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Neil Simpson


'Something That Cannot be Represented at All'

Posted: 11/08/2012 19:23

Prom 33 highlights the often futile attempt to analyse, de-construct and review a piece of music. The prelude to Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde' opened the performance. The piece is sensuous and rich; aching; gasping; struggling and straining to resolve. It's a rich oceanic sound which flows over the listener - and something impossible describe without actually hearing. To use any more sweeping descriptions would be a pointless exercise in semantic navel gazing. We would be no closer to getting at the heart of the music. Yet we can, at least, consider the ideas which inspired and helped to form the music.

Wagner had been profoundly influenced by Schopenhauer before composing the piece. The German philosopher had written about the distinction between the world which we see, hear and smell - a world open to categorisation, analysis and deconstruction - and the 'noumenal' world - something 'spaceless, timeless, non-material, beyond the reach of causality'. Schopenhauer noted that music (as well as sex) allowed us to see into this realm. Indeed music for Schopenhauer was an expression of 'something that cannot be represented at all'. (It's surely no coincidence that some of the worst literary pomposity and bile stem from attempts to describe sex or pedantically pick apart pieces of music). Through music 'the composer reveals the innermost nature of the world, and expresses the profoundest wisdom, in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand.'

The effect on Wagner was to draw him away from a careful intellectual inter-play between music and voice into a realm where music once again dominated. Wagner had perhaps returned to the finale of Beethoven's final movement of his final symphony - the point at which, seemingly overcome (or unsatisfied) by the triumph of music, a voice interrupts: 'O friends, not these sounds.'

James Macmillan's 'Credo', which saw its world premier at Prom 33, contrasts by elevating the role of the 'Word'. Yet it continues to explore the 'noumenal' world (not to mention the Wagnerian attempt to use music as a medium to explore political and national roots). To my mind at least, Macmillan is aware that the nature of faith is a complex one, made up of various tangled and interweaving strands. 'Credo' has a clarity, but a clarity made up of a plethora of influences which often sit uneasily together. Macmillan is not, as Vaughan William's is with Fantasia, pointing to one lost past or faith, but instead seems to identify a whole host of pasts and strands of religious faith. Indeed Scots like Macmillan, more than most, are used to this sort of introspective analysis: of identity and origins; faith and roots.

The composer seems to be meditating on the value (and difficulty) of faith in the modern world; a sceptical and mocking world, in constant state of flux and disrupting any attempts to explore the noumenal. Consequently Macmillan bleeds some very ancient polyphonic Christian, and one suspects older, tones into the onrush of modernity.The three assembled choirs alone provided a transcendental clarity and purity amidst an orchestration which is often disjointed, chaotic and seems to besmirch the surface of the voices. The terrifying and chaotic onrush of the orchestra suggests the mess of reality, doubt and modern scepticism is constantly competing with faith today. This would also explain a fusion of sounds, which is often reminiscent of Hollywood blockbusters.

Macmillan seems to offer a Credo for the modern age; a statement of religious belief with the purity of faith that attended his ancestors, but with a host of other influences, difficulties and interruptions. It's also a Credo which seems doubt. The final fanfare could suggest a definite finish, but equally a continuing wrestling with faith and identity.


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