictional greatest of modern composers, Richard Halley.
As readers of this list know, the literary passage is from Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, describing Richard Halley's Piano Concerto Number 5. Please allow me to restate it here, because this is the standard by which I'll make my comments on John Mills- Cockell's work.
"It was a symphony of triumph. The notes flowed up, they spoke of rising and they were the rising itself, they were the essence and the form of upward motion, they seemed to embody every human act and thought that had ascent as its motive. It was a sunburst of sound, breaking out of hiding and spreading open. It had the freedom of release and the tension of purpose. It swept space clean, and left nothing but the joy of an unobstructed effort. Only a faint echo within the sounds spoke of that from which the music had escaped, but spoke in laughing astonishment at the discovery that there was no ugliness or pain, and that there never had to be. It was the song of an immense deliverance."
This was the specification, and what an immense suggestion this is for a piece of music! Who among us admirers of Ayn Rand, those of us who are trained in the full range of classical Western harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration, would attempt to satisfy such an exalted specification without some trepidation? Who among us would not bring to this noble task a high seriousness of purpose that might rival Johannes Brahms' reluctance to write his first symphony and commit it to public performance? Now Brahms already knew he was a genius before he wrote a symphony. By that time, he was already in middle-age, vastly accomplished at handling symphonic forces in such large scale works as his concertos for violin and piano. But he was rendered pale and weak at the thought of delivering a symphony into the newborn ward, when his work would immediately be compared to his illustrious predecessor, that greatest symphonist to date, that incomparable genius, Beethoven, whose immense shadow made it hard for any composer after him to feel the direct warmth of the sun.
Moreover, if we were competing for Monart's commission, knowing in advance that any beneficiary of Monart's largesse would be severely restricted in the forces at our disposal to perform and record our work, who among us, indeed, would even attempt to meet Rand's specifications?
Now it doesn't take an immense force of musicians to create an immensely forceful work of music. Consider the 32 sonatas of Beethoven for solo piano, or his 10 sonatas for violin and piano, or another half dozen sonatas for cello and piano. Consider the piano trios of Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff! Some of these works are conceived on a scale as immense as almost any symphony! The piano parts of these works by Brahms or Beethoven are as demanding as piano concertos, where the soloist is in full partnership with a big orchestra. These are works that develop their ideas using the whole box of tools available to composers, who are employing their fullest powers of imagination.
Alright, now, let's give at least one good cheer for John Mills-Cockell, who is certainly a unique and interesting voice on the musical scene today. I have enjoyed Mills- Cockell's earlier works, and I enjoyed this latest effort too. I have listened to it several times now, twice with complete concentration, and several times in the background as I've worked on other, non-musical tasks. Monart is to be applauded for being the large-spirited soul he is. Commissioned by Monart to write something that would fulfill Ayn Rand's conception of a Concerto of Deliverance, Cockell has delivered a concerto, but the question remains exactly what he has delivered, because this work does not fulfill any conception of anything I could describe as a concerto, even in the most metaphorical sense, or by appealing to the most distantly historical reference to the term.
Let me restate this for clarity: I enjoyed this collection of pieces. There is something here to love. Having underscored these points, I must say that I do not believe the work rises up to the standard demanded by Rand's Challenge.
I can't just dismiss Mills-Cockell's work and the frankly heroic integrity that has inspired Monart to commission this work. I consider Monart a friend, and I want to put my judgment here in a full enough context so that my opinion will be useful for future reference.
Before I begin a more detailed analysis of the music, I need to provide a little background.
Music, as the most abstract of the arts, may be the one art most directly swayed by a person's sense of life.
Music may also be the most subjective of all the arts, in that our response to it is so influenced by our most idiosyncratic features, not all of which one can begin to account for, so this is my hastening to add that my failure to respond with huge warmth to this music does not mean that it is without merit.
I would bet that I am like all musicians in that I can point to many examples of love at the briefest of first hearings. For example, the first time I heard either Dawn Upshaw's singing or Samuel Barber's orchestral piece with soprano, "Nashville, 1915," I was listening to an NPR station while driving down the highway. I had to pull over to the side of the road and stop the car, or else I was going to melt away there behind the wheel, and the car was going to take itself, along with my limp, weeping, useless carcass, all the way to Valhalla.
Why did I respond to this piece with such helpless overwhelm? Was my response to this piece due to its being among the most brilliant things ever written? No. But something about this composition and its delivery, in the hands of that marvelous, supple, expressive, soulful voice that is Upshaw's, captured me, enslaved me, took me over wholly in the space of a single phrase. I hardly need point out that a single phrase of music is not nearly enough time even to understand what a piece is truly about. To evaluate a piece rightly takes a careful and extended appraisal of that work's many facets.
But when I hear the sound of a single chord delivered by an accomplished string quartet, my attention is riveted.
