Thursday, May 08, 2014


Jack Body is the composer of the week on the Concert Programme. His music has its moments, with some pieces that are exciting because they're almost entirely rhythmic, and others that hang around a tiny phrase and barely move, becoming like a kind of brainworm. I don't think that's quite the word I'm looking for: I mean when a tune gets in your head and you can't get rid of it. Although that's pretty rare with Body's music, which seldom stays in the mind. 

But it occurred to me this morning what it is that makes his music inaccessible. It's geared for top quality players, people who are either professional musicians, or who specialise in this kind of modern music, or amateurs with exceptional skills. Compare this approach to the way composers in the past worked: they provided music that both amateurs and professionals could play, at least in terms of the smaller scale works. I haven't heard much of Body's music that sounds to me as though a decent amateur could manage it - at least not without a lot of hard work. And then, who would they play it for? You have to be a true Body disciple to really want to listen to his music. I've had the radio on most mornings this week when his music has been played. It doesn't come across as satisfying music somehow - it's intellectual and not often emotional, to me at least. The piece currently on has a flute and a harp tripping around a few notes over and over, making slightly different patterns, but not actually going anywhere at all. Nothing to engage the heart. 

Yesterday I heard parts of an interview with James McCarthy, a British composer whose cantata, 17 Days, is being performed in NZ. McCarthy made two comments during the course of the interview which struck me as significant: "I want to write music that people want to perform," and, "It took me ten years to get the modernist approach to writing out of my system." I hope I've quoted him accurately, but I jotted these down almost as soon as he said them. McCarthy's music is being performed (and yes I know Body's is too), but it's performed to large audiences and to rave reviews. It's not reactionary - there's plenty of modern sounds in it - but it can be listened to and will affect the heart as well as the head. 

For me this is the great lack in Body's music: the heart doesn't often get engaged. (The flautist and the harpist are now chattering around another couple of phrases, and still going nowhere...and now two women are chanting the same phrase over and over...and over...)
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