9 Dec 2016

Lilburn Lecture 2016: Robin Maconie - minor corrections

From Lilburn Lecture, 5:13 pm on 9 December 2016

In her rambling 2016 Lilburn Lecture, delivered in November, now posted on the Radio New Zealand website, Jennifer McLeod repeats a number of persistent and malicious untruths about me which, whatever damage they might have inflicted on my reputation, after nearly fifty years in circulation deserve to be laid finally to rest.

            McLeod shows a Trump-like regard for basic fact-checking. She begins by accusing me as a Messiaen student in 1963–64 of the mortal faux pas of attacking one’s teacher, and “demolishing” the composition Oiseaux exotiques.

            My oral examination presentation in April 1964 in completing the Cours d’Analyse had nothing to do with Oiseaux exotiques—a work I did not know at the time. If my presentation did give offence, it was simply by virtue of being way over the heads of the examining jury who showed their displeasure by marking it down—a sign to be taken by me as a backhanded compliment. My analysis topic compared a piece of Messiaen for organ, “Chants d’oiseaux”, a composition in segments interrupted by changes of organ registration, with analogous procedures in works for piano by Messiaen pupils Boulez and Stockhausen, composers even then regarded within the Conservatoire as dangerous radicals.

            The notion that my paper was calculatedly critical of Messiaen in any way is refuted by the reality that I rehearsed the paper, which was to be delivered in French, in advance before Messiaen himself, at his home, in a room of violet painted walls over which a flock of shiny decals of birds had been lovingly pasted. (Seeing my eyes widen on entering the room, the composer chirped: “Don’t you love it? I did it all myself!”)

            Had Messiaen been offended at the read-through, and had said so, I would naturally have changed the text. But there was no need to do so: nothing in it to offend. The entire paper, with music illustrations, was subsequently published in the short-lived NZ music periodical Third Stream (No. 4, June-July 1968), from reading which future PhD candidates may judge for themselves. A summary of the same paper can be found in the first edition of my Stockhausen study (1976: 100–5), commenting on the German composer’s Piano Piece XI, a masterwork premiered in New Zealand by Fred Page at Victoria in the early sixties, but one I suspect has never been publicly performed since in Wellington.

            My relationship with Messiaen, including a cordial agreement to disagree on the subject of neo-classical music (a difference for which I attempted to atone by presenting him with a first edition of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a work he was unlikely to have read, since he did not speak English), can better be judged in the aftermath of an earlier gift, at our first encounter, of a set of recordings of New Zealand birdsong then just published by A.H. and A.W. Reed. Messiaen immediately set to work to incorporate transcriptions of tui, bell-bird, and other native species in his major orchestral compositions, from the Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum of 1964 all the way through to the Concert à Quatre of 1991. As late as 2015 the BBC Prom series delivered the world premiere of L’Oiseau Tui, a previously unknown work by Messiaen completed in short score at his death in 1992 and orchestrated by the British scholar Christopher Dingle.

            Ms McLeod alludes to a disagreement I had with Stockhausen in misleading terms. I was briefly banished from attending the composer’s lectures at the Cologne Konservatorium for the grave sin of defending a fellow student, the American Tom Erlich, and his wife who was also present, from an unwarranted and abusive attack by the composer, who for some unexplained reason was feeling the pressure and taking it out on all and sundry. Once again, the gravity of my actions at the time can be measured against the reality today of a profound devotion to the composer and his music in books and articles over the subsequent fifty years, of which the most recent are a review of Electronic Studies I and II in the September 2016 issue of The Musical Times, and the finally completed edition of Other Planets: the complete works of Karlheinz Stockhausen 1950–2007, forty years in the making, published by Rowman and Littlefield. (I might mention in addition the video documentary, Tuning In, directed for the BBC in 1980 by Barrie Gavin, previously offered to Wellington Television WN-TV1 as a low-budget project, only to be refused. The original BBC video has been freely available on YouTube since 2012. It was on continuous display for a week at London’s South Bank Klang Festival in 2008, and again in 2009 at a Stockhausen Festival at The Barbican in London. It has never been seen on New Zealand television.)

            The impossibly longwinded and irredeemably parochial fracas over Lilburn arose from a Letter to the Editor in the May 1968 issue of Third Stream under the heading “A Very Mechanical Nightingale” in which I expressed disappointment at the low expectations—poetic, intellectual, and most of all technical—represented by an anonymous, fulsome, and ignorant review of a pioneer work in a significant new medium. I measured its aims and achievements against a work by Stockhausen, the Gesang der Jünglinge of 1956. That very comparison had been set in motion by Lilburn himself, who introduced the first 10-inch mono recording of Stockhausen’s electronic music to music students in 1962 with a quizzical, somewhat humorous expression, challenging us what to make of it. This was the same Lilburn, returning from a sabbatical abroad, who volunteered an appreciation under the title “Notes from Darmstadt” of his exhilarating experiences of the European avant-garde for NZ editor John Mansfield Thomson to publish in the British journal Composer (No. 12, Autumn 1963). Why should a reviewer not compare what Lilburn had created against the standard he himself had set up?

            In the course of his complaint Lilburn accused me of not knowing what I was talking about on the subject of tape manipulation of sounds. This he knew to be manifestly untrue. Among my first efforts in tape manipulation was the music track of Tony Williams’s experimental short film The Sound of Seeing (1962) produced by John O’Shea for Pacific Films. As a DAAD postgraduate in Cologne in 1964–65 I had composed a number of short radiophonic compositions in the Hörspielmusik class of Bernd-Alois Zimmermann, a pair of pure electronic studies under the supervision of Stockhausen’s former mentor Herbert Eimert, and an amusing tape montage called “Montana Fix” from samples provided by the musique concrète composer and class leader Luc-Ferrari—a period of intense study of electronic music and its techniques documented for posterity in an account of my studio activities in Cologne during the 1964–65 study year, commissioned by Charles Brasch, and duly published in Landfall 78 (June 1966, 172–76).

            As Philip Norman has observed in his biography of the composer, Lilburn was aware in 1966 of my tape experiences, and in 1967 that I had been asked to compose electronic incidental music for a radiophonic setting devised by Graham Billing of his novel Forbush and the Penguins—a project Lilburn himself had declined. The radio play was New Zealand’s entry that year for the Prix Italia. In recent years I hoped to put Lilburn’s criticism finally to rest in an article “A Little Less Bent: the Return controversy” published in the NZ Composers’ Association annual Canzona 2005 (Vol. 26 No. 47, 34–38). But to no avail. That publication, alas, has now ceased.

Dannevirke, 8 December 2016.