By contrast, when I hear the sound of an electric guitar, my first impulse is to slap the radio's off button as swiftly as I can get my hand on the controls. If the guitarist is a jazzman like Jim Hall in partnership with the pianist Bill Evans, my hand slows down and stops, appreciatively, but my first impulse remains. I just don't like electric guitars. Why? It's not just that the instrument has frets that limit its expressive powers. Harpsichords can't do pitch bends like guitars, or play with any vibrato at all, and yet I enjoy the sound of this instrument. I can list associations with phases of my own peculiar psychological and musical development, but I don't believe there is necessarily any irresistibly and objectively good aesthetic reason to favor violins over guitars, but I do, and I freely acknowledge this preference to be idiosyncratic. Maybe it's just me.
I like the sound of art music sung in European languages. The sound of Chinese high opera calls up, for me, the awful thought of strangling cats in a dark Beijing alley. How come? That incomparably tight-throated vocal quality sounds, to my provincial ear, like something better suited to the sound stage of the Warner Brothers' cartoon studios.
The leaden, dogmatically insistent backbeat of virtually all popular music, makes me desperate to hear violins and pianos or sopranos and orchestras. Now, I love a lot of jazz too, but even when I'm listening to Ella Fitzgerald, or Sarah Vaughn, or Billie Holliday, I know this work is on a very intimate scale. Even when I'm listening to someone with the sophistication of Duke Ellington or Bill Evans (whose classical training allowed him perform Beethoven's C major piano concerto with an orchestra when he was in college) ... I know I'm hearing musical miniatures. Their jazz is exquisite, but the canvas on which these artists painted is simply too small for developing their ideas in very much depth, and it is this matter of the canvas size that begins to get at the heart of my difficulty with Mills-Cockell's Concerto.
Now, I've been setting a context for expressing my opinion of JMC's music, but I find that I need to set what follows in an even wider context, if I am to do justice to this line of thinking. Let me continue here with another line of thought, in this already extended footnote:
I am writing this from Mainz, on Sunday morning, where church bells are ringing wildly outside my hotel window. I've just arrived here after a long flight from Newark to Frankfurt, so my thoughts are delivered to you through a haze of fatigue.
My thoughts are also colored by my having just heard the CNN broadcast of a show called something like "Music Today," a survey of what's going on in pop music today, delivered by an adolescent-looking, fast-talking woman of huge energy, whose thin frame suggests a recent brush with anorexia. This young woman's jeans reveal her bare midriff, and, in the same manner as the guys today, almost hides the upper line of her pubic hair; it defies my understanding of physics to guess why jeans worn this low don't fall off their butts when they walk. Her hair, like many women and men the pop music world, looks like she forgot to brush it when she fell out of bed this morning (and the guys somehow manage to cultivate a look like Yassar Arafat's perpetual three-day beard... how do they do that?) Since I know little about pop music, such broadcasts always inspire my shock and awe.
In the headlines preceding the main feature of this CNN show, it was noted that the results of the latest Billboard Top Ten most popular musicians are in. Nine of the ten are so called "Hip Hop Artists."
Hearing this news, I felt a wave of revulsion and anger.
"Rap music." What an oxymoron!
As an airline pilot, I am daily consumed by my profession's need for precise definitions to avoid disaster, to know how to keep things right-side up and pointed in the right direction. As a point of departure, before anything else in aviation can make any sense at all, I know that the definition of an airplane must include the idea of a machine equipped with the features that allow it to become airborne. It if doesn't have wings (or at least a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1:1 or greater...) it ain't an airplane.
As a musician, I am equally concerned with definitions. As a point of departure, before anything else can make any sense at all, I know that the definition of music must include the concepts of rhythm, melody, and, maybe harmony. Primitive world music is almost entirely melodic (except for the occasional drone); it doesn't display anything like the harmony that first began to emerge in Europe around a thousand years ago, and nothing remotely as involved as counterpoint. It is hard to know which impulse is more primary: rhythm or melody. Historically and conceptually, harmony is a separate and more advanced attribute of music. Intuitively, I can guess that these impulses for rhythm and melody are at least parallel in their emergence, if not inseparable and simultaneous.
Now rap music displays rhythm, of course, a necessary feature of music. Rap music features words delivered with some attention to rhythmic and sonic qualities, like poetry, for the purpose of arousing emotions. This feature is common to both poetry and music that sets words to melody.
But rap music displays NO MELODY. It's like an airplane with NO WINGS.
If it doesn't have wings, it can't be an airplane.
And, if it doesn't have melody, it can't be music.
In our hopelessly confused age, where mere intention satisfies the definition of art for the Confuserati, it doesn't matter what the dictionary denotation of what art is. Rap music may be art, in the sense that it is a form related to poetry, with heightened rhythm and some harmony as a background feature, like the frame of a picture, but, lacking melody, it cannot be music.
