Friday, July 27, 2012

Impartial to Mr X: an essay on a composer I have never heard

When I feel like being humbled, there's nothing better than playing a little Abecedarian game with the Baron. We simply nominate a category and go through each of the letters of the alphabet finding a word for that category. "Albatross", the Baron will say, beginning an Abecededarian game about birds. "Bah... bah... buh... b.... b... birds?" I will cry helplessly. "Crested warbler," the Baron will put in. "D... duh... der.... dah..." will be my first fumbling attempts at a bird-name, at which point the Baron will helpfully suggest the name of another bird beginning with D. I don't know what it is, obviously, I'm not the Baron.

Fun with another person, the Abecedarian game is dire on its own; I've tried it once or twice and I inevitably end up either forgetting what letter I'm up to, not remembering any word to go with that letter, or getting distracted thinking about gingerbread, sometimes all three at once. It's humbling to realise you can't outwit another person but humiliating to realise you can't even outwit yourself.

However, I flatter myself that I am all right at the Abecedarian game when it comes to composers. Despite - or perhaps because - I studied music at university, I can't do much more than that. I know that there was a composer called something something Gottschalk, but I couldn't actually name a piece that he's written. And (a recent discovery) I have sorely underestimated the number of 'B' composers in the world. But anyway, there's -


and so on the list goes, right down to the little hiccough around Q, and the quibble around Vaughan-Williams (V or W)? But then we get to the X -


Now Xenaxis is a composer that I have a wholly impartial opinion about. I haven't heard a single note that he has ever written, and you can't get more impartial than that. Moreover, even though I have never heard a note that Xenaxis has written, they confuse the hell out of me anyway. Confusion, I have found, is an essential state for the appreciation of modern life, and especially for the understanding of the modern arts, and most especially for the understanding of modern music. (The most important thing for enjoyment of Boulez, I think, might be learning to not enjoy everything anyone else has written ever.)

I realise that my not knowing much about a modern composer who would only end up addling my wits if I did hear him makes me only one of many, but on the other hand, only a critic with such a clear and unbiased opinion of the subject he is writing about will be able to edify his audience. "I never read a book before reviewing it;" proclaims Sydney Smith, "it prejudices a man so."

Born 19___, Iannis Xenaxis quickly became one of the most influential composers of ___, working in a style that can best be described as (abstract impressionism/obtuse expressionism/abject depressionism). By combining ancient Greco-Persian modal rhythms with late-19th century polymetrical developments in instrumentation, Xenaxis was able to break new ground in the theory of practice, or the practice of theory, or two of the above three options. His atonal serials were highly prized amongst musicians, as were his breakfast serials, but it was perhaps in the art of advanced architectonic yoghurt making that he first came to world prominence. Whatever he wrote, and whenever he wrote it, and whyever he did whatever it was that he was supposed, alleged, and possibly even did do, he is rightly celebrated to this day in the home town of his birth, wherever that is. 

Next time, I will provide an equally clear, unbiased, and ignorant historo-economical view of regicide as practised by NASA astronauts during the moon landings, 1960- the present.


Anonymous said...

Good sir,

As a serious music lover and worshipper at the shrine of Holy Terpsichore and St Cecelia...I have struggled to get past the B's ie Bachs of all pedigree, that old semolina pudding of sound-Brahms, grumpy Beethoven, peasant odoured Bartok, olde Buxtehude, stacks of Bax, solid good-chap Britten, and that chap who did the theme tune to the Ladykillers, splendid movie. Now I am ready for the C's, but at 92.48years old I feel I have little time to play with. Can you help?

yours indefatibablery,

Sir Horace Wimpsole

TimT said...

To be honest the C's seem a bit arid to me. Why not skip right past them and on to the delightful diminuendos of Debussy, Delibes, and daring Delius?

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...


Anonymous said...

dear Sir Horace Wimpsole,
I really recommend doing away with normal procedure, and beginning composers at the mighty Z and working one's way up the greasy alphabet pole. Start with Zelenka and Zappa, and you'll find your troubled head can gently rest on that pillow every night. Hope this helps.

Mr Obediah Hoykens

Email: timhtrain - at -

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