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Peter Riley

Philip Venables, Below the Belt.  CD, 73 mins. NMC recordings, NMCD238, £12.99

Philip Venables is a highly accomplished composer of contemporary concert music and opera. I feel that the basic foundation of his music lies with composers such as Britten and Bartók  -- barely audible in a lot of what he does now, but still there, particularly in the techniques used to  furnish an instrumental texture to support the voice.  We are led comparatively gently, sometimes, into a piece by recognising something that sounds quite near home.

But the music will always, with or without that mitigation, go into material which is not musical. This, “noise”,  has been a presence in modern music for a long time, as in Varèse’s sirens, and I think even Schoenberg indulged it sometimes, but I don’t think it has become essential to the claim to contemporariness, in fact it might be a particularly English and German feature.

The transition is usually stark.  The Revenge if Miguel Cotto to text by Steven J. Fowler, establishes a calm continuity of entirely contemporary intervallic values, interrupted  by violent attacks on the listener, verbally and musically. It is about death by boxing, and could be compared to several poems by Steve Ely engaging with very similar dramas, but drawn more into a poetical and historical theatre.  Venables is quoted as recommending the string players to  “maintain a  beautiful sound, with vibrato and depth of tone as they would with older music” until the bashing starts. It is a very obvious tactic to turn on the musical violence exactly where the text details the bodily damage of unrestrained physical attack. So too is the structure whereby “old” is calm and beautiful and “now” is all hell run loose. In principal, these relations could be reversed. Bringing such disparate forces to agree to an ending is also going to be difficult, here done with climactic iterated shouted slogans.

Venables’ “old”  manner comes to the front very persuasively in Klaviertrio im Geist, based on Beethoven, particularly skilful in the use of overtones, and passing into non-musical sound at times (big glissandi) through transitions rather than interruptions. His “calm” mode is shown here to be by no means as empty of musical activity as might have been supposed. I would be happy with a whole composition in this mode, but clearly the composer would not. Yet his four Metamorphoses after Britten for solo oboe avoid noise, instead of which the musical line is rendered a lot more angular and insistent.

Venables has recently teamed up with a bunch of “linguistically innovative” British poets (S.J. Fowler and Michael Howard on this disc, Sean Bonney elsewhere)  whose texts sometimes dominate certain passages rather than merge into the music. In principle they suit him as poets who seek to deny poetry itself (or coherent prose) , and in practice avoid it in favour of inconsequential  progressions, incoherent styles,  shouting and so forth.  I can’t say that any of the texts on this CD have in themselves the serenity which Venables’ “old” manner can reach to. The rejection of poetry is too insistent for that.  It’s also not clear what Venables’ attitude is towards that serenity, whether it is set up as a retrograde thing to be erased by brutalist intervention or is an end in itself. The last, and longest, track on the CD is a recording of the performance artist David Hoyle, in which Venables participates secondarily. It is a screaming rant, not without its moments of outrageous  play.

All of this carries strong social and political claims, possibly amounting to anarchism. The dominant emotion is anger.  It seeks to meet violence injustice and prejudice with verbal and musical violence supported by a stratum of settled and even contemplative calm which connects to a society and a history which is violated at the same time. I don’t know if this contradiction is a strength or a liability.

That’s the end of the review. But I want to add a kind of sociological note. Venables is extremely successful in the London classical music scene, abundantly honoured and rewarded. He is a denizen of the Royal Opera House and Guildhall School of Music and Drama (a “doctoral” composer in residence at both), The Royal Academy of Music (an associate thereof), has been awarded a residence at Aldeburgh and a Royal Philharmonic Society composition award, and his works are performed at the most prestigious venues from the Royal Festival Hall onwards, and so on. It’s interesting in itself that all this is now the reward for activities which seem to attack outright the authority and structures which pay for it all, including the academy. All “normal” canons of taste or beauty are assumed to be products of a false society and are inverted; it sounds like the arts of the snarling underdog but issued from top over-dog positions. Clearly Venables did not commit any kind of compromise to achieve this position of authority and honour.  It seems to be a historical spasm which inverts the normal relationship of art and society. The most disturbed and disturbing sounds become the sounds demanded by the settlement. It may also be a London phenomenon, a platform raised on the artificiality of the capital’s population and facilities.

I used to know the improvising guitarist Derek Bailey (1930-2005) who spent his life creating a music which was entirely in the “contemporary” bracket, generally rather less rebarbative than Venables’ but equal in its oppositional challenge, though not attached explicitly  to political, gender, social or any other non-musical forms of protest.  He never got so much as a fragment of the rewards and honours Venables has received.  This in no way reflects on Venables’ integrity, it is another  historical shift across generations. Bailey’s own explanation was that a line had been drawn, and on one side was rough, untrained, dirty music like jazz, and on  the other was neat, educated, clean music like string quartets, and he was on the wrong side, in spite of what he actually did. Venables and his experimental poets are clearly on the “wrong” side of that line but the wrong side has become the right side. It rather mystifies me to know how that came about.



Copyright © Peter Riley, 2018