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A narrative sense of past: “The Great Sacrifice”, 1910, one of Nicholas Roerich’s set designs for “The Rite Of Spring”

As a composer I have always maintained that you cannot compose in a vacuum; to me the composition of art music has to be an expression of creative dissatisfaction with something. The European cultural construct of the artist has long been that of a traveller for whom the train of history has stopped too early; alighting, our composer is aware of being short of the destination — but the track has just come to an end. Like the dog Gromit in The Wrong Trousers, therefore, he or she must lay the track ahead while actually moving forward on it. The transport metaphor is apt in that our travellers will by definition have a sense of whence they came: even falling short of their destination, composers know what route led to that point — the main stretch of a track still to be extended. According to this wisdom, then, a cultural identity is a bit like a copy of Bradshaw’s, the Victorian railway guide that charted the iron roads around Europe for the gentleman traveller; the history behind each of us is a travel journal that tells not only whence we have come but also the direction in which we are now heading. The past is not a burden but a provenance. The past is context; the past is all we have.

I wonder. The above model was fine for the artist belonging to an unwavering narrative of history, the artist with a sense of what it is — but it has certainly hit the buffers in modern times. For Schoenberg it worked: his composition was part of “a good, old-fashioned, properly-understood tradition” because he had no shadow of doubt what that tradition was, or that it occupied a position of cultural supremacy. Webern later unpacked this, in 1935, in the talks published as The Path To The New Music: drawing on examples from Ludwig Senfl through to Beethoven and on to Schoenberg, Webern set out the construction of the train track, mapping the point at which successive composers alighted to take charge of a new stretch. “We haven’t advanced beyond the classical composers’ forms,” he claimed, reassuringly. “What happened after them was only alteration, extension, abbreviation; but the forms remained, even in Schoenberg! All that has remained, but something has altered, all the same.” In other words, the past (whether the historic past or just the prior statement of a phrase four bars earlier) is the Pole Star from which we take all our bearings and upon which we elaborate — in the process becoming ourselves part of the past for someone else “further down the tracks”.

But all this development, this laying of track, has to rest on something we may no longer have — namely that sense of culture as a matter of a consensual history. I’m interested in when, and how, we lost this. As it happens, it still works for me as a composer; but this is not the case for everyone nowadays. For a start, this narrative sense of past can today be personal-individual, rather than part of a shared movement; you and I cannot assume we share a “journey” just from our both being composers, as once we could, for composition even of “art music” within our culture embraces infinite histories and narratives — or even non-histories, in terms of the old canons of European culture. I remember an American composer responding to the question, “How do you evolve without a thousand years’ history behind you?” by countering, “How do you manage to evolve with a thousand years’ history behind you?”

So we are “somewhere else”, as we look back over the last century, distinct from any previous period of European art music; for many of us born from around 1950 onwards, the cultural route-map has fragmented into tiny branch lines. The reasons are tangled, of course, and relate to the new autonomy of our popular and jazz music, the availability of music from other cultures and so on — but that’s another story.

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