Many times I used to wonder what music I’d write if I ever attained the breathless facility that some composers exhibit from their early teens. I told myself I’d write with a spontaneity that would capture every nuance of my feelings, mirror my perspective on the world and bubble over with fascinating, fresh sounds.
Like most of my other absurd youthful fantasies, it didn’t occur to me that there might be a downside to such an unfettered onrush. “Going with your gut,” though a common trope in many walks of life rarely holds up as a process for generating great works of art. Or even, I might add, mediocre ones.
At the other end of the spectrum, I frequently marveled at the long-range strategy mapped out by composers from earlier times. The high bassoon notes just before the recap of Mozart’s “Jupiter” finale are unlikely to be an afterthought, any more than the acerbic chords on the other side of the double bar in the first movement of the G minor symphony.
As for the emotional outbursts in the slow movement of K543 in E-flat, as inspired as they are, they are also carefully cultivated, with their roots planted in the preceding measures.
So whether we’re talking about a “surprise” ending by Haydn, an innovative texture in a late Beethoven sonata or even the carefully chiseled Ravel piano trio, facility hardly matters unless its accompanied by musical substance.
Yet, like almost everything else about evaluating works of art, there are no foolproof ways to ensure even a work by a facile, experienced, imaginative composer who values substance over theoretical grand standing will succeed. It all comes to nothing if the composer lacks the most important of all skills: the ability to choose.
As I hear it, Maxwell Davies’ Seventh Symphony, despite many enviable virtues, suffers from a lack of focus. Like a novelist with a fascinating plot line who gets lost in a tangle of descriptive detail, he presents us with a forest, trees, tree bark, cellulose molecules, and carbon atoms along with an exquisitely executed diagram of the flow of water and nutrients up and down the inner xylem of every root, stem and branch.
Undoubtedly, some of what we encounter in this single movement, forty-five minute span has an undeniable fascination. The opening in particular, promises sparkling wit, passionate declarations and novel experiments in color.
Almost immediately, however, the composer begins a prolonged slog through clogged textures that exist solely to lead to A.) murky pensiveness or B.) a depiction of waves crashing against a mythical shore line. Like Ives at his worst, the Seventh is a structure built on a pattern of swells and abatements that chase their own tails, but take the piece nowhere.
At times, this Symphony reminds me of nothing so much as a composer’s sketchbook brought to life: a sequential rendering of everything he *could* incorporate into a symphony. As such, the work is a tantalizing catalogue that a skillful mimic might do well to rifle through. For there’s enough material here to sustain the careers of three lesser lights.
Yet I can say unreservedly, that this is the work of a deeply musical mind and accomplished technician. The latter is no faint praise. Though I’m not personally satisfied with the result, on a moment-to-moment basis, it’s apparent that the composer is achieving exactly what he intended. And the details are often fascinating, even when, as most of the time, they don’t add up to anything I can identify as goals ─ or any other definition of a structural landmark.
That matters more than it might ordinarily because the work is laid out on a very broad canvas. Even after multiple hearings, it’s easy to feel as if one is getting an “aerial view” of a landscape that can’t quite be made out. Are those mountains, or buildings? People or trees? Rivers, or roads or miles and miles of ribbon?
Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Symphony 7 is meant to be heard as the culmination of Maxwell Davies’ previous six symphonies. He’s quoted as saying that the end of this piece is made so that it can loop back to the start of Symphony 1. That suggests the presence of an epoch program or backstory for the piece and maybe an explanation for the over abundance of musical ideas. It’s as if the piece were a minute-by-minute report of a sequence of events in the real world.
But what, I wonder, is the message? Maybe I can find it somewhere, but its direct correlation to the music is likely to be dicey. Keep in mind, Maxwell Davies Eighth Symphony purports to be about Antarctica (a British tradition, apparently, given that Vaughan-Williams’ Eighth is also on that same theme). Regardless, if the Seventh were labeled “Antarctica,” I’d have no basis for questioning the title’s aptness.
And if, as it sounds, the composer has followed Mahler in thinking that a symphony is “a world,” then it seems likely as not that any symphony of his could have depicted Antarctica, or the Amazon, or Freehold, New Jersey.
My frustration on this point comes from the wasted potential I hear in this piece. For here’s a composer who lacks for nothing except the ability to edit himself. A survey of the remaining symphonies yields a similar impression. I hear a willful ambling, like a beach comber pausing to admire thousands of interesting shells and never making it back to the car.
As always, there’s the chance that the performances I’ve stumbled on haven’t captured the intent of the score. That, notwithstanding that the YouTube recording was conducted by Maxwell Davies himself. Yet there’s an inherent incoherence in the material that means a different performance would be unlikely to change my assessment of the work. There’s a lot to learn here, perhaps, at the detail level about orchestral texture, about special effects and even about the free use of quirky rhythms.
And, to the extent that the work seems to aspire to build musical structure in a novel way ¬─ out of relative sound densities rather than note-shapes, harmonies or rhythms ─ it deserves to be heard “with fresh ears.” But here again, my issue is the same: There’s not enough differentiation on a moment-to-moment basis to give the Symphony any real sense of form. Not, mind you, anything like classical formats or even familiar modernist formal tropes ─ just anything besides more of the same, followed by more of the same.
Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Entropy Refraction, published by Chickadee Prince Books, is available to order in paperback at a bookstore near you, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or on Kindle. Or listen to his musical compositions here.