Thank you one and all!
Thank you, Sophie . . .
for teaching me to believe in miracles
(and in myself).
A third of a century ago, you were a channel through whom the great composers of the past spoke directly to me, each with his own unique voice. Bach, Beethoven and Brahms were miraculously there before me, communicating across the centuries. Julia Fischer said in a recent interview that you need to forget about "making your own mark" and concentrate on playing the music as it is meant to be played. Precisely – and that’s what you always did!
Thirty years later, in the process of copying many hours of your recitals as a surprise for your mother, I rediscovered a whole repertoire of chamber music in which your performances were still, to my ear, among the most satisfying of all. You had a sense of form, an architectural awareness that kept you from lingering self-indulgently over the great moments and milking them dry. The slow movements were distinguished by their modesty and restraint, together with alterations of tempo and dynamic so delicate as to be almost imperceptible except as they breathed life into the music.* (This is the slow movement of the Beethoven Spring Sonata, with Paul Roberts, which I recorded at the Wigmore Hall in 1984.)
Time and again I find most other performances of the same works either prosaic or egotistical by comparison. Having rescued these recordings from oblivion, even though the sound quality sometimes reveals their age, I listen to them often — not out of sentiment, but because they speak to me with total authenticity.
BUT EVEN more importantly, you were to become, not a source, but a channel of creative energy, feeding from some mysteriously impersonal stream, that would continue to nourish my brain for much of my working life. My Letters to Sophie, like Diderot's of two centuries before, functioned as an area of intellectual, emotional and aesthetic exploration. One of the last of these anticipates what I would immediately thereafter experience in working with Henri Pousseur, who gets his own letter. Together, you and he were at the heart of one of my life's most inexplicable but also most productive mysteries.
In an abridged and depersonalized version, this letter has often been quoted, its contents referred to obliquely by Henri in his spoken introduction to the BBC Prom's UK premier of his Tales and Songs from the Bible of Hell. Here it is as I wrote it to you:
Thank you, Sophie. You've always been an important energy channel for me. I don't understand it, but it doesn't matter. All I know is that you're one of the most important stimuli for getting my creative juices flowing. You've two libretti to your credit now. I didn't have the foggiest idea where I was going with the [Ezra] Pound until Dartington – it was all uninspired research and translation – but after you left, it fell into place so quickly that my hand couldn't keep up with it.**
I'm more and more convinced that art is primarily a transmission of energy whose sources are unknown. (Calling it "God", for instance, leads off into a maze of anthropomorphic dead-ends.) Those of us who practice it with any success are channels through whom that energy flows. As I've already said, when I was putting together the tape for Tales & Songs I felt as if I were plugged into some energy bank of tremendous force, and that I was able to arrive at what Henri wanted because he was connected to the same circuits (as were Blake and Dowland). There were moments when I ignored Henri's instructions because I knew that what was required had to be reached by other means. He subsequently approved the changes without reservation.
This isn't original of course – Charles Olson, for instance, talks about poetry in much the same terms. Which is why I think that most of the gab about ego and self‑expression in art is bullshit. The same goes for performing musicians. As we were saying last night, the goal is not just to decide what the composer wants and carry out his orders like a good civil servant – or much less, to develop a personal “style" or PR package for some salesman to peddle – but to discover the energy sources and draw on them, "get them over, all the way over,” as Olson puts it. We're part of a continuum (which is what art history should be about and rarely is).***
This is why form is so Important. Energy in nature is transmitted through forms, whose description we call physics or biology or whatever; D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form talks about this in detail. Forms in art function effectively until they become a security blanket for anal compulsives, at which point new forms have to be discovered (not invented). The form is there to contain and transmit the energy, not to reassure the public that they know exactly what's coming next.
Form also keeps the artist from rambling on self-indulgently like this letter, which is the result of lying awake last night mulling over what we'd been talking about. Someday it will all probably show up in an article and you can smile secretly and knowingly.
P.S. As I write. I'm copying the Messiaen for James. God, it's beautiful!
This extraordinary mode of communication and transmission, with you and soon thereafter with Henri Pousseur, had been anticipated at KPFA in my working relationship with Erik Bauersfeld and would later repeat itself in performance with trombonist John Kenny, whom I first met at your going away party in 1978 just before you set off for study in America. My life was to become a déjà-vu of theme-and- variations.I
* Slow movements are like what Artur Schnabel said of the Mozart piano sonatas: “Too easy for children, too difficult for artists.”
** Composer Nigel Osborne, for whom I wrote the libretto, later told me that it was so exactly what he had wanted that he was afraid I had merely tried to please him rather than follow my own creative instincts.
*** Keith Richards says that he feels less like a creator than a conduit when he's writing songs: “I don't have that God aspect about it. I prefer to think of myself as an antenna. There's only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is a variation on a theme.”
John Whiting can be reached HERE
John, you've touched on something so profoundly mysterious, that dynamic creative energy that
floods us and binds us, which few of us dare even to begin to describe. I can't thank you enough for
describing it so well. Colin Spencer