I say it can't be music. And now look the fact that it is this form of artistic expression that today accounts for nine of the top ten "songs" on the Billboard charts. Ugh! Ugh! God!
And I can't put it off any longer, we must deal with some more definitions now, and I must reluctantly say that JMC's work here, whatever else one can say in its favor, is not a concerto of any kind.
I hate to be a pedantic old wet blanket here. I wanted to love this work, given my affection for Monart and his noble effort to bring forth a work that would be worthy of Rand's inspired, but merely suggestive, prototype of a Concerto of Deliverance.
(Hang on here, don't despair, Monart, there is good news to come....)
Since definitions matter, here is the term defined in Theodore Baker's edition of Schirmer's Pocket Manual of Musical Terms:
Concerto. An extended composition for a solo instrument, usually with orchestral accompaniment, and in (modified) sonata form.
Well, from Bach, in the Baroque era, back in the 17th century, all the way to Bartok, in the 20th century, there have been works called "concertos" that did not fit this definition. For Bach, no less than Bartok, there were concertos for orchestra, in which a big symphonic work featured the instruments of the orchestra in the role of soloists. For Bach, the concerto grosso was an instrumental composition implying a small group of solo instruments against a larger group or full orchestra. A concertino was a small concerto, scored for a small ensemble (although this term could also denote the group of soloists in a concerto grosso.)
So notice here that it is not JMC's unusual assembly of pieces under the banner of "concerto" that troubles me. The problem is that this collection of pieces makes me wonder why they are included under the same banner at all, no matter what they be called. It seems to me to be no kind of cycle at all. It strikes me as a collection of essentially unrelated parts.
Now consider another 20th century piece that is not a concerto, but a collection of many little pieces, all put together under the same title: Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," which is an exciting and varied collection of Medieval Latin poetry set to music for many voices, from soloists to full choir, with orchestral accompaniment. I forget just how many pieces there are, but it's a dozen or more. Despite its greatly varied forces, moods, and textures, there is a certain unity of style in this best known work by Orff.
By contrast, there is something weak and puzzling about JMC's collection here. Mills-Cockell's Concerto of Deliverance is a collection of pieces which leaves me wondering why they are included together under one title. This collection displays no more unity of theme, style, or any other aspect of construction, than I would expect to find in an album of songs collected on one CD by a pop singer.
A bigger issue for me is that it doesn't rise to a high enough level of development. There is great energy in some of its parts, but the ideas lack thematic development, unity, and richness of harmonic palette. Of the fourteen pieces, all but two are in written in keys of the major or minor modes of C and its dominant, G, and within these pieces they rarely venture anywhere that I could call so much as an outright modulation, or change of key. The harmony is so static as to bring to mind the work of musical minimalists such as Phillip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and John Adams.
By contrast, consider the work of Michael Torke, whose "color music" series drives along with great rhythmic energy and displays a huge command of orchestral forces. I have elsewhere lambasted Torke for possessing a huge talent that refuses to budge off a pathetic harmonic palette that is flatter than Florida, and is so impoverished that it would embarrass any self-respecting three-chord rock and roller. But JMC doesn't really go any farther.
* * *
Alright, now for some details of the music.
I must say that each time I've listened to this cycle of pieces, when the first track begins, I find absolutely beautiful the haunting solo figure for violin that is shortly joined by a clarinet in lovely counterpoint. It aroused my expectation that this music might rise up to the level of its literary mandate. But by the end of two minutes, with the introduction of the electronic sounds that repel me, a sort of flat-footed percussive shuffle reminiscent of much popular music, and the fact that the harmony has not budged a millimeter away from the tonic and dominant of C minor, well, sigh, I didn't have much hope for the remainder of the cycle.
By the time we were a couple minutes into the piece, I began to sense that we were dealing with a work that is largely "composed through," a term employed to describe songs with different musical settings for each stanza of a poem. The connotation here is that such composers are proceeding by making it all up as they go along, with no particular principle of thematic organization, and no very sophisticated composers' tools to give the material shape and unity.
In short, I dare say that Mills-Cockell operates intuitively, drawing from his natural inventiveness and gift for melody. Maybe I will eat these words, but I have the sense here of a composer with great natural talent and no formal training to speak of.
I would hate to fail to comment favorably on the other musicians on this album. The children choir is ingenuous and sweet. The violinist, Sharon Stanis, the clarinetist, Patricia Kostek, and the vocal soloist, Leora Cashe, are all accomplished musicians who are a pleasure to hear. Ms. Cashe has a beautiful jazz voice on display in the two cuts on which she appears.
Having guessed that Mills-Cockell has little formal training as a composer, I should mention that there is certainly some structure to the work as a whole. The 14 movements of this work alternate mostly between instrumental pieces and vocal pieces, except that Songs 4 and 5 follow each other with no instrumental interlude.
Maybe someone will correct me for failing to see much more structural logic going on here.
I remember feeling like such a dolt after my first hearing of Bach's Goldberg Variations, and thinking to myself that I couldn't figure out much of a pattern there at all. My professor pointed out that modern sensibilities are accustomed to sets of variations that clearly modify one theme again and again. When they come across something like Bach's Goldberg Variations, they may be initially at a loss to understand the master's logic, which was to use the same harmonic basis and vary everything above the chords, alternating between lesser and greater examples of contrapuntal rigor - - canons with plainer tunes and accompaniments, etc.
One very good thing that I do see going on here with Mills-Cockell is that he displays a lively talent for mustering interesting combinations of sound, and a lively ear for subtle rhythmic accompaniments of interesting percussion sounds. There are interesting orchestral colors, even given that Mills-Cockell is employing synthesizer modules controlled by MIDI keyboard. There is a lot going on in this music, and I can certainly understand how one might come to love it.
There is nothing inherently wrong with bringing in vocal arrangements with a piece of this size, but I want to draw your attention to one movement that captures much of what frustrates me in this work as a whole.
Consider Movement 11, which is also Song 6, "I Am Myself." A children's chorus (nothing wrong with a children's chorus; it has a very sweet quality about it) gives out the first stanza in what was, at first hearing, an unintelligible whisper (this could be seen as an imaginative dramatic effect, so nothing necessarily wrong with this effect.) The second stanza is sung a cappella, an unharmonized melody in a subdued minor mode. The lyrics, by Blake Parker, are:
I have taken what I've been given
Fine. This is a lyric that can be set to something inspiring, but the actual setting is smokey, dark, ironic.
Then the third lyric follows, throwing the sentiment into an even smokier atmosphere:
Throw the wolf skin on the fire.
Having finally understood this third verse, when I listened to the movement again, I realized that the third verse is actually the first verse recapitulated, but sung instead of whispered.
What does it mean? I'm not sure, but I invite you to ask yourself what this image of wolf skins on the fire has to do with the lovely and inspiring thought of taking what we've been given and making it new, not in the eyes of others, but with loyalty to who we are ourselves.
I'm weary of an art world that dismisses anything delivered straight-on as naive and boring, as if the oblique and the ironic were not merely literary devices that can occasionally be used to good effect, but are instead the defining and greatest (and perhaps the only) virtues of a work of art.
Now also ask how this imagery and this particular formulation compare to the mandate we sense for what a Concerto of Deliverance should offer. How does this movement fit into a piece that strives to suggest a world not as it is, but as it could and ought to be?
* * *
Okay, I'm heading for the subdominant here; coda's coming up soon too....
Mark my words: I predict that Monart's effort here may actually spawn something of a cottage industry in musical composition. Thanks to Monart, maybe the wheels are set in motion to inspire composers for decades to come in the creation of many essays at a Concerto of Deliverance.
You laugh! Think about it:
Certain musical ideas have inspired many composers to try their hand at a version of their own. Mozart's song, "La ci la darem la mano," inspired sets of variations for solo piano by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, among others. Shakespeare's play, "Romeo and Juliet" inspired ballets with scores by many great composers, among whom were Bizet, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev. The fabled violin virtuoso and composer Niccolo Paganini wrote a set of 24 Caprices for solo violin, of which the 24th one has inspired countless sets of variations by other composers. Liszt, Grieg, Brahms (who actually wrote TWO sets of variations on this same theme), and Rachmaninoff, who composed his set of 24 variations on this theme for solo piano and orchestra.
I predict that John Mills Cockell, inspired by Monart Pon, will be but the first of many composers to write a Concerto of Deliverance, striving to satisfy Ayn Rand's inspiring challenge.
Among the trained composers I know who are admirers of Ayn Rand, I would guess that such candidates for eventually creating rival Concertos of Deliverance would include at least Michael Shapiro, Jeffrey Lindon, Doug Wagoner, and, I should not fail to mention, myself. I'm not aware of Roger Bissell identifying himself as a composer, but he is clearly a powerful musical mind, so perhaps he might be interested in such a project too. Maybe Richard Speer and, if he should evince an interest in composing, maybe Eric Barnhill?
While I myself have long thought of this project as something like Rand's Challenge, I must admit that hearing JMC's work has motivated me to give the idea a more serious place on my list of future projects.
Monart, my friend, hear me now: in no small part because of you, eventually there will be a work that is fully worthy of Rand's Challenge. The idea burns in my mind now, like the haunting sight of Wyatt's Torch, seen at midnight, burning, flaring high, seen across the windswept mountains from a hundred miles away.
- - Eric Nolte
Concerto of Deliverance